Born Curtis Montgomery, 7 February 1934, Fort Worth, Texas
(Adopted by William and Josie Ousley)
Died 14 August, 1971, Manhattan, New York City, NY

Saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader

It's easy to pinpoint the day that King Curtis wrote history : March 17, 1958. On that day The Coasters recorded "Yakety Yak" (and three other songs) in New York City. That # 1 hit was the record that introduced the "chicken scratch" sax sound of King Curtis to a mass audience. It set a new standard for the 30-second instrumental sax solo on a rock n roll record. Honking had become stale and Curtis put the new yakety sax style on the map, encouraged by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Texas-born Curtis Ousley started playing the saxophone at the age of twelve and later also mastered the guitar. Initially playing alto sax, he switched to the more popular R&B style tenor sax in the tradition of Louis Jordan. Fresh out of high school, he landed a spot in Lionel Hampton's band. In 1952 Curtis relocated to New York City. The next year he had his first record release, credited to the King Curtis Quintet : "Tenor In the Sky"/"No More Crying On My Pillow" (Gem 208). While playing around the New York clubs with his own combo, he gradually got his start among the session fraternity. After working as a house musician for the R&B subsidiaries of RCA, Groove and Vik, he was approached by Atlantic/Atco in 1956. The first Atlantic session that Curtis played on was for the Tibbs Brothers, on May 13, 1956, and soon he became a regular at Atlantic, playing behind Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Willis and Bobby Darin, among others. But the arrangement with Atlantic was not an exclusive one, since his presence could be heard on dozens of outside sessions too, including a continuation of work at Groove/Vik.

After the Coasters relocated to New York City in late 1957, Curtis played on almost all their sessions until 1961. His brilliant contributions to the Coasters' recordings make him the most famous tenor sax player associated with rock n roll. Session players were usually anonymous in the 1950s, but Curtis's solos were different enough to prompt many music fans to try to find out who this sax man was and by the early 1960s it was fairly common knowledge that it was King Curtis on all those Coasters hits.

Atco started recording Curtis under his own name in February 1958, first under the supervision of Herb Abramson, later Nesuhi Ertegun. Leiber and Stoller also produced one session, in May 1959. The music (5 singles and 1 LP) is hard to classify, reflecting Curtis's versatility. By April 1960 he was signed to the Prestige label, for which Curtis recorded three albums in a jazzier style, while still doing session work for other labels. This was followed by a short stint (1961-1962) at Enjoy Records, owned by Bobby Robinson. His first record for the label, "Soul Twist" finally gave him his first (and biggest) solo hit. Derived from "Jay Walk" on the 1959 Atco LP "Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow", "Soul Twist" spent two weeks at the top of the R&B charts in April 1962 and also peaked at # 17 on the pop charts. The record was credited to "King Curtis & the Noble Knights". They were : Ernie Hayes (organ), Billy Butler (guitar), Jimmy Lewis (bass) and Ray Lucas (drums). There appeared one other single on Enjoy and an LP (called "Soul Twist", obviously) before Curtis moved on to Capitol in the summer of 1962, where his first single was "Beach Party" (Capitol 4788, a # 60 pop hit), heavily modelled on "Soul Twist", but almost as good. (Long-time readers of Now Dig This magazine will have it on the "Snatch and Grab It" premium CD.) In September 1958 Curtis went to Clovis, New Mexico, to play on a Buddy Holly session ("Reminiscing"), probably one of the first instances of a singer requesting the use of a particular musician on a record date. In the early 1960s he also did session work for Sam Cooke, the Shirelles, the Isley Brothers and Nina Simone, among others.

He stayed with Capitol until mid-1965, his biggest hit for the label being "Soul Serenade" (# 51, 1964). Then he went back to Atco where he would remain for the rest of his life, scoring eleven (mostly minor) entries into the Billboard Hot 100 between 1965 and 1971. Of these, "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode To Billy Joe" were # 6 R&B hits, both in 1967. Between the soul numbers Curtis still recorded the occasional rock n roll single, like "Boss" (1965) and the "Rocky Roll" medley (1969).

His band, now called the Kingpins, opened for the Beatles during their 1965 performance at Shea Stadium. When Aretha Franklin broke through in a big way after switching to Atlantic in 1967, the Kingpins became her backing band, with Curtis as Aretha's musical director.

Beginning in 1967, King Curtis started to take a more active studio role at Atlantic, leading and contracting sessions for other artists, producing with Jerry Wexler, and later on his own (Freddie King, Sam and Dave, Roberta Flack). All aspects of his career were in full swing when it came to a sudden and pointless end. On August 13, 1971, Curtis was stabbed to death by a derelict (Juan Montanez) outside an apartment building he owned in Manhattan. He died the next morning at Roosevelt Hospital.

King Curtis was a versatile and influential saxophonist whose style has been widely copied (by Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for instance). Inventive as his own recordings were, he will firstly be remembered for his session work with other artists, the Coasters in particular. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2000.

More info :

Books : There is one book-length biography of King Curtis, by Russell Carpenter, but I'm afraid I can't recommend it. Roy Simonds' book "King Curtis : A Discography" (2nd ed. 1984, self-published) is a labour of love, but long out of print.

CD recommendations :
- His 1958-59 Atco recordings are collected on the CD "Hot Sax, Cool Licks" (Ace 757), released in 2000. Included as a bonus are some of the hits he played on: "Yakety Yak" and "That Is Rock & Roll" by The Coasters and "What Am I Living For" by Chuck Willis. Annotated by Roy Simonds.
- Soul Time (Great American Music, 2010). This is the Enjoy LP from 1962 with five additional tracks, including "Air Raid" by Curley Hamner (theme song of Mark Lamarr's "Shake Rattle And Roll" radio show), on which Curtis plays the sax.

Acknowledgements : Roy Simonds, Joel Whitburn, Wikipedia.

YouTube :
- Soul Twist :
- Twisting Time :
- The Hucklebuck :
- Harlem Nocturne :
- Castle Rock :
- Live at Shea Stadium :
- Boss :
(This is actually the backing track of the 1962 Barbara Greene single "Long Tall Sally", Atco 6250, with overdubs.) Etc. Most of the rock n roll material is not available onYouTube, alas.


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