Today, February 7, 2014, would have been the 80th birthday of the late King Curtis, a saxophone master whose sonic wizardry contributed so many facets in the music industry during the late 1950s to the early 1970s. What seemed to be a career that was even going to hit further heights after he become Aretha Franklin’s musical director was cut short by his tragic and senseless murder in 1971.
Born in 1934 and raised in Fort Worth, TX, “King” Curtis Ousley was an early component of rock and roll and the R&B scene, which found its full flower by the mid 1960s. On records like The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” Curtis displayed his penchant for playing with a fervor, a zest which instantly got blood circulating in the listener and himself. Raucous yet light in the best possible ways, the solo on the record stands as one of the most recognizable pieces of sax playing of all time and it contained strains of the type of playing King Curtis would utilize on his subsequent recordings and live performances. It also propelled Curtis to the limelight and within the music industry; he played with luminaries like Buddy Holly and recorded his own songs like “Soul Twist” and the emotionally charged “Soul Serenade,” which went on to become a standard and most memorable R&B ballad of the period.
Most of Curtis’ work was done for Atlantic Records; he soon formed a backing band called The Kingpins, who wound up eventually opening for The Beatles during their 1965 Shea Stadium concert and who at one point even had Jimi Hendrix play some gigs with them a year or so before the guitar virtuoso was a superstar with The Experience and Band of Gypsys (see picture below, Hendrix is on the right). The Kingpins were also made up with Curtis discoveries like bassist Jerry Jemmott, who wound up becoming one of that instruments signature star players, and Cornell Dupree, who had a soulful touch on guitar which endeared him as a session player and solo artist in his own right. With people like Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and Truman Thomas on piano/organ, the band become a white hot funked up swinging unit that played on some of the heavyweight recordings during the mid/late 1960s, which spawned songs like “Memphis Soul Stew” and also led to work that was mostly with Aretha Franklin. Curtis also recorded with the legendary guitarist Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band, and wound up winning a Grammy for their instrumental rendition of the song “Games People Play,” recorded in 1969.
By 1971, both Curtis and his Kingpins on their own, and also opening for Aretha Franklin on tour who they also backed (and Curtis musically directed), led to successful albums from the Fillmore West stints, both his and Franklin’s. The Live At Fillmore West album put Curtis in a whole new light, as at the age of 37, he was suddenly breaking through to a much younger audience than the ones who were jazz and R&B aficionados a decade or so ago. The record was a success and also stints at the Montreux Jazz Festival and a recording session with John Lennon (for his upcoming Imagine album, playing sax on the songs “It’s So Hard” and “I Don’t Want to Be Soldier”) only strengthened what was an already promising career.
It was tragically cut all too short, in the blink of an eye, on August 13, 1971, when Curtis was confronted by two drug dealers on the front steps of the Manhattan apartment he lived in, and after an altercation, one of them stabbed Curtis in the heart, a wound which killed him soon after. It quickly snuffed the light and sound of a man who made plenty of noise and shone plenty of light when he was alive. The music community was stunned in the wake of King Curtis’ death and held a funeral, during which the Atlantic Records offices were closed that day, and included such attendees as Jesse Jackson, Cissy Houston, Duane Allman (who himself would die tragically about two months later), Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. They all remembered and reminisced of a man who was a guiding force in the shaping of R&B/Blues, who had a firm hand and sound in carving the next generation of jazz and the new generation of funk and how the two melded together with that always sprinkling of Delta Blues on top. The industry never forgot Curtis either, and made sure that everyone else doesn’t either, as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum inducted him posthumously into their controversial halls on March 6, 2000.
While the name King Curtis might have unfortunately all but fallen off the radar in this day and age, a little research and searching (soul searching?) can find the man and his music. And in doing so, one can uncover music akin to finding a treasure chest filled with golden doubloons, and ultimately, one can find out for themselves, just why Curtis Ousley crowned himself King and why still, after all these decades, he more than retains that divine right to the throne.
February 7, 1934 – August 13, 1971
Below are some video of Curtis in action; I’ve also included some recommendations for his music.
– Live At Fillmore West
– Instant Groove
– Blues at Montreux (Live) (The MP3 Download is on sale for only $3.99 right now.)
For more, click here for the King Curtis music catalog and enjoy!