One of rock’s first teen sensations who went on to a long-lasting career that saw only brief flurries of commercial success, but who built an enduring reputation that lasted into the next century.

Littlefield was born in Texas in 1931 becoming proficient on guitar by age six, then finding his true métier on the piano the next year. By fourteen he was playing bars, his flashy technique already drawing notice and just before turning seventeen a local Houston record shop owner, Eddie Henry, started his own label specifically to record the young rock prodigy, releasing a handful of sides over the next few months before Littlefield was scouted and signed by Modern Records of Los Angeles, a much more established independent label.

Immediately upon arrival he notched his first hit and followed it with two more records that made the still skimpy national charts, while also scoring numerous regional hits along the way.

Though an excellent boogie pianist Littlefield’s biggest influence came with what he called his “floating right hand” which introduced the value of piano triplets behind mid-tempo and slower numbers, something Fats Domino picked up on and popularized throughout the next decade, always crediting Littlefield as his source of inspiration.

Vocally Littlefield was very similar to fellow Texas rock pianist Amos Milburn, using a disarmingly lethargic delivery with a warm mellow tone to convey an enormous amount of soul in his singing. Despite writing most of his own material Littlefield was an early recipient of some of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller’s compositions when they were just starting out, including the original version of “Kansas City”, which Federal Records confusingly renamed “K.C. Loving”, perhaps costing themselves sales in the process. A few years later when Wilbert Harrison used Leiber & Stoller’s preferred simpler title and scored a #1 hit with it, prompting many to go back in the years since and explore Littlefield’s original which as a result remains his most identifiable recording.

After a commercial downturn in the mid-50’s he returned to the charts on tiny Rhythm Records in 1957. Oddly enough, despite this revival of his fortunes and the subsequent revisiting of Kansas City in 1959, Littlefield’s recording career – at least in terms of released singles – was essentially over by 1960, save for a few stray sides coming out. When touring opportunities dried up, though he was still just in his early 30’s, he settled into the San Francisco club scene playing a varied set list that encompassed everything from classics to country and western along with his preferred rockin’ boogie style.

Rediscovered in the mid-70’s he played U.S festivals and traveled overseas for the first of many highly acclaimed European tours which led in turn to his first opportunities to cut full-length albums in the early 1980’s. In addition he met and married a woman from the Netherlands and settled in that country where he remained for the rest of his life, touring fairly steadily until 2000. His retirement lasted until 2006 when he got tired of fishing and returned to the stage, as vibrant a performer as ever, until cancer claimed him in 2013 at 81 years old.
(Eddie’s Records 1202; September, 1948)
The musical equivalent of an adrenaline shot to the heart, a loud, boisterous, unapologetic piano workout that perfectly embodies the teenage musical spirit of its creator as well as its growing young audience. Frivolous and fun from start to finish. (7)

(Eddie’s Records 1202; September, 1948)
Solid vocal from Littlefield, sounding like he’s channeling fellow Texas piano rocker Amos Milburn’s drawn out delivery and tone, but shoddy production values necessitating a second take to iron out the missteps – or to smooth out the composition itself – pull it slightly under. (4)

(Eddie’s Records 1212; January, 1949)
Littlefield’s most obvious Amos Milburn imitation comes off alright as he was too talented to not be reasonably effective, but he was never going to make a name for himself by riding on the coattails of somebody else’s name. (5)

(Eddie’s Records 1212; January, 1949)
Rambunctious take on the Stephen Foster standard by way of Albert Ammons, this may be crude in nature but how can you really find fault with a great melody being played with the exuberant drive of a youthful rock pianist feeling his oats. (5)

(Freedom 1502; March, 1949)
Another good boogie woogie performance by the teenager who proves he can pound the ivories with the best of them, but if he wants to make a name for himself he’ll have to move beyond the interchangeable instrumentals and offer up something less derivative and more distinctive. (6)

(Modern 20-686; July, 1949)
A huge artistic leap for the teenage triple threat who makes a stunning debut on a bigger label, his songwriting, piano playing and vocals all perfectly meshing with the top notch band to create an instant classic. (9)

