"I like that 'Kansas City' song," one of the guys says to his friends.
He's referring to the famous song that begins, in most incarnations, with the lyrics I'm goin' to Kansas City/Kansas City, here I come. Written by a couple of Jewish hipsters, the song has been recorded by nearly everyone — Trini Lopez, Brenda Lee, the Jackson 5.
The Beatles' rendition was playing over the stadium loudspeakers after the last out of the Marlins game, as it does after every Royals win.
But what about the version that went to No. 1?
At age 30, Wilbert Harrison recorded "Kansas City" for a Harlem record label. Harrison wasn't the first artist to record the song, which hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had written. But his version was the first to reach the masses, topping both the R&B and pop charts in 1959.
I thought about Harrison when I saw the list of "signature songs" that the Royals are thinking about playing during the seventh-inning stretch, after "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
The personality-starved franchise is trying to establish a musical tradition like the ones fans enjoy at other ballparks. At Wrigley Field in Chicago, celebrities lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," a duty once fulfilled by the late broadcaster Harry Caray. Milwaukee Brewers' fans sing "Roll Out the Barrel." The Boston Red Sox have adopted Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," for mysterious reasons.
Not unlike somebody determined to give himself a nickname, the Royals have come up with a list of 10 possible seventh-inning songs. Naturally, "Kansas City" is on the list. But it's the Beatles' version, not Harrison's, even though he recorded the song five years earlier and took it to No. 1.
Way to be white-bread, Royals.
Oh, sure, the Beatles were great. But in the Royals' decision to leave the R&B version off the list, I detect the same impulses that made Pat Boone a star.
There's nothing wrong with Harrison's version of "Kansas City," that's for sure. Harrison's "Kansas City" doesn't sound like some scratchy Leadbelly record, even though it was recorded for $40. The singing and piano playing keep things sweet and simple, and the guitar solo, by sessionman Wild Jimmy Spruill, is one of the most famous of the early rock years.
In short, it went No. 1 for a reason.
But Wilbert is No. 2 with the Royals. Since 2003, the team has played the Beatles' "Kansas City" after it wins.
It plays the black man's "Kansas City" only after losses.
Chris DeRuyscher, the Royals' director of game entertainment, tells me that the team loves both versions. The Beatles' version just sounds happier. "We do not associate losing with Wilbert Harrison," DeRuyscher assures me.
I'll give DeRuyscher and the Royals credit for at least putting a Kansas City stamp on things. I've always envied the way Yankee Stadium crowds washed down victories with "New York, New York" — as well as more obscure songs, such as "New York Groove" by Ace Frehley (yes, the member of Kiss).
Stadium music tends to be pretty insipid anyway. Ballpark DJs had to scramble when one of their old reliables, Gary Glitter, got busted for downloading kiddie porn. Wit and style are rare. I have happy memories of an Iowa Cubs game when the opposing team's manager walked out to the mound to try to comfort a struggling pitcher — and the ballpark DJ put on Lindsey Buckingham's "Trouble." Hadn't heard that at a ballgame before.
Such clever moments have been hard to come by at the K. Before the Royals started playing "Kansas City," DeRuyscher says, the sound guys cued up Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" or "whatever the most popular thing was on Jock Jams. "
So they've made progress.
But the Royals still have a way to go.
Fans leaving the Marlins game, for instance, heard "Takin' Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive after "Kansas City." A fireworks show was next. Then came "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" by Wang Chung, which made me sorry I'd cursed BTO.
DeRuyscher says he wasn't in on the meeting when team officials came up with the 10 choices for a seventh-inning stretch song. The Beatles are up against the likes of Donna Summer ("Last Dance"), Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire") and Dexy's Midnight Runners ("Come On, Eileen"). A fan vote will decide which song gets the seventh-inning nod, beginning with the first home game after the All-Star break — against the Yankees on July 23.
DeRuyscher surmises that the Bea-tles' version made the list because its tempo agrees with fans who are already on their feet, stretching and singing. "It kind of has the little blast and kick to it," he says.
The Beatles' version also has a connection to Kansas City baseball. The Fab Four added the song to their set list when they played Municipal Stadium in 1964, a show promoted by A's owner Charlie Finley. The Beatles performed (and later recorded) the song in a medley with Little Richard's "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey." It was a cool idea, though not an original one: Little Richard himself had made a collage of the two songs.
But the Harrison version makes for a better sing-along. Harrison clearly enunciates the lyrics, which are different in the renditions by Little Richard and the Beatles. In the Beatles' version, Paul McCartney begins the song, Ah, Kansas City/Coming to get my baby back home. There's no line about 12th Street and Vine.
I try not to be the kind of music snob who can enjoy only Big Mama Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" (another Leiber-Stoller composition). But, damn it, Wilbert Harrison, who died in his native North Carolina in 1994, is getting screwed! You make a No. 1 record, and not even the Beatles get to put a white face on it.
When I finish this, I'm going to go online and cast a write-in vote for Wilbert Harrison. I may vote for Little Richard, too.
Then I'm going to figure out a way to slip a gay couple's smooch past the Kiss Cam crew.