Wilbert Harrison of “Kansas City” Fame

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Introduction to Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison (1929-1994) was an American R&B/rock and roll/pop singer-songwriter, pianist and guitarist, hailing from North Carolina. He started his recording career in the early 1950s but it wasn’t until 1959 that he scored his big hit, “Kansas City” which topped both the pop and R&B singles charts. Harrison also released excellent singles such as “Let’s Stick Together,” which would be a big hit for Bryan Ferry decades later. “Let’s Work together,” which was a revamped version of “Let’s Stick Together,” became a Top 40 pop hit in early 1970 but was surpassed by a version by Canned Heat very much later. He was unable to achieve any consistent commercial success despite issuing really excellent records. In 1994 Harrison died from a stroke, aged 65.

Early life and music / recording career

R&B and rock & roll singer-songwriter and musician Wilbert Harrison was born on January 5, 1929 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Early in his life he was influenced by gospel, blues and country that would later indicate his rather eclectic approach as an artist. Following his discharge from the Navy in the early 1950s, Harrison even peformed calypso-style music for a while. He was living in Miami, Florida at that time.

As far as his recording career is concerned, Harrison secured his first contract with Rockin’ label sometime in 1953. Among his first records there were “This Woman of Mine” (his debut single) and “Letter Edged in Black” which was evident of Harrison’s country influence.

Harrison’s stint with Savoy Records

Harrison then relocated to Newark, New Jersey, where he was spotted by Savoy Records producer Fred Mendelsohn one lucky day. His recording sessions were being backed up by the finest New York musicians. Harrison also collaborated with by top arranger Leon Kirkland, who had also worked with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Big Maybelle. Despite this, hits were still evading Harrison.

Harrison’s stint with Fury Records, and his success via “Kansas City”

Harrison’s fortune would change for the better, however. In 1959 he recorded the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition “Kansas City” for Bobby Robinson, a Harlem-based businessman who owned and ran two record labels named Fire and Fury. Aside from performing the grappling vocals, Harrison also played piano on that track. “Kansas City”‘s distinctive gutar solo was done by Wild Jimmy Spruill. During that time, Harrison was still under contract with Savoy, leading to a legal standoff between Savoy and Mr. Robinson. Robinson won out in the end, leading to his Fury label to release “Kansas City” as single.

Compared to his heavily-backed sessions at Savoy, Harrison’s recording session of “Kansas City” was way much cheaper at just $40.

But the session yielded considerable returns for Harrison. His version of “Kansas City” (the first rendition was performed by pianist Little Willie Littlefield, by the way) rose to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B singles charts in 1959. More than the commercial success of “Kansas City,” it yielded another rock and roll immortality.

Harrison’s later life and career, and his legacy to rock and roll

After “Kansas City,” Harrison struggled with his following releases, leading him to be considered a “one-hit wonder.” That is until a decade later, Harrison inched his way into Top 40 pop chart again with his self-penned single “Let’s Work Together” (at #32).

“Let’s Work Together” was actually a re-working of Harrison’s own 1962 recording “Let’s Stick Together” (released on Fury label). “Let’s Work Together” was eventually covered by blues-boogie rock band Canned Heat in 1970, whose version climbed to #26 in the US chart and even became a bigger hit on the UK singles chart at #2. “Let’s Stick Together,” meawhile, was made a UK #4 hit by Roxy Music’s lead singer Bryan Ferry in 1976.

Harrison still carried on, despite struggling again in his career. At age 65, he passed away of a stroke on October 26, 1994 in Spencer, North Carolina. Seven years after his death, Harrison’s legacy was remembered as Grammy Awards bestowed his famous version of “Kansas City” a Hall of Fame award. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Harrison’s “Kansas City” in its “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll,” proving once again of his enduring influence to rock and roll musicians in the following generations after him.

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