King (Ousley), Curtis

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King (Ousley), Curtis

King (Ousley), Curtis, the last great tenor saxophone soloist of the staccato, honking style; b. Fort Worth, Tex., Feb. 7, 1934; d. N.Y., Aug. 13, 1971.

Curtis Ousley grew up in Fort Worth, Tex., where he obtained his first saxophone at the age of 12. He played in his high school marching band and formed his first combo while still in high school, performing locally. He toured with Lionel Hampton’s Band after graduation and moved to N.Y. in 1952. There he played engagements with a wide variety of groups, including a trio featuring pianist Horace Silver. Curtis replaced Arthur “Red” Prysock in Alan Freed’s show band and joined Atlantic/Ateo Records as a staff musician in 1958. He first received recognition for his clean, compelling tenor saxophone solos on The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” and subsequently backed virtually all of The Coasters’ recordings for Atco.

King Curtis backed dozens of artists over the years, including Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Sam and Dave, The Shirelles, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Delaney and Bonnie, and Aretha Franklin. He recorded two jazz albums with Wynton Kelly and Nat Adderley in 1960 and scored a top R&B / pop hit with his Noble Knights (later The Kingpins) in 1962 with the instrumental “Soul Twist” on Enjoy Records. He also toured with Sam Cooke in the early 1960s, most notably accompanying the vocalist on his Feel It!Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. Curtis recorded for Capitol Records, with modest success, in 1963-64.

King Curtis returned to Atlantic Records in 1965, achieving near-smesh R&B and moderate pop hits with “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Ode to Billie Joe” on Ateo in 1967. He continued to record with The Kingpins on Ateo with modest success until his death. Beginning in 1967, Curtis started taking a more active role in the studio, contracting sessions and later producing artists such as Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Roberta Flack, Delaney and Bonnie, Donny Hathaway, and Freddie King. In 1971 he was appointed to succeed Donald Towns as Aretha Franklin’s permanent musical director. He performed with pianist “Champion” Jack Dupree at The Montreux Jazz Festival in June, but, on Aug. 13, 1971, King Curtis was stabbed to death in front of his N.Y. apartment house. He was 37 years old.


Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow (1959); New Scene (1960); Azure (1961); Trouble in Mind (1962); Old Gold (1962); It’s Party Time (1962); Country Soul (1962); Doing the Dixie Twist (1963); Soul Serenade (1964); Plays the Hits Made Famous by Sam (1965); That Lovin’ Feeling (1966); ”Live” at Small’s Paradise (1966); Plays the Great Memphis Hits (1967); King Size Soul (1967); Sweet Soul (1968); Best (1968); Sax in Motion (1968); Instant Groove (1969); Get Ready (1970); Best—One More Time (1970); ”Live” at the Fillmore West (1971); Everybody’s Talkin (1972); Watermelon Man (1972); jazz Groove (1973); Sow/ Time (1973); O/rf Gold/Doing the Dixie Twist (1995); Mg/zf Tram (ree. 1961-62; rei. 1995). king curtis, wynton kelly, and nat adderley:Soul Meeting (1962); King Soul (1970). king curtis and the shirelles:Eternally Soul (1970); Give a Twist Party (1993). king curtis and “champion” jack dupree:Blues at Montreux (1973)

—Brock Helander