Soul Serenade – The Story of King Curtis Print
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Thursday, 13 March 2014 13:38

On August 13, 1971 Curtis Ousley, had hosted a get together at his newly renovated Manhattan eight-family brownstone and had gone outside to turn down the air conditioning for his guests. He stopped and asked a drug addict that had been loitering on the steps of his building to move. A fight ensued between the two, resulting in Curtis getting stabbed in the heart. He was pronounced dead before the ambulance reach the hospital. Ousley was only 37 years old, ending a music career which began in the 1950s. He was known to the world as King Curtis. He had been an important figure in the careers of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, The Coasters, The Shirelles, Buddy Holly, Bernard Purdie, Billy Preston, Cornell Dupree, Joe South, Shirley Scott, The Rascals, Champion Jack Dupree, Esther Phillips, and many others.

King Curtis was born in Fort Worth, TX on February 7, 1934. He was a saxophonist, a band leader, a song writer and producer. His range of music spanned from Jazz, to R&B, to Rock to Blues. He could play and master it all. He began playing the saxophone at the age of 12 and went to school with Ornette Coleman who himself would later become a Jazz great in the music business. Upon graduation from high school, he would turn down a college scholarship to join the Lionel Hampton Big band where he began to write and arrange music. By 1952, he moved to New York City and became a studio musician recording for a variety of labels. One of his early sessions was on the 1958 Atlantic recording of Ruth Brown’s This Little Girl's Gone Rockin', and the 1959 RCA recording session of the Jazz Pop group called The Three Suns. The earliest recording that featured King Curtis as a solo artist was a 1958 four track EP and picture sleeve released by RCA titled King Curtis, Count Hastings, Leroy Kirkland's Hi-Flyers, Leroy Kirkland ‎– The Battle For The Beat. His screaming saxophone solo is famous as it was used in the 1959 Coasters classic titled: Yakety Yak. Quickly King Curtis was recognized as an artist that could sell records and his first album was released by Atco in 1959 titled: Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow. Other recordings would follow like the 1960 release on ABC-Paramount titled: Beatnik Hoedown / King Neptune's Guitar. In 1960 three classic Jazz albums were released with King Curtis as a front man on the Esquire, Prestige and New Jazz record labels. The titles were Soul Meeting (with Nat Adderley and Wynton Kelly), The New Scene Of King Curtis and Soul Battle (featuring Oliver Nelson, King Curtis, Jimmy Forrest). During this period he toured as the King Curtis Quintet.


The Jazz releases are masterful and superb, but King Curtis was much in demand for R&B and Rock and Roll and the record companies continued to record him under these genres selling a lot of material. Tru-Sound which was a Jazz and Blues label would release an album in 1961 featuring King Curtis playing older Rhythm and Blues and Jazz standards in an early rock and roll style titled Old Gold. Three more would follow in 1962 titled: It's Party Time With King Curtis, Doing The Dixie Twist and a classic Blues album called Trouble In Mind. In 1962 Scepter Records which released material by Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas released a cult classic album titled: Give A Twist Party featuring the Shirelles and King Curtis. This effort was the early Rock and Roll sound. 


RCA would release in 1961 the King Curtis Combo ‎– Arthur Murray's Music For Dancing The Twist! This contained an easy listening pop sound. His first major hit occurred in 1962 on Enjoy Records with the release of Soul Twist. That was followed by an album titled: Soul Twist With King Curtis under the name King Curtis And The Noble Knights.


The popularity of King Curtis would increase with his association under Capitol Records beginning in 1962 with Country Soul, but he became a household name with his 1964 release Soul Serenade. The title track from the album would become his signature piece throughout his career. Capitol would follow-up with a 1965 album titled Plays The Hits Made Famous By Sam Cooke.


The big move for King Curtis was in 1966 with his collaboration with Atlantic Records for their Atco label. At Atlantic, he not only would record the majority of his more popular albums and singles but he also became a much in demand producer and leader. Atco first released That Lovin' Feeling

in 1966, followed by the great Live At Small's Paradise. In 1967 the Plays The Great Memphis Hits album was released. They record company would release a single by King Curtis that would become his second signature piece called Memphis Soul Stew. It was probably his most popular single recording of his career. In 1968 the Sweet Soul album was released with a rerecording of Soul Serenade. Atlantic / Atco also had begun using him on their recordings for Aretha Franklin, Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann, The Rascals, Bonnie & Delaney Bramlett, Donny Hathaway, Esther Phillips and others. Probably the most famous King Curtis solo was on the 1967 Aretha Franklin classic Respect. One great album that has been overlooked is the 1969 Jazz Soul album Shirley Scott & The Soul Saxes featuring Hank Crawford, David Newman and King Curtis.


He would begin using his new band about the time when he was at Atco called the King-Pins, who were some of the best of the best musicians of the day. Atco continued riding the success and popularity of King Curtis with Instant Groove in 1969, Get Ready in 1970 and finally the classic Live At Fillmore West in 1971. This recording occurred March 5–7, 1971 at the Fillmore West venue in San Francisco. For this date, he hired a special lineup for the King-Pins who were: Cornell Dupree, Jerry Jemmot, Pancho Morales, Billy Preston, Bernard Purdie, and Truman Thomas. They were accompanied by the The Memphis Horns of the Stax Records fame. This album was a recording of the King Curtis performance which was the opening act for Aretha Franklin. King Curtis and the King-Pins backed her up during her show. Atlantic would release highlights of it on an album titled: Aretha Franklin - Live at Fillmore West. He had been Franklin’s musical director. One week after the release of the highly successful King Curtis - Live At Fillmore West, he was murdered.


‎After his death Atlantic continued to release material by this great man like the 1972 album Everbody's Talkin' and the 1973 live album King Curtis & Champion Jack Dupree - Blues At Montreux.  RCA Records would release a masterful live recording of a Sam Cooke concert with King Curtis as the band leader called Sam Cooke ‎– One Night Stand! At The Harlem Square Club. There are many more singles and recordings with the great King Curtis that I have not mentioned within this article and I am sure that newly unreleased recordings will pop up in the future. The newly syndicated TV show “Soul Train” choose the King Curtis recording Hot Potatoes as its first theme song in 1971. Perhaps, this was a way of remembering him by Don Cornelius. His only Grammy award occurred in 1970 for the Best R&B Instrumental Performance for Games People Play by Joe South.


Music fans all over the world were robbed on August 13, 1971 when the great King Curtis was killed. Whenever you hear the phrase or title Soul Serenade or Memphis Soul Stew a picture of King Curtis comes up in ones mind. Surely, he would have contributed much more to the world had he lived.

For a sampling of some of the music of King Curtis, copy and paste the link below into your browser:



 Howard Burchette



Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 21:06