King Curtis

King Curtis

    [This biography provided to SoulTracks compliments of Stax Records] 

    Recognized as one of the most influential saxophonists in contemporary popular music, Curtis Ouseley  - known the world over as King Curtis - left an impressive body of work following his tragic passing on August 13, 1971. Fatally stabbed to death outside his New York home in an incident involving a trespasser, Curtis was enjoying one of the most successful periods in a noteworthy career that began in the ‘50s. After a string of best-selling albums for Atco (including "The Great Memphis Hits," "King Size Soul," "Sweet Soul," "Instant Groove" and "Get Ready") and a couple of R&B/pop crossover hit singles (1967's classic "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode To Billie Joe"), Curtis was in more in demand than ever. In February '71, he was the opening act and bandleader for Atlantic labelmate Aretha Franklin for her historic Fillmore West concerts in San Francisco; in June, he had starred at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival, cutting an album with renowned blues pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree which would be among his final recordings.  Ironically, Curtis' most successful LP hit the charts literally the day after his passing at the age of just 37: "Live At The Fillmore West" reached the Top 10 on the R&B listings and No. 54 on the pop charts. 

    Much of Curtis' recorded legacy has subsequently been reissued including early albums for Atco (1959's "Have Tenor Sax Will Blow"), Prestige (1960's "The New Scene") and Enjoy (1962's "Soul Twist"); his Capitol ouput (originally released between 1962-64) was chronicled on a Bear Records German box set; while his later Atco albums, cut between 1966 and 1969 (including "Live At Small's Paradise," "That Lovin' Feelin'," and "King Size Soul") have been reissued in the last few years.  Exceptions - until now - have included 1968's "Sweet Soul" and Curtis' final studio album, 1972's "Everybody Talkin,'" sessions for which took place just a week or so before his passing.   

    Curtis Ouseley was born in February 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas.  He began playing tenor sax at the age of twelve and after graduating from the Lionel Hampton band, he moved to New York City where he quickly became one of the most in-demand session players in town.  Still in his early twenties, Curtis' distinctive sound could be heard on hit records by The Coasters, Big Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown and others.  By 1958, he had signed with Atlantic but continued to do session work on records featuring an array of artists from Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin and Andy Williams to Sam Cooke, David ‘Fathead' Newman, Clyde McPhatter and Herbie Mann.  Curtis' first solo success came with 1962's R&B chart-topper "Soul Twist" and two years later, signed to Capitol Records, he achieved further popularity with his classic "Soul Serenade" penned with famed ‘60s songwriter and producer Luther Dixon (known for his string of hits with The Shirelles, with whom Curtis actually cut an entire album, "Give A Twist Party"!). 

    Back with Atco in '66, Curtis continued making great albums while lending his talents as an instrumentalist on selected sessions.  He played a pivotal role on the first two albums Aretha Franklin cut for Atlantic: on 1967's groundbreaking "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)," he could be heard on several cuts recorded at Atlantic's New York City studios including his own "Soul Serenade," given a vocal workout by the then-newly signed Franklin, and "Save Me," a song he co-wrote with Aretha and sister Carolyn.  On 1967's "Aretha Arrives," it was Curtis' unforgettable solo that accompanied the woman who would become known as "The Queen of Soul" on the standout blues track, "Going Down Slow."

    By April 1, 1968, when Curtis journeyed to Memphis to record the bulk of SWEET SOUL at American Studios in that city, the famed instrumentalist had enjoyed renewed chart action with two albums, "The Great Memphis Hits" and "King Size Soul."  Not surprisingly, he followed the same basic formula he had employed with those records, taking songs previously made popular by vocalists and given them a soulful instrumental workout.   With the legendary Arif Mardin supervising the sessions as producer and arranger, some first class musicians (like keyboardists Spooner Oldham and Bobby Emmons and Reggie Young on guitar) and background vocals provided by The Sweet Inspirations, Curtis selected tunes that had, for the most part, been hits within the year or so prior to recording the album, throwing in a tasty remake of his own "Soul Serenade" for good measure.

    There was some diversity in Curtis' choices from the opening cut cover of "(Theme From) Valley Of The Dolls," (featuring a notable vocal step-out from Cissy Houston, then-leader of The Sweet Inspirations, whose own '67 hit "Sweet Inspiration" got the King Curtis treatment on the album) which had been a January '68 hit for Dionne Warwick to a makeover of the Jim Webb-penned "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," an October '67 hit for Glen Campbell.  Webb also wrote "Up-Up And Away," the summer '67 hit for The Fifth Dimension and in keeping with the ‘sweet' nature of most of the tunes on the album, King Curtis cut "The Look Of Love" (from the James Bond movie, "Casino Royale" and another summer '67 hit, this one for UK star Dusty Springfield), Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," cut by Curtis just a few weeks after the late soul man's original version of the song had topped the charts in early '68. 

