Born Curtis Ousley on February 7, 1934, in Fort Worth, TX; died from stab wounds August 14, 1971, in New York, NY; children: Curtis Jr.
Although he was relatively unknown by the listening public during his career, King Curtis--whose real name was Curtis Ousley--played saxophone both in the studio and on stage for hundreds of well-known musical performers ranging from Bobby Darin and Andy Williams to the Coasters. He also achieved stardom on his own in a series of acclaimed soul recordings during the last decade of his tragically shortened life. "His [Curtis's] staccato style on the tenor sax, known as `a yackity sax' was instantly recognizable to experts even on the many records he made with others in years before his name appeared on the records," wrote Murray Schumach in his obituary for Curtis in the New York Times in 1971. "Famous artists valued his knowledge as an arranger and his sense of musical showmanship," added Schumach.
Curtis was especially known for blasting sound out of his instrument in a rough-cutting style that perfectly complemented rousing rock and roll numbers as well as soul music. As was noted in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, "Owing to his syncopated, almost percussive style, Curtis became one of the best-known and most sought-after studio saxophone players of the 1950s and 1960s; his tone was deep and fruity, with a characteristic burr." Curtis was perfectly willing to submerge his musical presence into songs, rather than drawing attention to himself. According to Jazz: The Essential Companion, "Curtis earned his reputation for the superb appropriateness of brief solos on r & b and pop records...."
Encompassing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, pop and even country music, Curtis's recordings demonstrated his great versatility. Many of them were instrumental versions of vocal hits, but they were far from muzak. "His style was so lyrical and so elegant that he was able to get away with playing instrumental versions of vocal hits, which is usually a sure path to dentist chair music," wrote Colin Escott in the Razor & Tie liner notes for Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis. Among the instrumental covers he recorded on sax were "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," You've Lost That Loving Feeling, "Ode to Billie Joe," "Whiter Shade of Pale," and "Let It Be."
Brought up in Mansfield, Texas, by adoptive parents, Curtis began nurturing his musical talent at a young age. He became mesmerized by the saxophone by the time he was 10 after hearing Louis Jordan. "I heard him on the radio, and I told my mother that I wanted to play that instrument more than anything," said Curtis according to Escott. Hearing the work of tenor saxophone player Lester Young further nurtured his desire to master the instrument, a wish that was fulfilled when his parents presented him with his first alto saxophone in 1945. He began playing alto in his junior high school band, then switched to tenor saxophone when the band needed one.
By 1950 Curtis had formed his own group and was performing at parties and dances in the Forth Worth area. By this time he was comfortable playing jazz, rhythm and blues, or pop music. Much of his play drew on influences from the great Texas saxophone players. As Escott pointed out, "The big Texas tenors--like Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic and Arnett Cobb--their glottal shrieks and vocalized sound influenced not only Curtis but all the honkers and screamers." Curtis added in the Razor & Tie liner notes, "I liked Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Sonny Stitt as well. I also dug Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins for ballads, Getz for facility, Charlie Parker for technique. Another guy that influences both myself and Ornette Coleman was a Texas tenor man called Red Connor, who was a Coltrane ahead of his time."
Word spread about the ability of Curtis, and soon professional musicians were interested in his services. In 1952 he came to New York City and further honed his talent at playing jazz as well as rhythm and blues. He performed during amateur nights at the Apollo Theater, then hooked up with a traveling show as a background musician. Curtis also worked in the recording studio before returning to his home town to follow up on a music scholarship he had been awarded. When Lionel Hampton appeared in Fort Worth and was looking for a saxophone player, Curtis changed his mind about furthering his formal education. Hampton hired the young player to play in his band until he broke up the group in New York City a few months later. With plenty of work coming his way, Curtis decided to remain in the Big Apple for good. Before long he had formed his own trio and was working actively as a session player.
Curtis realized that his career opportunities in serious jazz were limited and shifted accordingly. "I saw that the music was dividing, and I had the commercial business sense to realize that 'way out' jazz wasn't getting to the public," he was quoted as saying in the Razor & Tie liner notes. Steering himself in a more pop direction, Curtis ended up in the studio for recordings such as Chuck Willis's "What Am I Living For" and Clyde McPhatter's "A Lover's Question." The "Curtis sound" then became inextricably associated with his blasting on The Coasters' "Yakety Yak."
