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
Then there’s one of the most
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.
They hadn’t even been to the city, but were so inspired by the music of Kansas City’s Big Joe Turner, they wrote a song about the place. I’m sure you know the opening lines: ‘I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come’ (and repeat).
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.
But long before Leiber & Stoller came along, one of the first musicians to refer directly to Kansas City in song was the Mississippi-born blues guitarist, Jim Jackson (1884 – 1937). Jackson cut his famous, ‘Kansas City Blues’, during his recording debut in October 1927, at the ripe old age of 43. Here it is:
Jim Jackson’s ‘Kansas City Blues’ went on to become a blues and rock template. Jackson’s classic melody line is said to have spawned, amongst other songs, Charlie Patton’s ‘Going To Move To Alabama’, recorded in 1929, and Hank Williams’ first hit, ‘Move It On Over’ in 1947. Some say it even influenced Bill Hayley’s iconic 1956 rock anthem, ‘Rock Around The Clock’, although I can’t hear that connection myself. Maybe you can.
Pianist Bennie Moten (sitting) with his Kansas City Orchestra. The year is around 1925.
Probably Kansas City’s earliest contribution to the spread of blues-based music was the rise of Bennie Moten’s all-black Kansas City Orchestra, who first recorded for the OKeh label in 1923. Born in Kansas City in 1894, Bennie Moten’s piano playing was already showing his boogie woogie influences as early as 1927.
By then, Moten’s outfit was pioneering jump blues and also developing the riffing phrases that would become so synonymous with the blues-based big bands of the 1930s.

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.

Eddie Durham’s single-note amplified acoustic guitar solos revolutionised the Kansas City Orchestra’s sound. But Eddie wasn’t finished yet. He soon drafted in the pianist Bill Basie (later to become Count Basie) to become the band’s co-arranger.
Blues shouter Big Joe Turner: 6ft. 2in. and over 300 lbs (22 stone).
The resulting album created a new style of jazz-blues called swing or ‘Moten Swing’, which later became known as ‘The Basie Sound’.
This, too, strongly influenced the later big band sound and music of the Swing Era. Four years later, (after Bennie Moten’s death at the relatively young age of 40, due to a failed tonsillectomy), the Kansas City Orchestra reformed under Count Basie’s leadership, eventually becoming Count
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.

Find out more about  the birth of blues – over the last 1,000 years – in the big, illustrated quality paperback America’s Gift: the untold story of how blues evolved available on the link below.
Or check the two eBooks ‘How Blues Evolved’ on these links:
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