(Modern 20-686; July, 1949)
A throwaway B-side instrumental that sounds as if it wasn’t worked out much in advance… the concept itself is alright, even a little inventive in theory, but the slow pace and horns being out of step with Littlefield’s piano make it his weakest side to date. (3)

(Modern 20-709; October, 1949)
Effective mood piece, one which is despondent and unfocused lyrically to match his state of mind yet with some sizzling guitar licks to spice it up, a record which confirmed his newfound stardom when it became almost as big of a hit as the record he was following up. (7)

(Modern 20-709; October, 1949)
Crudely potent ode to illicit “medicine” designed to get you drunk, it’s hardly smooth going down but both the record and the drink get the job done. (6)

(Modern 20-716; November, 1949)
As morose Christmas songs go, this is well played and sung but the story lacks the specifics needed to win our sympathy making it one present that winds up getting lost in the shuffle of gaudier gifts this time of year. (5)

(Modern 20-716; November, 1949)
Rip-roaring uptempo vocal by Littlefield with a tight high octane band in perfect lockstep with one another… the composition itself may be pretty standard fare, but their enthusiasm and playing are all first rate. (7)

(Modern 20-726; December, 1949)
A streamlined sound delivered by Littlefield and the band which, save for some garbled vocals, comes close to perfecting an earlier prototype he’d tried repeatedly in studio sessions and which shows that he was hitting on all cylinders virtually every time out. (7)

(Modern 20-726; December, 1949)
A good idea, well played and at times well sung – though at others he struggles with modulation – this really just needed another run through to tighten it up, though the addition of a tenor sax to add to the ambiance wouldn’t have hurt either. (4)

(Modern 20-729; February, 1950)
A rousing call-to-arms both vocally and musically as delivered by a rambunctious and horny teenager with a sax solo to drive the point home, the epitome of what rock’s vibrant energy was all about through the years. (8)

(Modern 20-729; February, 1950)
Mesmerizing performance all around as Littlefield’s way with a ballad reaches full flower, aided immeasurably by a haunting sax and incredible dynamics. (9)

(Modern 20-747; April, 1950)
Almost conceived like a live cut from a nightclub with just brief vocals to set the scene before letting the band churn away while Littlefield’s piano commands the lion’s share of your attention, leaving little doubt as to why he was such a star in that setting. (7)

(Modern 20-747; April, 1950)
A complete turnaround from the uptempo flip, a wistful ballad that finds Willie fending off his sadness with determined resiliency aided by an exquisite arrangement in which every element falls perfectly into place while still feeling completely effortless. (8)

(Modern 20-754; June, 1950)
Exquisitely crafted post-breakup song examining the way in which hurt leads to optimism in the form of karmic retribution, taking solace in something that you don’t control, all of which Littlefield delivers as if it’s mood music for the emotionally ravaged. (7)

(Modern 20-754; June, 1950)
Though Littlefield and producer/saxman Maxwell Davis make this cover record sound far better than any other version, the insipid lyrics drag it down and make you wish they just cut the catchy melody as an instrumental instead. (4)

(Modern 20-775; September, 1950)
A breakneck pace and a great arrangement with significant contributions from guitar, sax and Willie’s own piano somewhat mask the shoddy bare bones story and wheezy vocals making this an exciting record rather than a perfectly sensible one. (6)

(Modern 20-775; September, 1950)
Solid Milburn-esque ballad with all of the expected touches, from his laid-back vocals to the languid sax that answers each line and creates and back and forth dialogue between them, this might not be top shelf Littlefield, but it’s nice and reliable all the same. (6)

(Modern 20-781; November, 1950)
Little Willie and co-star Laura Wiggins deliver a song that is unambiguously about the act of sex and manage to do so in a way that’s suggestive without being obscene, lyrically or musically, yet loses none of its appeal in the process. (9)

(Modern 20-781; November, 1950)
Though the despondent mood they set with its sparse arrangement, drawn out guitar solo and sad-sack delivery is well done, there’s not much detail here about what caused it to make you care enough to suffer along with him for long. (5)