Before Kansas City was recorded by everyone from the Beatles to Peggy Lee, the song was first released in 1952 as K.C. Loving by an obscure Houston pianist named Little Willie Littlefield.
The single became a regional hit in the Los Angeles area, where Littlefield was recording for Federal Records, but it would be up to Wilbert Harrison, Trini Lopez, James Brown and Hank Ballard to turn Kansas City into a top 25 hit on the national pop and R&B charts. Littlefield remained a fascinating, mysterious footnote to pop-music history.
The annual Ponderosa Stomp festival in New Orleans exists to bring such footnotes to life. This showcase for the semi-legends of rockabilly, blues and R&B was founded eight years ago by Ira Padnos, a local anesthesiologist and record collector who goes by the moniker of Dr. Ike and favors thrift-shop fezzes and Indian headdresses atop his unruly bush of dark curls. His extravaganza has grown from a local bar to this year's two-night stand at the French Quarter's House of Blues, with 37 sets spread out over two stages.
And so, on Tuesday, the first day of the eighth-annual Ponderosa Stomp, there was the 77-year-old Littlefield, dressed in a dark-blue brocade blazer and grinning with delight beneath his comb-over. He sang K.C. Loving with a dark growl backed up by thick chord clusters unlike any of the familiar arrangements. But it soon became obvious that his heart was in the boogie-woogie piano style pioneered by childhood hero Albert Ammons, a style that peaked around the time of Pearl Harbor.
Littlefield, like a cave man thawed from the ice, brought that nearly forgotten age back to life. He rolled his left hand through the distinctive bass figures and raced his right hand up and down the keyboard, even rolling the back of his knuckles across the keys for a percussive effect. He took familiar songs, such as John Lee Hookers One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, kept the vocal melody and completely replaced the instrumental accompaniment with boogie piano of his own invention. And when he substituted an especially surprising chord, his grin got even bigger.