Editorial Feature

On Screens and in Songs: Kansas City's Reputation Has Flourished for Decades

Journalist Timothy Finn gives an insight into Kansas City's presence in pop culture

The publicity Kansas City is getting from Season 3 of the Netflix series “Queer Eye” is priceless and immeasurable.

Beyond the personal narratives told in each episode, the series, which started streaming in mid-March 2019, also showcases the city’s many attractions and amenities, including its cuisine, its architecture, its arts and entertainment communities, its business culture and its movers and shakers, civic and otherwise.

A city’s reputation can flourish or suffer from the ways it is referenced or portrayed in TV shows, films and music. Here’s a look at how the City of Fountains has been represented in each.

Music

No song is more indelibly attached to Kansas City than Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller’s “Kansas City,” a song written in the early 1950s.

The rock/R&B anthem celebrates the city as a destination for anyone looking for great music and “crazy little women” or a “crazy way of loving,” depending on the version you hear.

It has been covered dozens of times by some of popular music’s greatest legends: the Beatles, James Brown, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, the Everly Brothers, Albert King. In 2001, Wilbert Harrison’s version, recorded in March 1959, received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

More recently, the release of the double album “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes” in November 2014 made waves in Kansas City.


James Brown (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The album is a collection of lyrics Bob Dylan wrote in the 1970s that were exhumed from storage and sent to producer T-Bone Burnett. He then mustered an all-star team of musicians and songwriters to write melodies for the lyrics and record them as songs.

Curiously, two of the album’s 20 tracks directly reference Kansas City, in title and in lyrics: “Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street)” and “Kansas City.”

The lyrics to both songs are open to wide interpretation but they render different images of the city.

In “Liberty Street," the singer bemoans his many woes and implies his six months here was as much a sentence or bout of penance as anything.

In “Kansas City,” the singer declares his return to a place that is dear to his heart—a refuge or a place of salvation, though he wonders aloud how long he can “keep singing these same old songs.”

In an interview with National Public Radio, Burnett joked that perhaps Dylan was carrying water for the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce at the time, but he also offered a more thoughtful analysis of “Kansas City.”

The city itself is a metaphor for its jazz and blues heritage and by “going back to Kansas City,” Burnett said, he means he is shedding his folk roots for something else (rock) and is telling the audience: “'I played these songs and you want me to keep playing them. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going back to the blues. I’m going to Kansas City.’ I think Kansas City is such a seat of the blues, really.”

Bob Dylan by Bill Ray (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

These were not the only time Kansas City (or Missouri and Kansas) appeared in Dylan songs.

In “High Water (For Charley Patton),” from his 2001 album “Love and Theft,” he mentions Big Joe Turner and Twelfth Street and Vine—the same intersection celebrated in Lieber/Stoller’s “Kansas City.”

In 1977, on his album “A Period of Transition,” Van Morrison recorded the song “The Eternal Kansas City,” an enchanting, genre-crossing song that sways from gospel to jazz to jump blues and R&B that name-checks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Lester Young and Jay McShann and includes a chorus of Morrison and/or a gospel choir singing: “Excuse me, do you know the way to Kansas City?”

Morrison’s song, like Dylan’s “High Water,” tapped into the city’s esteemed music history. Other songs reference Kansas City in more vague or ambiguous ways.

Count Basie at Municipal Auditorium (From the collection of Kansas City Public Library)

None is more ambiguous or cryptic than Cat Steven’s “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)” from his 1972 album “Catch Bull at Four.” If 18th Avenue is a reference to 18th (Street) and Vine, it’s not clear. In fact, the song’s meaning is murky at best. Here’s how Stephen Holden described it in his review of the album:

“A vision of insanity and physical and mental deterioration, it accumulates the specific but disjunctive images of a nightmare that makes no literal sense other than forcefully embodying a premonition of metaphysical collapse.”

Let’s call that one a draw, somewhere between positive and negative publicity.

Elsewhere, Kansas City has played a role in songs about love and romance.

In 1982, on his debut album, country artist Steve Wariner recorded “Kansas City Lights,” a song about a soldier at sea about to return home to Kansas City to see the love of his life, the woman who is “always in my dreams.”

