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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

King Curtis

Curtis Ousley, b. February 7, 1934 in Fort Worth, TX, d. August 13, 1971 in New York, NY. A respected saxophonist and session musician, Curtis appeared on countless releases, including those as disparate as Buddy Holly and Andy Williams. He is, however, best recalled for his work on Atlantic Records. A former member of Lionel Hampton’s band, Curtis moved to New York and quickly became an integral part of its studio system. He also scored a number 1 US R&B single, ‘Soul Twist’, billed as King Curtis And The Noble Knights. The same group switched to Capitol Records, but the leader took a solo credit on later hits ‘The Monkey’ (1963) and ‘Soul Serenade’ (1964). Curtis continued his session work with the Coasters, the Shirelles and Herbie Mann, while releases on Atco Records, backed by the Kingpins, progressively established his own career. Several were simply funky instrumental versions of current hits, but his strongest release was ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ (1967). The saxophonist had meanwhile put together a superb studio group: Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Jerry Jemmott and Bernard Purdie, all of whom contributed to several of Aretha Franklin’s finest records. Curtis guested on John Lennon’s Imagine and was capable of attracting the best session musicians to put in appearances for his own albums, including guitarist Duane Allman on Instant Groove and organist Billy Preston on Live At Fillmore West. Curtis did venture to the Fame and American studios, but he preferred to work in New York. ‘In the south you have to restrain yourself to make sure you come back alive’, Ousley said to writer Charlie Gillett. Six months later, in August 1971, he was stabbed to death outside his West 86th Street apartment.


by Bob Porter
King Curtis was the last of the great R&B tenor sax giants. Born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth, Texas, he came to prominence in the mid-'50s as a session musician in New York, recording, at one time or another, for most East Coast R&B labels. A long association with Atco/Atlantic began in 1958, especially on recordings by the Coasters. He recorded singles for many small labels in the '50s -- his own Atco sessions (1958-1959), and Prestige/New Jazz and Prestige/Tru-Sound for jazz and R&B albums (1960-1961). Curtis also had a number one R&B single with "Soul Twist" on Enjoy (1962). He was signed by Capitol (1963-1964), where he cut mostly singles, including the number 20 R&B hit "Soul Serenade." He returned to Atco/Atlantic in 1965, where he remained for the rest of his life. He had solid R&B single success with "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode to Billie Joe" (1967). Beginning in 1967, 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. He also became the leader of Aretha Franklin's backing unit, the Kingpins. He compiled several albums of singles during this period. All aspects of his career were in full swing at the time he was murdered in 1971. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.