You don’t need to be a fan of the saxophone to have heard King Curtis’ music; you only need a pulse. King Curtis was one of the best saxophone players in the early rock and roll and soul scene and he contributed to many albums in his day.
King Curtis’ desire to play saxophone came at the age of ten when he first heard Louis Jordan play. He told his adoptive parent’s that he wanted more than anything to play saxophone. His desire hit a fever pitch when he heard the tenor stylings of Lester Young.
When he was 11 years old, his parents presented him with an alto saxophone, which he began playing in the junior high band. Curtis switched to the tenor when his school band needed a tenor player. When he was 16, he started his own band and was playing at parties and dances. Heavily influenced by Texas tenor players like Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic and Arnett Cobb, he was at home with rhythm and blues, pop, and jazz music.
In the liner notes to one of his albums, Curtis described his influences in greater detail: “I liked Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Sonny Stitt as well. I also dug Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins for ballads, Getz for facility, Charlie Parker for technique. Another guy that influences both myself and Ornette Coleman was a Texas tenor man called Red Connor, who was a Coltrane ahead of his time.”
It wasn’t long before successful musicians heard Curtis play and wanted him for their albums. He recorded the saxophone parts for the Chuck Willis song What Am I Living For and the Clyde McPhatter song A Lover’s Question. His breakthrough performance came when he recorded Yackety Yak with the Coasters. Following his impressive performance on that album, his staccato laced style would come to be known as “yackety sax.” Curtis felt that jazz wasn’t the best direction for a profitable career in music and fully embraced the opportunity to play on more commercial friendly albums. He recorded Reminiscing with Buddy Holly and released songs of his own, the most notable being Soul Twist and Soul Serenade.
During the mid to late sixties, King Curtis recorded his two most successful songs of all time, Memphis Soul Stew and Ode to Billie Joe. He also led Aretha Franklin’s backing band, The Kingpins during this time. He continued his relationship with the Coasters into the late sixties and spent some time producing albums for other acts, often in partnership with legendary producer Jerry Wexler. Curtis became a popular attraction at rock shows across the world and had the opportunity to play at some of the greatest venues of the time.
In 1971, Curtis contributed the sax break on John Lennon’s song It’s So Hard, which was a track on Lennon’s Imagine album. Sadly, one month before the U.S. release of the album, Curtis got into an altercation on his doorstep when a group of men blocking the doorway to his apartment building refused to move so that he could get in. Curtis was stabbed to death, and the music world lost another one of it’s greats.
– Neal Battaglia