Curtis Ousley (born Curtis Montgomery; February 7, 1934 – August 13, 1971), known professionally as King Curtis, was an American saxophonist who played rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock and roll. A bandleader, band member, and session musician, he was also a musical director and record producer. Adept at tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, he played riffs and solos on hit singles such as “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, and “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters and his own “Memphis Soul Stew”.
Curtis Montgomery was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of Ethel Montgomery, and was adopted, with his sister Josephine Allen (died 2019), by Josie and William Ousley. Curtis attended I.M. Terrell High School, and studied and performed music with schoolmate Ornette Coleman.
Curtis started playing saxophone at the age of twelve in the Fort Worth area. He took interest in many musical genres including jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular music. As a student pursuing music, he turned down college scholarships in order to join the Lionel Hampton Band. During his time with Hampton, he was able to write and arrange music and learn guitar. In 1952 Curtis decided to move to New York and became a session musician, recording for such labels as Prestige, Enjoy, Capitol, and Atco. He recorded with Nat Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Andy Williams.
Stylistically, Curtis took inspiration from saxophonists Lester Young, Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, and Gene Ammons. Known for his syncopated and percussive style, he was both versatile and powerful as a musician. He put together a group during his time as a session musician that included Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Jerry Jemmott, and Bernard Purdie.
Curtis enjoyed playing both jazz and rhythm and blues but decided he would make more money as a rhythm and blues musician. In a 1971 interview with Charlie Gillett he said: “I love the authentic rhythm and blues more than anything, and I also like to live well.” From the 1950s until the mid-1960s, he worked as a session musician, recording under his own name and with others such as The Coasters, with whom he recorded “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown”, among others. Buddy Holly hired him for session work, during which they recorded “Reminiscing.” Holly wrote this song, but gave Curtis the songwriting credit for flying down to the session. His best-known singles from this period are “Soul Twist”—his highest-charting single, reaching number one on the R&B chart and number 17 on the Billboard pop chart—and “Soul Serenade.” He provided backing on a number of songs for LaVern Baker, including her 1958 hit single “I Cried a Tear”, where his saxophone became “a second voice”.
In 1965 he moved to Atlantic Records and recorded his most successful singles, “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967). In 1966 Curtis recorded 3 songs with Jimi Hendrix, “Linda Lou”, “Baby How About You” and “I Can’t Take It”. Unissued, the tapes were later destroyed in a fire at Atlantic’s master tape library. He worked with The Coasters, and led Aretha Franklin’s backing band the Kingpins. The Kingpins opened for the Beatles during their 1965 performance at Shea Stadium. Curtis produced records, often working with Jerry Wexler and recorded for Groove Records during this period, including the Joe South song “Games People Play” with guitarist Duane Allman. One unique session came in 1963, when Curtis provided the honking sax backing for Mad Magazine’s novelty burping record, “It’s a Gas.”
In March 1971 he appeared with Aretha Franklin and the Kingpins at the Fillmore West, which resulted in two live albums: Aretha Live at Fillmore West, and Curtis’ own Live at Fillmore West. In July 1971, Curtis recorded saxophone solos on “It’s So Hard” and “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” from John Lennon’s Imagine. Along with the Rimshots, he recorded the original theme song for the 1971 hit television show Soul Train, titled “Hot Potatoes”.
On June 17, 1971 Curtis played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in the Casino Kursaal, with Champion Jack Dupree, backed by Cornell Dupree on guitar, Jerry Jemmott on bass and Oliver Jackson on drums. The recording of the concert was later released as the 1973 album King Curtis & Champion Jack Dupree – Blues at Montreux on the Atlantic label.
Curtis was stabbed on August 13, 1971, during an argument with a pair of drug dealers. He was discovered on the steps outside his Manhattan apartment at 50 West 86th Street. Curtis was attempting to carry an air conditioner into his apartment when a man named Juan Montanez refused to move from the entrance. A fight ensued and Montanez stabbed Curtis. Curtis was transferred to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died. In March 1972, Montanez had his charge reduced from second degree murder to second degree manslaughter in exchange for pleading guilty. He was released on December 5, 1977 from the Wallkill Correctional Facility for good behavior.
On the day of Curtis’s funeral, Atlantic Records closed their offices. Jesse Jackson administered the service and as the mourners filed in, Curtis’s band, the Kingpins, played “Soul Serenade”. Among those attending were Ousley’s immediate family, including sister Josephine Ousley Allen, other family members, Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, Brook Benton and Duane Allman. Franklin sang the closing spiritual “Never Grow Old” and Stevie Wonder performed “Abraham, Martin and John and now King Curtis”. Allman went on to honor Curtis by interweaving a medley of “Soul Serenade” into the band’s rendition of “You Don’t Love Me”, first in a show at the Academy of Music on East 14th Street in Manhattan on August 15, and later during a live in-studio recording at A&R Studios in Manhattan on August 26, recorded for posterity and released on LP as part of the band’s Dreams compilation in 1989.
In the film The Buddy Holly Story (1978), King Curtis was played by actor Craig White. He appears in the scene at New York’s Apollo Theater, which would have taken place between August 16-22, 1957 during Holly’s Irvin Feld Tour. In “Genius: Aretha Franklin” he is portrayed by actor Marque Richardson.
In 1970, a year before his death, Curtis won the Best R&B Instrumental Performance Grammy for “Games People Play”. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000. (wikipedia)
King Curtis and his bubbling, stutter-style tenor sax playing brought a touch of jazz and a whole ton of R&B to countless rock & roll tracks in the early ’60s, and his funky edge is one of the reasons records by the Coasters, for instance, continue to sound good 40 years later. This historic live set, which was recorded by drummer Belton Evans as a reference tape at Small’s Paradise in Harlem in mid-1961 and sat unheard until JSP released it on disc in 1985, catches Curtis fresh off of working with Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the Coasters and sessions with the Isley Brothers and still some months away from tracking “Soul Twist,” which came out on Enjoy Records in 1962. The sound quality here is not the best, but Curtis and the band (Al Casey on guitar, Paul Griffin on piano, Jimmy Lewis on bass, and Evans on drums) sounds lively and engaged, particularly on the infectious “Jay Walk” and the upbeat “African Waltz.” It’s a little bit jazzier than the typical Curtis outing, but then he was a much more versatile musician than many people realize (he did sessions with artists as varied as Lonnie Donegan and Andy Williams, and he was also a pretty solid electric guitar player and he could sing capably when he needed to), and if it doesn’t quite add up to being an essential Curtis disc, it will still be of great interest to his many admirers. (by Steve Leggett)
Al Casey (guitar)
King Curtis (saxophone, vocals)
Belton Evans (drums)
Paul Griffin (piano)
Jimmy Lewis (bass)
Collage by RockinPete:
01. Jay Walk (Curtis) 4.43
02. Trouble In Mind (Jones) 3.36
03. African Waltz (MacDermott) 2.57
04. What’d I Say (Chales) 6.38
05. I Have To Worry (Cutis) 3.29
06. The Twist (Curtis) 4.26
07. Canadian Sunset (Heywood/Gimbel) 11.26
08. How High The Moon (Lewis/Hamilton) 9.38
09. K. C. Special (Curtis) 4.29
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