Blues musician Willie Littlefield dies at 81

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 keyboardists, died June 23 in Leusden, a Netherlands town where he lived. 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 song "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.' "

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