    But a few days earlier (in February of that year), Curtis added his magic touch to a version of the haunting Classics IV hit, "Spooky" at Atlantic's studios in Manhattan; and rounding out the April 1 '68 sessions were a funky "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (a '67 hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips) and four other tunes, two of which remain unreleased ("Dance For Peace" and "Someday") and two of which ("Makin' Hey" and "Somewhere") would appear on subsequent King Curtis albums.    

     SWEET SOUL did tolerably well for the popular sax man, grazing the lower reaches of the pop listings and reaching the Top 50 on the R&B charts.  Subsequent albums - 1969's "Instant Groove" and 1970's "Get Ready" did similar business - and then came Curtis' famous Fillmore West gig in February '71.  In between times, he had kept himself occupied, producing Esther Phillips' magnificent "Burnin'" live album at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club in Los Angeles and Sam Moore's first solo set, "Plenty Good Lovin'" which remained unissued until 2002.  Curtis' memorable sax could also be heard on albums by Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Freddie King, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton and yes, John Lennon (whose recording of "Imagine" featured Curtis). 

    Some seven months after Atlantic released "Live At Fillmore West," the label put together three tracks taken from what was King Curtis' last couple of studio sessions (conducted in July 1971 in New York) with a mix of material left in the can from various times in the preceding three years to create the album EVERYBODY'S TALKIN'.  The oldest cut on the March 1972 release was a version of "If I Were A Carpenter," the 1966 Bobby Darin hit, recorded in June 1969 as part of a two-song session (with the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day") at Sue Records' founder Juggy Murray's New York studio.  From the same year came what would become the album's title track, a version of Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" (the theme song from the movie, "Midnight Cowboy") produced by Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler in a one-off session at Miami's Criteria Studios in August. 

    Two songs on EVERYBODY'S TALKIN' were taken from sessions held in 1970. The wonderfully bluesy "Wet Funk (Low Down And Dirty") which featured a rare vocal by the legendary saxman on a track produced with Jerry Wexler was cut in July and the session's line-up included organist/musician and artist in his own right, Billy Preston who had also appeared with Curtis at Fillmore West and who could be heard on another four cuts on EVERYBODY'S TALKIN'.  But a few weeks later, King Curtis - who recorded a considerable amount of material for Atlantic that still remains unissued - was back at the Atlantic studios creating a fine-and-mellow version of the Irving Berlin classic, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and a funky reading of organist Bill Doggett's 1956 smash "Honky Tonk" with Wexler producing a session with an array of great musicians including Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass and Ray Lucas on drums.          

    Indeed, Dupree and other stellar players like drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Jerry Jemmott, keyboardist Paul Griffin and, on occasion, organist Jimmy Smith were in the studio for a number of King Curtis recording dates, most notably a three-day stint in February 1971 which yielded a total of seven recordings, three of which ("Country Comfort" and versions of Aretha's "Spirit In The Dark" and Gladys Knight & The Pips' "If I Were Your Woman") remain unissued.  The other four cuts fortunately made it to EVERYBODY'S TALKIN' and what a fine collection they were.  There was a Curtis remake of another King's - in this case, King Floyd - infectious 1970 hit "Groove Me";  a revival of the Sly Stone-penned and produced Little Sister February '70 single, "You're The One"; a cover of Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With," a song Aretha Franklin had included in her Fillmore West concerts just days before King Curtis cut it himself; and a soulful original, "Central Park," undoubtedly one of the standout tracks on EVERYBODY'S TALKIN'.

    Rounding out the set was "Ridin' Thumb," a driving original that included some vocal licks from Curtis on a track that also featured Ralph MacDonald on congas and Trevor Lawrence on percussion.  The musicians must have had so much fun at the July 1971  session (cut with one other song, "Bitch" which remains unissued) that they continued playing for some time - hence the funky "Ridin' Thumb-Jam" which was the final track on EVERYBODY'S TALKIN'.  Fitting indeed that it would not only be the closing cut on the album but also the very last studio recording King Curtis would make, for Curtis Ouseley was one of the funkiest saxophonists around and whether it was sweet soul or downhome blues, he could truly blow!  

    Contributed by David Nathan

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