While enjoying great success as a backing musician in the 1950s, Curtis made little impact with his solo recordings. He finally hit the charts in 1962 with his "Soul Twist" on Enjoy Records, which he recorded with the Noble Knights (later known as the King Pins). The song hit number one on the R&B charts and #17 on the pop hit parade, and gave Curtis new visibility in the music world. According to Escott, the song "had the hummable melody and greasy dancing beat that the public was looking for."
Now a hot act, Curtis went on tour with Sam Cooke with a band that he had set up called Soul, Inc. Discussing the Curtis band, Irwin Stambler wrote in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, "His group's repertoire was wide enough to satisfy almost any taste, including arrangements from the low-down blues and rock to bossa nova, ballads and even classics." After the tour Curtis signed with Capitol and released a few largely unnoticed records before 1964's "Soul Serenade" achieved moderate success on the R&B charts.
Dissatisfied with the lack of creativity of the recording engineers at Capitol, he switched labels to Atlantic in 1965 and began immersing himself in soul music to keep up with the trend of the time. His saxophone was soon backing up the vocals of artists such as Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Don Covay, and many others. He fully reached his stride in soul in 1966 with "Memphis Soul Stew," which made it into the pop top forty. "These records work because of the vocalized quality of Curtis' horn," wrote Escott about the performers later soul recordings. "His saxophone had the exultant voice of the gospel singer, and the sensuality of the great ballad singers...."
By the late 1960s, Curtis was contributing vocals as well as his own guitar work to his recordings. He also became musical director for Aretha Franklin and the studio producer of numerous other acts. Finally recognized by the public that had heard him so often without knowing who he was, Curtis became a featured attraction at rock festivals and concerts in the U.S. and other countries. He often performed in concerts at the fabled Fillmore West and Fillmore East concert halls.
Tragedy struck King Curtis at the peak of his career in 1971. During a scuffle with man on the stoop of a brownstone that he owned in New York City, Curtis was stabbed and soon succumbed to his wounds. At the time of his death Curtis was working on a John Lennon album and was also producing Freddie King for Atlantic. He left behind a well-recorded legacy of his varied musical talents as a composer, performer, and arranger. As Escott summed up, "King Curtis was surely one of the instrument's [tenor saxophone] most distinctive voices...He kept his ears and his heart open to all kinds of music, and played them all back with a bright, edgy sound that was his own--a sound that no one has ever quite replicated."
by Ed Decker
King Curtis's Career
Began playing saxophone at age 12; moved to New York, NY, 1952; played with Lionel Hampton, 1953; led trio featuring Horace Silver, 1954; played session work for Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter, The Coasters and others, 1950s; replaced Red Prysock in Alan Freed show band; became solo artist with Prestige label; appeared frequently at Smalls' Paradise and the Apollo Theater, New York, NY, 1950s-60s; recorded two albums with Nat Adderly and Wynton Kelly, 1960; had first hit ("Soul Twist") with Noble Knights (later known as the King Pins) on Enjoy Records, 1962; went on tour with Sam Cooke, early 1960s; signed with Capitol Records, 1962; switched to Atco label of Atlantic, 1965; played sessions with Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, Don Covay, and others, 1960s; recorded 15 singles that made the pop charts, 1962-71; was musical director and wrote the theme ("Soulful 13") song for the "Soul" television series on PBS, 1960s; became Aretha Franklin's musical director, late 1960s.
- Selective Works
- The New Scene of King Curtis, New Jazz/OJC, 1960.
- Soul Serenade, Capitol, 1964.
- King Curtis Plays Hits by Sam Cooke, Capitol, 1965.
- Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow, Atco, 1966.
- Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis, Razor & Tie, 1994.
- Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Volume 1, Macmillan, 1988, p. 260.
- Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz, The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1987, p. 119.
- Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon Press, 1976, p. 113.
- Nite, Norm N., Rock On, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock n' Roll, Updated Edition, Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 156-157.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's Press, 1977, pp. 136-137.
- Periodicals Downbeat, October 1971.
- Melody Maker, August 1971.
- New York Times, August 15, 1971.
- Rolling Stone, September 16, 1971.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes of Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis, a Razor & Tie release.