Little Willie Littlefield
The Red One
Oldie Blues 7005
Think you’ve hit a few bumps along the way, bunky? Well how would you like to have been the first guy to record Leiber and Stoller’s "Kansas City," watch it go nowhere, and a few years later see Wilbert Harrison turn it into one of the most covered tunes in history?
That dubious distinction belongs to Little Willie Littlefield, who first recorded that anthem in 1952. Littlefield was already a musical veteran, having first recorded in 1948 in Houston while still in his teens. From Houston, Littlefield moved to Los Angeles where he had a couple of R&B hits for the Bihari brothers’ Modern label.
In the mid-’50s Littlefield put out a string of singles on Federal, including a couple of duets with Little Esther, that went pretty much nowhere. One theory had it that Littlefield was not commercial enough for black audiences and not "ethnic" enough for whites.
Despite his lack of commercial success, Littlefield was a popular figure in the post-war Los Angeles club scene and is acknowledged to have been an early influence on Fats Domino. By the late ’70s, Littlefield moved to Europe, married and settled in the Netherlands, where he still resides.
Albert Ammons, Charles Brown and Amos Milburn are all obvious influences on this brilliant pianist and vocalist. His repertoire zig-zags through a field strewn with instrumental boogie woogies and jazzy R&B standards. His vocals bring to mind Nat Cole here, Charles Brown or Floyd Dixon there. He covers Cecil Gant’s "I Wonder" (with great delicacy and sentimentality), Huey Piano Smith’s "Sea Cruise" (with mandatory bounce and tenor sax support), Charles Brown’s "Drifting Blues" (with more than a little nod to the original) and Ivory Joe Hunter’s "Blues at Sunrise" (played as blue as blues gets).
Other familiar covers include "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," and "Caldonia." Littlefield also pens another nine tunes, including stand-outs "Rhumba Blues" on which a Niagara of notes cascades from his right hand against a rhumba beat, "Little Willie’s Blues" which starts in waltz mode before kicking into the familiar eight-to-the-bar and the quiet, jazz-inflected "Call Him Mr. Blues."
The lack of liner notes is compensated in part by complete recording and personnel data. Most importantly, the sound quality is outstanding. On a decent stereo, the piano sounds so clean and crisp that you’ll be tempted to polish it after he’s done playing. A word needs also be said about Littlefield’s back-up band. These are obviously cats who regularly log hours in small jazz combos plucking the upright bass and swishing the brushes and their support of Littlefield is immaculate in its taste. A thoroughly enjoyable hour of music.
— Jack Oudiz