King Curtis, a famed saxophonist, bandleader, composer, and producer was one of the most influential musicians of his generation. He may also have been one of the most prolific, having amassed a stunning portfolio with more than two hundred artists in an eighteen-year span.
Born Curtis Montgomery in Fort Worth, Texas, he was quickly given up for adoption. He became a member of the William and Josie Ousley family in Mansfield, Texas.
Curtis Ousley received his first saxophone at age 12, and by the time he attended I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth, he had formed his own band, crowning himself with the name King Curtis.
While passing through town on tour, Lionel Hampton’s saxophone player became ill. Curtis was suggested as a replacement. He fit in so well that he finished the rest of the national tour.
After visiting an uncle in New York City during the summer and winning the Talent Night at the Apollo Theatre contest two weeks in a row, Curtis decided to eschew music scholarships in Texas to move to New York City. He first befriended and played with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and guitar virtuoso Mickey Baker.
Curtis’s big break came in March 1958 when he played on the Coasters’ smash hit, “Yakety Yak,” revolutionizing the role of a saxophone studio musician. He quickly became the most requested session player in town, recording with LaVern Baker, Bobby Darin, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, and others. Buddy Holly paid all of Curtis’s expenses so that they could record together at Buddy’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Curtis also recorded for such labels as Prestige, RCA, and Atlantic.
Curtis married shake dancer Ethelyn Butler shortly after the birth of their son, Curtis Jr., in November 1959. He had a number-one hit with his song, “Soul Twist,” in 1962 and soon after signed a contract with Capitol Records where he would record his signature tune, “Soul Serenade.” He recorded and toured with Sam Cooke and separated from his wife, Ethelyn, shortly thereafter in 1964. They were never legally divorced. He opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and hired a young Jimi Hendrix as his second guitar player in 1966.
Curtis became Aretha Franklin’s bandleader, saxophonist, and “Big Brother” at Atlantic Records while he was still recording as a headliner as King Curtis and the Kingpins. He recorded another major hit, “Memphis Soul Stew,” in Memphis just days before Martin Luther King was assassinated.
He received a Grammy Award for “Games People Play,” discovered and produced Donny Hathaway, mentored Duane Allman, recorded with Eric Clapton and played on John Lennon’s “Imagine” album.
By 1971, Curtis was engaged to Modeen Broughton, whom he had dated since 1965.
On the night of August 12, 1971, Curtis saw a man and woman arguing on his doorstep at 50 West 86th Street in Manhattan. He confronted the pair. A scuffle quickly ensued. The assailant, Juan Montanez, stabbed Curtis in the chest. Hours later, he died shortly after midnight at the Roosevelt Hospital on August 13, 1971, at age 37. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.