Portraits of Charlie Parker by William Gottlieb (From the collection of SF JAZZ Center)

Conversely, “The Train From Kansas City,” first released by the Shangri-Las in 1965, tells a tale from the perspective of a woman headed to the train station to break the news of her engagement to her former beau, who is arriving from Kansas City.

She tells her fiancé not to worry: “There’s nothing I can do that will make (the train) turn around” but assures him “I’ll be back in the time it takes to break his heart / I gotta break his heart.”

In other songs, Kansas City is a destination. In “Kansas City Southern,” written by former Byrd and Missouri native Gene Clark, a small-town boy wistfully watches the Kansas City Southern trains roll by, wishing they would whisk him off to the big city.

The song "Kansas City” from the musical “Oklahoma!” likewise promotes the city and its advancements via a wide-eyed country yokel who recalls with wonder a recent visit and is spellbound about the city’s skyscrapers and a certain burlesque dancer.

"Oklahoma!" film premiere by Cliff King (From the collection of Oklahoma Historical Society)

Film

Dozens of film have been set in Kansas City, and a few stand out, including a couple that, like so many songs, focused on its music history.

Clint Eastwood directed “Bird,” a 1988 film that follows jazz great Charlie Parker from his birth in Kansas City to the amazing heights he reached in the jazz world to his death in New York at age 34. It re-creates a scene at the Reno Club in Kansas City when a teenage Parker was jeered off stage (after having a cymbal tossed at his head by drummer Jo Jones).

Kansas City native Robert Altman directed the 1996 film “Kansas City,” a 1930s crime drama that featured a slew of local musicians who re-created the sights and sounds of its jazz scene, including the late Kevin Mahogany, who portrayed Big Joe Turner. Reviews of the movie were lukewarm.

Clint Eastwood by Bill Eppridge (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Robert Altman (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Reviews were better for “Mr. and Mrs. Bridges,” a film directed by James Ivory and starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward that was filmed extensively in Kansas City. Woodward received several “best actress” nominations including an Academy Award nomination.

The 1992 film “Article 99” starring Kiefer Sutherland, Ray Liotta and Forest Whitaker was filmed entirely in Kansas City—a novelty that has faded over the course of 27 years, considering how vastly downtown has evolved. Reviews for the film were not enthusiastic.

And though it wasn’t a feature movie, the video to the U2 song “Last Night on Earth” was filmed in downtown Kansas City in May 1997.

The video featured the late William Burroughs (a former Lawrence resident) pushing a shopping cart through what looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape, not exactly a flattering portrait. Remember: This was downtown 10 years before the Sprint Center and Power & Light transformation.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Forest Whitaker (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Television

There’s not a lot to brag about here, unless it’s to mention that “Saturday Night Live” cast members and alums like Jason Sudeikis and Heidi Gardner are from here. So is Emmy-winning actor Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family". And actor/comedian Rob Riggle (“The Daily Show” alum) was raised here and attended the University of Kansas.

Kansas City native Eddie Griffin co-starred with Malcom-Jamal Warner in “Malcom & Eddie,” a sit-com set in Kansas City (but produced in Los Angeles) that lasted four seasons. The UPN show received decent reviews (and is still in syndication) but never ranked higher than 135 in the ratings.

In 1978, “Apple Pie,” an ABC sitcom created by Norman Lear and set in Kansas City during the Great Depression, was canceled after two episodes.

Last year, Hulu announced it had ordered a pilot for the comedy “Kansas City,” which will be shot in Atlanta. The premise: The city has been divided by a wall to separate the liberal East Kansas City from the conservative West Kansas City.

The city’s TV history may not meet the thresholds set by its music and film histories, but for the time being, the beloved“Queer Eye” and all its references and highlights are casting a light as bright as any on the city.

To quote “Kansas City Star,” another song that celebrates the city and its spirit, Kansas City, for now, that’s what you are: a star.

Discover more about the rich history of Kansas City:

Kansas City: Smoke Rings and the Finer Things
A History of Kansas City
Kansas City's Culinary DNA

Words by Timothy Finn
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