I’ll have to confess that I didn’t know much about Wilbert Harrison when I first heard him singing “Kansas City,” and in all honesty I don’t think that I made much of an effort to find out at that time. In those days I was mostly just into enjoying the music, and his signature song immediately caught my attention and became one of my favorites.
That song reached number one on the charts in 1959, and was such a landmark performance that it probably helped create an unfair image of the singer/composer as a one-hit wonder. But he was actually a very versatile performer who recorded a number of good songs through the years, including “Stagger Lee,” (video below) and “Let’s Work Together,” which was also a hit for Canned Heat.
As was the case with many other performers in the early years of rock and roll, Harrison’s music was an amalgam of R&B and country, and in his case with just a touch of gospel thrown in. He’d even flirted with a calypso style as he began his career but by the time he began recording he’d pretty much adopted the sound that made him a star.
The early songs from the North Carolina native included a forgotten piece called “This Woman Is Mine,” which was his debut recording, along with “Letter Edged In Black,” a song that leaned closer to the county side. The same could be said about another of his early recordings, “Don’t Drop It,” which he recorded after he’d moved to the New Jersey/New York area. None of these efforts really hit pay dirt but when he re-worked his debut piece, adding lyrics and enlisting the aid of guitarist Wild Jimmy Spruill to put some pop into it, “Kansas City” became a place every teenager wanted to visit.
The song hit the top of R&B and pop charts and made of star of the performer, but trouble was just around the corner. Legal difficulties with recording companies were a distraction and slowed the momentum he’d gained with the mega-hit. His followup recordings, including “Cheatin’ Baby” and “Goodbye Kansas City” were less successful, and Harrison’s career stalled until his 1970 resurgence with “Let’s Work Together.”
For the last two decades of his life he continued performing and recording as much as possible, sometimes as a solo and other times backed by a band he called the Roamers, but his career slowly wound down. He died in 1994 in North Carolina – a long way from Kansas City – but will probably always be best remembered for that signature song.