Curtis Ousley sure ended up with the perfect nickname! King Curtis was indeed the “king” of the rock & roll saxophone. His sound was big, rich, sweet and very expressive. One of the few that you just know who it is when you hear it.
Born in 1934, he was just a young teenager as the jump blues and rhythm and blues scene of the 40’s gave birth to rock & roll by the end of that decade. He had made his move from Texas to New York in the early 50’s and landed a gig with Lionel Hampton’s band. This was the same band that Illinois Jacquet played with about 10 years earlier. Jacquet of coarse had rocked the sax world with his screaming sax solo on Flying Home with this same band.
King Curtis had noted alto players Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, and 2 fellow Texan tenors, Illinois Jacquet, and Arnett Cobb as his main influences on the saxophone. He had his roots firmly planted in this honking and screaming rockin’ R&B sax style that dominated this genre of music in the 40’s and 50’s. But as the 50’s wore on, the music changed and so did King Curtis.
His versatility showed as he went from the swingin’ big bands and smaller jazz combos like Horace Silver through the rock & roll groups like The Coasters and Buddy Holly to soul like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. One of the last recordings he did was in July, 1971 for the John Lennon album Imagine. Curtis was killed later that summer, August 13th.
Here are just a small handfull of the many album’s King Curtis recorded. From left to right; Live at The Fillmore West, 1971 – Blow Man Blow!, 1962 – The Best of King Curtis, 1962 – Soul Meeting, 1960 – Live at Small’s Paradise, 1957
There are close to 60 King Curtis albums counting all the compilations and imports. He was the most in demand session saxophonist of his time and appears on close to 220 other albums as a sideman!
Here is a small list;
Big Joe Turner – Buddy Holly – Ruth Brown – Delaney & Bonni
Aretha Franklin – Goerge Benson – Sam Cooke – The Rascals
Waylon Jennings – Freddie King – Esther Philips – Nina Simone
Lavern Baker – The Coasters – John Lennon – Eric Clapton
Duane Allman – Fats Domino – Roberta Flack – Otis Redding
Wilson Pickett. sax.video
Besides playing great sax solos on tons of records he produced and arranged many of his recordings and other artists as well. But the best thing about King Curtis is how lyrical his phrasing was and how beautiful his tone sounded. As a player he inspired every saxophonist who was interested in blues, R&B, rock & roll, jazz and soul.
Speaking of soul, he was obviously a big fan of Ray Charles. Much of the soul and R&B stuff he recorded had that feel to it. Like Curtis’s version of One Mint Julep, a song also recorded by Ray Charles.
I don’t know if he invented that “slapping” sound on the reed but he was the first guy I knew of who did it… it’s a cool affect.
Al Caiola is a guitarist who was just as busy in the New York recording studio scene as King Curtis. These guys did many sessions together and finally in 1962 released a fantastic and fun instrumental called Guitar Boogie. This guy Al Caiola starts it with some really good rock & roll picking and King Curtis sounds like he picked the perfect reed that day… listen to a bit of Guitar Boogie with Al Caiola and King Curtis.