King Curtis was a dynamic tenor sax player whose work graced countless rock and roll and R&B records.
Born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth, Texas, his trademark was a honking Texas tenor sound inspired by his main influences Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, Arnett Cobb albeit with a rock and roll edge. He moved to New York in 1952 and played with Lionel Hampton’s and Horace Silver’s jazz groups.
He began doing session work for R&B and rock and roll artists in the mid-Fifties. One of his most memorable solos, and the one that sealed his reputation as a rock and roll sideman, appeared in the Coasters’ 1958 smash, “Yakety Yak.” King Curtis can also be heard on such seminal early sides as “A Lover’s Question,” by Clyde McPhatter, “Boys,” by the Shirelles, and “Reminiscing,” by Buddy Holly (which he cowrote). As part of Atlantic Records’ stable, he played on sessions for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Bobby Darin, and others. In later years, he also produced (or coproduced) albums for Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Delaney and Bonnie, Freddy King and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave).
Pursuing a career as a solo artist all the while, King Curtis recorded under his own name for the Prestige, Enjoy, Capitol and Atlantic labels. He cut such instrumental hits as “Soul Twist” (#1 R&B, #17 pop) and “Memphis Soul Stew” (#6 R&B, #33 pop). In the late Sixties and early Seventies, he crossed paths with rock icons like Eric Clapton (who performed on King Curtis’s “Teasin’” in 1970) and the Allman Brothers Band (who paid tribute to King Curtis by incorporating his “Soul Serenade” into their “You Don’t Love Me” during a New York performance shortly after his death). King Curtis was revered by his fellow musicians, especially Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band (a fellow Atlantic Records sideman), and Robbie Robertson of The Band, who has cited him as a major influence.
King Curtis was working as Aretha Franklin’s musical director and had also recently done sessions for John Lennon’s Imagine album when he was stabbed to death by a drug addict with whom he argued outside his New York City apartment on August 13, 1971. “He wasn’t only a rock and roll saxophone player,” Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler noted at King Curtis’s funeral, which attracted such luminaries as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman and Rev. Jesse Jackson. “He was a very good jazz player and a very sensitive virtuoso.”