King Curtis – The Saxophone Virtuoso


Introduction to King Curtis

King Curtis was an American professional saxophone player and sometime bandleader and session musician. He once recorded “Yakety Yak” with the Coasters; he would sometimes record under his own name and for other bands. Curtis achieved his R&B #1 hit with “Soul Twist” in 1962. His move to Atlantic Records in the mid-1960s provided Curtis with most successful this such as the funky “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Ode To Billy Joe”. He also performed with Aretha Franklin and did covers of popular songs during that time. His career, which was still in full bloom, was cut short when he was murdered in 1971.

King Curtis’ early life and influences

Saxophone virtuoso King Curtis was born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth, Texas on February 7, 1935. Ousley was then later raised, together with his sister Josephine, by an adoptive family; as a child he was already playing saxophone. His honking Texas tenor trademark saxophone sound was formed by years of fervent playing and dedication, as well as inspired by his main influences such as Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, and Arnett Cobb. But he also had a rock and roll edge that set him apart from the other saxophone players, due to his uniquely syncopated, percussive style. While he was still studying, he performed alongside another jazz legend Ornette Coleman.

Career as an esteemed session player, and his association with Atlantic Records

In 1952 Curtis moved to New York to pursue a career as a full-time session musician. Curtis played in groups fronted by Lionel Hampton and Horace Silver; he accepted those opportunities to play alongside them as he had turned down college scholarships to study music. He recorded in a variety of genres to expand his accessibility to audience – rock and roll, funk, and soul aside from his favorite repertoires jazz and R&B. One of Curtis’ session recording highlights was the one he did with the legendary R&B group the Coasters which produced the 1958 smash and now-classic single “Yakety Yak.” This ensured Curtis’ reputation as a rock and roll sideman. One time, Curtis had also formed his own band during his session musician years.

Curtis can also be heard on such seminal records by Clyde McPhatter (“A Lover’s Question”), The Shirelles (“Boys” and “Reminiscing,” the last song Curtis wrote with Buddy Holly, who had also hired him for session work). Curtis also jammed and recorded in sessions with Aretha Franklin (and her backing band the Kingpins), Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, Solomon Burke, and Bobby Darin, among all others as he had been a part of the Atlantic Records/Atco stable of artists since he began his association with the label in 1958.

Curtis’ solo career

After Atlantic, Curtis went on to record for other labels such as Prestige and Enjoy. It was on Enjoy where Curtis released his first solo single “Soul Twist,” which he also wrote, and then performed with the Noble Knights. It became his most successful single ever in his career, going to #1 on the R&B singles chart, and #17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Curtis jumped to Capitol Records, where he released further singles such as “Beach Party” (#60 pop), “Wobble Twist,” “Do the Monkey” (#92 pop), “Soul Serenade,” (#51 pop), “Hide Away,” “Tanya,” “Spanish Harlem,” (#89 pop, #13 adult contemporary), and a few others.

Moving back to Atlantic

In 1965, Curtis returned to Atlantic, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He continued his solid successes through his singles such as his self-penned number “Memphis Soul Stew” (#33 pop, #6 R&B, #51 UK in 1967) and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” (#28 pop, #6 R&B in 1967), the last one he performed with the Kingpins.

Curtis’ later career, death and legacy

Since 1967, Curtis had started to be more active in the Atlantic studios, where he led and contracted sessions for other artists. He also produced records with Jerry Wexler, and later on his own records. He also appeared with Franklin and the Kingpins on Aretha Franklin at Fillmore West, and Live at Fillmore West. He continued on his session work, the last of his session performance being in John Lennon’s song on his Imagine album “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier.” Curtis then recorded “Hot Potatoes,” the original theme song of the 1971 TV smash Soul Train.

In 1970 Curtis won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance in his work for Joe South’s “Games People Play” (which also won a Grammy for Song of the Year).

Curtis’ career was still in full throttle when he was murdered outside his New York apartment, on August 13, 1971. In keeping his legacy, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Even after his death King Curtis is still regarded as a saxophone master for the enthusiastic players of this instrument, as well as lovers of his music.

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