King Curtis: A Leader of American Soul


The moment comes midway through “Memphis Soul Stew.” The bandleader has spent the song introducing his members through the construct of each being an ingredient for the stew: “a little pinch of organ;” “four level tablespoons of boiling Memphis guitar;” a pound of fat-back drums.” The introduction spins to the bandleader: “And now, we need a half-pint of horn.” His tenor sax splits the air, rattling off a series of quick notes before hitting a piercing high. Relishing the drama, the horn stays on the high note before descending onto another series of staccato punctuations, rasps, and repeated growls. 

The drummer snaps two sharp notes, bringing the leader’s solo to an end. With a voice both confident and winking, the latter understates his entrance: “My name is King Curtis, and I’m from Texas, y’all.” The crowd cheers. Then, it’s back to leading the band through the introductions before the recipe is complete; a Memphis soul stew brewed on the stage of San Francisco’s Fillmore West on March 7th, 1971.

This is King Curtis, who is in the prime of his career at thirty-seven years of age, and whose band is on the final night of a three-concert run opening for and playing with their friend and frequent collaborator, Aretha Franklin. This is King Curtis, whose melding of jazz, R&B, and pop saxophone influenced titans such as The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. This is, cruelly, King Curtis’ last year of life. But while he was taken far too soon, his impact on American music remains enormous. 

Though he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, King Curtis was synonymous with the “Memphis sound.” In 1967, the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper produced for and by Pittsburgh’s Black community, profiled Curtis at age 33. The piece begins with the proclamation that, “The ‘Memphis Sound’ is ‘in’ these days. If you can’t come up with the music with the ‘big beat,’ man you are nowhere.”

Coming up with the big beat appeared easy for Curtis. Like many, his first introduction to music was spiritual, his adoptive father William Ousley played guitar in the church band. By twelve, Curtis picked up the saxophone, settling on the tenor after his adulation of jazz tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

Curtis’ talent was further strengthened by his attendance at I.M. Terrell High School. A leader within the area’s segregated system, it opened in 1882 as Fort Worth’s first free public school for Black students. Thanks to music teacher G.A. Baxter, I.M. Terrell alumni included a number of groundbreaking jazz and R&B musicians. Jazz great Ornette Coleman was a classmate of Curtis’, and fellow alumnus Cornell Dupree later joined Curtis’ Kingpins group as their guitarist. I.M. Terrell was also where Curtis, growing in confidence as he played local clubs in between studies, appended the nickname “King” to his given name.

By graduation, Curtis had the choice of pursuing college scholarships or joining jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band on tour. He chose the latter, touring with the group in 1950. Two years later at nineteen, Curtis decided to pursue jazz performance in New York City. It did not take long for his talent to be recognized by the industry – as David Hinckley of the New York Daily News put it, “Early label owners like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun from Atlantic [Records] loved that horn sound.” 

Curtis’ career took off, first as a studio musician for Atlantic Records and its imprints, then as a solo recording artist. Among his many contributions as “one of the most in-demand session men around” is the instantly recognizable “honking” saxophone in The Coasters’ 1958 hit, “Yakety Yak.” 

Equal to his playing abilities were his leadership and collaboration skills. As Curtis cycled through sessions, he found partners for his sound and before long, he formed a session group. First named The Noble Knights, then The Kingpins, its regular members included I.M. Terrell alumnus, guitarist Dupree; bass prodigy Jerry Jemmott; and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. By the time of the Fillmore West concerts, the group also contained keyboardist Billy Preston, percussionist Pancho Morales, pianist Truman Thomas, and the renowned Memphis Horns from Stax Records. They were, as Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler pitched them to Franklin, “the tightest band in R&B.”

Named “one of the major treasures of the 20th century,” the three-night concert run at the Fillmore West was reportedly nerve-wracking for Franklin because of the venue’s counterculture status. But as he had done in aiding her departure from Columbia Records for his Atlantic Records, producer Wexler stepped in to help guide her sound. He advised Franklin to have her recording collaborators The Kingpins back her onstage, instead of her usual touring band. The decision resulted in an electric, landmark recording that the Fillmore crowd greeted ecstatically.

Curtis and his Kingpins opened for Franklin each night from March 5th through March 7th, and they peppered their instrumentals with pop and rock covers – “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Whole Lotta Love” – to enthuse the West Coast audience. The band then savored backing Franklin, stretching short singles into fifteen to nineteen- minute opuses. Toward the end of the magnificent run of shows, she addressed the audience: “You heard King Curtis tonight, heard us do our thing together. We’re gonna do our thing for years to come, I imagine.”

It was the rare moment when Franklin proved to be mistaken, her next reunion with the Kingpins would be a tormented one. On August 18, 1971, six months after their Fillmore triumph, they arrived at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City to honor Curtis’ thirty-seven years of life. Carrying an air-conditioner to his Harlem apartment during a heat wave, Curtis had encountered men on the building’s stoop who became aggressive; a fight ensued, and Curtis was fatally stabbed.

The mournful reunion was a worthy tribute to such an innovator of American music. The Kingpins, along with rotating guests, played variations of Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” for an hour as mourners filed in. As Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, and Herbie Mann sat among the pews, Franklin sang the lyrics to her version of “Soul Serenade” with Stevie Wonder playing harmonica. The choir included vocal stars Cissy Houston and Brook Benton. Purdie read Curtis’ obituary to the congregation, adding that he was “one of the best, greatest musicians I’ve ever known.” Franklin performed again, singing the haunting hymn “Never Grow Old” to her departed friend. 

Five months later, Franklin again sang “Never Grow Old” to the rafters of a church, again with many of the Kingpins in attendance. It was to record what would become the greatest-selling live gospel album of all time, “Amazing Grace.” Minus their leader, Dupree, Purdie, and Morales joined Wexler and Franklin at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles; their collaboration was once again sensational, though Curtis’ absence made the success bittersweet.

Twenty-nine years to the day they performed at the Fillmore West, on March 6th, 2000, Curtis was posthumously inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.

For more King Curtis, check out the reissued compilation of the complete Fillmore West run, “Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Fillmore West.” For Franklin performing “Never Grow Old,” be sure to watch the exceptional 2018 documentary, “Amazing Grace,” originally directed by Syndey Pollack and revitalized by industry executive Alan Elliott.

About Sarah Weber

Sarah is a New York-based writer and researcher who has lived in the city since 2002, when she arrived from Cooperstown, NY, for her undergraduate studies in music history and photography. She is in her first year in the Biography & Memoir program at CUNY’s Graduate Center, with a focus on biography. While working full-time at Viacom Media Networks, Sarah also hosts a weekly music show for a community radio station in Brooklyn. Her work is on pairing life writing with music history, specifically how in telling the stories of artists within our musical history, one can illuminate patterns within the sociology of America. 


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