Great blues cities No. 7: Kansas City

Little Willie Littlefield

must be something intrinsically cool about Kansas City, 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 there, 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
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.
Probably Kansas City’s
earliest contribution to the spread of blues-based music was the rise

Pianist Bennie Moten (sitting) with his Kansas City Orchestra around 1925
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

Eddie Durham: first recorded electric guitarist

record bluesy electric guitar
licks in September 1935. (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 that 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
The resulting album
created a new style of jazz-blues called swing or ‘Moton 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 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

Pete Johnson. Recorded ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ with Big Joe

of blues that would one day be
called rock & roll. They were the 300lbs plus (22 stone) 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 the second rock & roll recording of all time, after Albert
Ammons’ ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ in 1936. (See Ten Rock & Roll Records That
Pre-empted Rock & Roll in my archive of 8 August 2013). Here’s the link:

Probably Kansas City’s
most famous musical
Charlie Parker: bebop icon

son is the great jazz saxophonist and bepop pioneer,
Charlie Parker, aka Bird or Yardbird. But even Charlie 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. But if you
fancy a touch of Charlie Parker when he was still influenced by the blues, take
a listen to this link:

Find out more
about  the birth of blues – over the last 1,000 years – in the illustrated
eBooks ‘How Blues Evolved’ on these links:

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