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We know the way these things usually go… an artist releases a good record that fails to chart and quickly moves on to the next release, casting aside the misses in a never-ending search of the next hit.

The song itself though is catchy and others may play around with it but never with much commercial success until one day somebody new comes along and revives it and gets a smash, one of the defining records of the year, the one which will remain known for eternity.

What then happens to the original?

Well, most of the time it’s only a footnote in the story. A trivia question used to stump the know-it-alls and maybe in time it becomes a marketing tool used when trying to promote that artist’s greatest hits collection down the road.

Here’s the exception to that rule, a case where the original, while still not universally known today by any means, probably has at least as much recognition as the Number One hit that followed.


I’m Gonna Get Me Some
Looking back, maybe the reasons for this unusual circumstance are fairly obvious.

The remake in 1959 which topped the charts (two weeks on the Pop listings, seven on the R&B Charts) was done by Wilbert Harrison, a good artist for fifteen years or so but something of a journeyman with only intermittent success which was spread far apart.

By contrast Little Willie Littlefield had been a genuine star in the late 1940’s and early 50’s and though his hits had dried up, he still would have a long career traveling the world singing after that and so there was bound to be more contemporary references made to somebody who was still active into the next century.

Secondly, Harrison’s single came out on Fury Records, a good label with a few nice hits by a variety of acts over the years, but their most famous artists all made their biggest marks elsewhere, so there was no broader company overview it benefited from.

Federal Records on the other hand, was the subsidiary of King Records, one of the seminal labels in rock history, and they had a roster full of big names with huge hits which makes their historical footprint much larger. Even though Littlefield’s time with them was fairly uneventful in terms of commercial response, he’s bound to reap some benefit from the reputation the label has in retrospect.

Lastly though is the fact that K.C. Loving is known less for any specific rendition than it is for the composition itself, which tends to happen when the songwriters are named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Since they remained prominent in the business for years with no shortage of interviews and articles attesting to their legend, it stands to reason that their word is gold when it comes to which version of one of their most enduring songs should be celebrated.

It was Littlefield’s who remained their favorite.


Pack My Clothes, Leave At The Crack Of Dawn
Of course, before we get into the record itself, we’re obligated to acknowledge our cynicism when it comes to these things by adding that of all of the versions of this song that are fairly well known today – Little Richard, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, The Beatles and James Brown all had notable renditions and that’s merely the tip of a very deep iceberg – the only one of those recordings which Leiber & Stoller worked on themselves was the original by Little Willie Littlefield.

Naturally they’d be partial to it.

But that doesn’t mean they also don’t have some issues with it, starting with the name change that Ralph Bass gave it, dropping the straightforward Kansas City, the way in which every other act labeled it, in favor of the much more obtuse K.C. Loving which also happens to hint at the ensuing storyline a little better.

History has shown that to be the wrong decision, simply because people tend to refer to a song by what they can remember of the lyrics and as Littlefield is repeatedly referring to Kansas City, it makes sense to acknowledge that on the label. But you can at least see Bass’s motives here as his choice does lend a sense of mystery to the record and sounds more like a title than a destination.

That aside though what matters most is what’s found in the grooves, where Littlefield gets to visit one of Jerry Leiber’s masterpiece of minimalist storytelling wherein atmosphere plays just as big of a role as the particulars of the plotline.

What most people tend to miss is that it’s essentially a song about self-deception masked by the outward sense of hope and optimism found in some of the lines. Littlefield and his wife are having issues and he’s made up his mind to step out on her but to do so in way that won’t lead to a prolonged affair which would bring problems of its own.

In other words he wants a hooker and so he’s heading to the nearest big city to have a wider selection of girls to choose from while minimizing his risk of being caught.

Yet the way it’s presented in such a laid back manner almost tricks you into thinking he’s just a small town hick on a sightseeing tour as the way he envisions it all unfolding in his mind casts a spell over him and over you.

As slight of hand tricks go, this is really impressive, allowing each listener to focus on whichever image appeals most to them and have it still work as if that were the only way it was meant to be taken.


Going Just The Same
Which brings us back to our guide for this, Littlefield himself, whose slightly dreamy-headed vocals are ideal for the story, presenting this as a late night wish that will ultimately go unfulfilled. Yet as good as his mindset is, at times his delivery makes for the weakest aspect of the record.

Now don’t overreact to that statement… as the band led by Maxwell Davis who produced this is in great form setting a languid pace that still manages to get its hooks in you, while the song itself is a towering achievement. In that company finishing third is no reason to hide your bronze medal in a drawer somewhere.

But that being said Willie’s inability to properly pronounce the city, singing it as if it were kans-sas, in effect adding an extra S, is something you can’t ignore and makes for a really aggravating element to contend with each time he says it.

Otherwise Littlefield sits comfortably in the pocket of an easy-going melody with softly huffing horns carrying the ball so subtly that you’re sure K.C. Loving must be propelled by something more potent.

You’d be hard pressed to find an arrangement with so few stand-alone highlights that works as well as this, as even the perceived distance achieved in the fade adds immeasurably to the overall effect.

Calling something “understated” has a tendency to make you think it must be boring or routine, but here’s where understated is the highest compliment you could give it, as Davis ensures that the overall vibe of the record is more important than any member of the band, the singer or even the brilliant song itself.


A Bottle Of Kansas City Wine
I gotta be honest. Going into this I was thinking it’d get a (7) because that lisping has annoyed me to no end from the very first time I heard it.

Yet pronunciation is not always the easiest thing to correct in a person (Smokey Robinson famously avoided the word “ask” when writing for Mary Wells after discovering she pronounced it “axe”) so it’d be hard to have Littlefield change it countless times on the fly while also trying to remember the lyrics and melody while meshing with the band.

With repeated listening though the overall effect of the song keeps pulling you in until the impression created envelops you to such a degree that it’s more than enough to bump K.C. Loving up to an (8), even if I was still resistant to granting it perfection because Littlefield falls short of that himself, not just the lisp but also his hesitation at times which breaks up the scansion of the lyrics.

But the other reason I was going to withhold that final point was actually a bit unfair, and that’s how we can’t help but compare it to other versions of this same song which didn’t even exist when this came out. If this was the second best version historically, surely that has to be reflected in the scores, doesn’t it? Hell, if Leiber & Stoller had gotten this to Big Joe Turner, who came of age in the Kansas City they talk about here and whom this was ideally suited for, that might’ve been the best record any of them ever made!

Obviously I changed my mind, because even IF Littlefield’s vocal is slightly below Harrison’s (whose arrangement isn’t as deep overall but makes up for it with a stellar guitar solo this one doesn’t have), where this original pulls even again is found in the story itself.

The later rendition(s) all drop the final stanza, the one about Willie sneaking out of the house so his baby doesn’t know he’s gone. While it adds only a bit more color to the story without altering the plot much, it comes in a song where the whole thing is BUILT on its vivid colors and as a result its inclusion here presents a fuller and more compelling overall picture.

So while I still think the remake is slightly better, it’s only a matter of degrees and in the end K.C. Loving has too many things going for it to not praise as effusively as we can.

If you want to see the point where Leiber & Stoller take the next step as composers, this is it. If you want to have Maxwell Davis’s status as rock’s most capable producer reaffirmed, here’s your chance.

Lastly though, if you want to show why Little Willie Littlefield was historically underrated, this is a roundabout way with which to do it… with his most enduring record that is fantastic in every way but still arguably not even his best.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)