Little Willie Littlefield, blues singer, dies at 81

Little Willie Littlefield performed at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. He was best known for “Kansas City.”
Cheryl Gerber/New York Times/file 2009
Little Willie Littlefield performed at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. He was best known for “Kansas City.”

WASHINGTON — 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 of cancer June 23 in Leusden, in the Netherlands where he resided. He was 81.

Mr. 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 tune with its infectious, foot-stomping shuffle beat went to No. 1 as ‘‘Kansas City’’ in a punchier version by singer Wilbert Harrison closely modeled on Mr. Littlefield’s original.

‘‘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 Mr. Littlefield often claimed he had written it, the song is credited to tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who later wrote for Elvis Presley and Peggy Lee.


Mr. Littlefield’s early recordings formed a vital link between boogie-woogie and rock. 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,’’ and the Beatles’ ‘‘Oh, Darling.’’

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Willie Littlefield was born in El Campo, Texas, and he grew up in Houston.

Mr. Littlefield performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, among other leading venues for black entertainers. 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.

Mr. Littlefield 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.’’