Great blues cities No. 7: Kansas City
UPDATED JULY 18th, 2021.
|Little Willie Littlefield|
There must be something intrinsically cool about Kansas City, Missouri, in the way it gets so many references in the world of blues and rock & roll destinations, lyrics and stage names, comparative to its size.
Only last month I put up a post featuring Memphis Minnie’s first husband, Casey Bill Weldon (1909 – 1970-ish), one of the pioneers of blues slide guitar. The name Casey stood for K.C. – Kansas City, such were Weldon’s connections with the city.
|Jim Jackson influenced Charlie Patton|
recorded rhythm & blues classics of all time, ‘Kansas City’, written in 1952 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two 19-year-old songwriters from Los Angeles.
Recorded first by Little Willie Littlefield as ‘K.C. Loving’, the song has since been recorded over 300 times, including by The Beatles, James Brown, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Brenda Lee, The Everly Bothers and Little Richard.
In 1929, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra was joined by multi-instrumentalist, Eddie Durham, who would become the first person to commercially record bluesy electric guitar licks in September 1935.
|Eddie Durham: first recorded electric guitarist.|
(This was when Eddie recorded with home-made amplification on the swing-era tune, ‘Hittin’ The Bottle’, with another black bandleader, Jimmie Lunceford.)
However, Eddie Durham experimentation with amplification started with the Kansas City Orchestra, probably the most influential jump blues band of the era, a band famous for the hard-stomp beat Kansas City was renowned for during the 1920s and 30s.
This would develop into the riffing style synonymous with the later big band style that swept the world.
|Blues shouter Big Joe Turner: 6ft. 2in. and over 300 lbs (22 stone).|
Basie and His Barons of Rhythm.
While the Kansas City Orchestra was pioneering big band swing, another Kansas City jump blues duo were pioneering a faster, more rhythmic style of blues that would one day be called rock & roll.
|Pete Johnson. Recorded ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ with Big Joe Turner in 1938.|
They were the great blues shouter Big Joe Turner and the boogie woogie pianist, Pete Johnson.
Both Kansas City born and bred, Turner and Johnson recorded a track in 1938, called ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’, which I believe is one of the earliest prototype rock & roll recording of all time. (See Ten Rock & Roll Records That Pre-empted Rock & Roll in my archive of 8 August 2013). Here’s the link:
|Charlie Parker: Kansas City bebop icon|
Probably Kansas City’s most famous musical son is the great jazz saxophonist and bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker, aka Bird or Yardbird.
(So, that’s where the English R&B band the Yardbirds got their name.)
But even Charlie Parker started off playing the blues, cutting his teeth in Kansas City with the jump blues and hard bop jazz band of Jay McShann from 1937 to 1942.
Jay McShann’s music was yet another type of music to be given the Kansas City label, becoming known as ‘The Kansas City Sound’. As the sound became more influenced by the improvisational modern jazz style of bebop, during the 1940s, it became known as Kansas City Jazz. Today Kansas City is famous as one of ‘the cradles of jazz’, as they call it. But, as
we know, the blues came first; or in Kansas City’s case, jump blues.