Boogie-Woogie Pianist Little Willie Littlefield Dies
Little Willie Littlefield, the blues singer and boogie-woogie pianist who recorded the first version of the rock-and-roll standard “Kansas City” and whose piano work influenced generations of rock and blues keyboardists, died June 23 in Leusden, the town in the Netherlands where he resided. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, his manager Rolf Schubert said.
Littlefield secured his place in blues and rock history before his 21st birthday with his 1952 recording of “K.C. Loving,” which attracted relatively little notice at the time. Seven years later, the simple blues with its infectious, foot-stomping shuffle beat, went to No. 1 in the pop charts as “Kansas City” in a punchier version by singer Wilbert Harrison closely modeled on Littlefield’s original.
There was a notable change in the lyrics. Harrison sang, “They’ve got some crazy lil’ women there, and I’m gonna get me one.” Littlefield’s version was more suggestive: “They’ve got a crazy way of lovin’ and I’m gonna get me some.” That line, blues historian Guido van Rijn once speculated, probably cost Littlefield airplay.
“Kansas City” became a rock standard, with cover versions by the Beatles (as part of a medley), Little Richard, Trini Lopez and James Brown. Though Littlefield often claimed that he had written it, the song is credited to tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who later wrote for Elvis Presley and Peggy Lee, among others.
Littlefield’s early recordings formed a vital link between boogie-woogie and rock-and-roll. His 1949 recording of “It’s Midnight” was a No. 3 rhythm-and-blues hit and popularized the piano triplet rhythm. The triplet — three notes for every beat — became a musical signature for New Orleans pianist Fats Domino. Later rock and pop ballads built on the rhythm included Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” the Beatles’ “Oh, Darling,” and even Percy Faith’s “Theme From ‘A Summer Place.’ ”
Willie Littlefield was born Sept. 16, 1931, in El Campo, Texas. He was a toddler when his parents divorced, and he grew up in Houston with his mother, a domestic worker. He started playing guitar at 6 and switched to piano as a teenager.
At 17, Littlefield formed a band with another teenager, tenor saxophonist DonWilkerson, who would later tour with Ray Charles. They made some of their earliest recordings at a 1948 session in Houston that included a version of pianist Albert Ammons’ “Swanee River Boogie.”
That same year, Littlefield was recruited by Modern Records in Los Angeles because the company was seeking someone to compete with a popular Texas blues and boogie pianist, Amos Milburn, who played for a rival label. Modern often recorded Littlefield with Milburn’s former arranger, saxophonist Maxwell Davis.
Decades later, Littlefield recalled the excitement of having executives from Modern pull up at his home in Houston.
“I was still a teenager, with dark glasses and all that stuff,” he told Living Blues magazine in 2002. “And I told my mother but she could not believe it until a big Cadillac drove and — black glasses and black coats — they came.”
Littlefield performed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, among other leading venues for black entertainers. On stage, he was known for making direct eye contact with people in the audience — especially women — and would take off his right shoe and pound the keys with it as he stomped on the floor with his bare right foot.
His last big hit was a 1957 doo-wop ballad, “Ruby Ruby,” recorded with a female vocal group, Alice Jean and the Mondellos. A 1973 appearance at the San Francisco Blues Festival brought renewed interest in his music and led to European tours. During a 1980 road trip, Littlefield followed the lead of other expatriated blues and jazz musicians and chose to stay in the Netherlands. He also married a Dutch woman.
“Littlefield demonstrated that he is still in top form as player and showman,” van Rijn wrote of a 2000 performance in Holland. “His shoeless foot began to stomp the rhythm, and the place was rocking. His voice has only become stronger with age, and he has lost none of his technical ability on the piano.”
Littlefield, who was said to be fond of fishing, once told the Dutch blues magazine Block that the two things he disliked the most were “fishing without catching anything” and “a piano stool with a cushion.”