King Curtis (1934 -1971)

King Curtis
King Curtis, 1971
Courtesy Atco Records, Fair use image

Legendary composer, conductor, and saxophonist King Curtis had a significant impact on R&B and jazz. Born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 7, 1934, his mother was Ethel Montgomery. Curtis and his sister Josephine Ousley (Allen) were adopted by William and Josie Ousley.

Curtis began musical studies early, and by the age of 12, he had mastered the alto saxophone and the acoustic guitar. Curtis attended Isaiah Milligan Terrell High School, the only African American public high school in Fort Worth, from 1948 to 1951. There he was active and exceptional in the band with the woodwind instruments. However, his principal instruments were the alto and tenor saxophones.

In addition to the high school’s standard music curriculum, Curtis was under the renowned avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s tutelage. The latter was four years older and introduced Curtis to jazz improvisation. When he was 19, he was invited by pianist/conductor Lionel Leo Hampton to perform with his orchestra in Harlem, New York.

During the 1950s and 1960s, King Curtis worked as a session musician with a number of record labels, including Prestige, Capitol, and later Atlantic. He recorded both with other musicians and under his own name. He performed with the R&B/Rock&Roll group The Coasters and played the saxophone solo on “Yakety Yak” (1958). He also collaborated with Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke, Bobby Lewis, LaVern Baker, and John Lennon. Curtis’ popular solo singles included “Soul Twist” (1962) and “Soul Serenade” (1964); “Soul Twist” reached number one on the R&B charts and number seventeen on the pop charts.

King Curtis was also the conductor of the band that backed Aretha Franklin, the Kingpins. King Curtis & The Kingpins opened for The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. In 1970, The King Pins recorded Aretha Live at Fillmore West with Aretha Franklin.

Curtis performed globally and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1970 Best R&B Instrumental Performance Grammy for his version of Joe South’s “Games People Play.”

Curtis’ albums included: Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow (1959), King Soul (1960), The New Scene of King Curtis (1960), Night Train (1961), Country Soul (1962), Soul Serenade (1964), Play Great Memphis Hits (1967), Memphis Soul Stew (1967), Sax in Motion (1968), Get Ready (1970), and Blues at Montreux (1971). His last album was Live at Fillmore West (1971) where he backed Aretha Franklin; many music critics called it one of the best albums of the rock era.

King Curtis was engaged to jazz singer Modeen Broughton but never married or had children. He died from multiple stab wounds at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York on August 13, 1971, following a fight with a man at a brownstone he owned at 50 West 86th Street. He was 37 at the time of his death. King Curtis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.