SOUL SERENADE – KING CURTIS AND HIS IMMORTAL SAXOPHONE
Saxophone is the most soulful instrument – for me, anyway. There have been countless moments when I've been able to enjoy thrilling sax playing by such r&b masters as Rusty Bryant, Red Prysock, Lee Allen, Maxwell Davis, Joe Houston, Bullmoose Jackson, Big Jay McNeely, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Junior Walker and many, many others. But one man has always stood out for me – the late and great King Curtis.
Now a Wyoming freelance writer Timothy R. Hoover has written the first profound biography book on this tenor, alto and soprano saxophone maestro... and some guitar as well. Published in October 2022, Soul Serenade (ISBN-13 978-1-57441-881-1; >https://untpress.unt.edu/; 340 pages with 37 b&w photos) includes the important index as well as four other appendixes: recommended listening, chart placings of King Curtis' records, Top 10 must-listen King Curtis songs and Top 10 King Curtis accompaniments. Timothy has done his research on this subject for over twenty years, and one important source was Roy Simonds' King Curtis, A Discography (published in 1983).Roy, out of Surrey, England, passed away in 2012. In addition to all written sources, Timothy has conducted interviews with 38 related persons.
Curtis Montgomery was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 7 in 1934 and was raised in Mansfield, Texas, now under the adoption name of Curtis Ousley. In the mid-40s Louis Jordan became Curtis' idol, and he received his first saxophone in 1945. He went to elementary and high schools in Fort Worth and now some of his new influences included Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Sonny Stitt, as well as Charlie Parker and Red Connor. In the early 1950s Curtis played in both all-white and black local clubs, and finally in 1952 he found success at New York's Apollo Theatre Amateur Nights. His first recording session took place in November 1952 with Bob Kent Band (Korea, Korea b/w Oh, Baby on Par 1303). His follow-up singles under his own name were cut in Fort Worth together with a jump blues artist named Melvin Daniels. Those days Curtis also toured with Lionel Hampton.
Curtis however soon returned to New York and started playing and recording first in Doc Pomus All Stars in 1955 together with a guitar virtuoso named Mickey Baker. With Mickey's help Curtis found more and more studio work, and those two became lifelong friends. Starting from the mid-50s they played in numerous N.Y. sessions, including Solomon Burke's first Apollo sides. Furthermore, Curtis had his own band for touring and local shows.
Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun used both Mickey and Curtis a lot in his sessions, and little-by-little Curtis replaced Sam “The Man” Taylor as the most used session saxophonist in those studios. A bit later Jerry Wexler stepped in, which brought about one of Curtis' most famous “chicken-scratch” solos on the Coasters' number one hit, Yakety Yak, in 1958. All in all, those days Curtis did about seventy sessions a year. He worked with Ruth Brown, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Shirelles, Brook Benton, Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers, just to name a few. His first Atlantic solo album, Have Tenor Sax Will Blow, was released in 1959.
After Atlantic/Atco dropped King Curtis, he moved on to Prestige, Everest, Tru-Sound and eventually to Bobby Robinson's Enjoy Records, where he indeed enjoyed the biggest hit in his career, Soul Twist, in 1962 (# 1-r&b / # 17-hot). His next hit and signature song, Soul Serenade (# 51-hot), was released two years later on Capitol. Those days Curtis also met the love of his life, Modeen Broughton. He had been married earlier to a shake dancer called Ethelyn Butler, but after an unsatisfactory ten-year period, they divorced in 1964.
Curtis' next significant steps in music included to open up for the Beatles and tour with them in August 1965, to welcome Jimi Hendrix and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie to his Kingpins band in 1966 and after seven years to rejoin Atlantic/Atco, where Memphis Soul Stew, recorded at American Studios in Memphis,became one of his first comeback hits in 1967 (# 6-r&b / # 33-hot). He was Aretha Franklin's bandleader for a long time, both in the studio, and later also on the road. At Atlantic he also produced such artists as Freddie King, Donny Hathaway and Sam Moore. In terms of Grammy Awards, Curtis was nominated four times, and in 1969 he received his Grammy for Games People Play. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Curtis was a tall man and his friends describe him as a true southern gentleman. But he had his vices, like gambling, and sometimes his fuse was quite short. He could easily lose his temper. One of those incidents took place in August 1971, when he got into a fight with a man in front of his apartment in New York and he was stabbed to death. In the book there's a 4-page-long, detailed account of what actually happened. Curtis was at that point only 37 years old.
Many people have high regard for King Curtis, which of course is good and comprehensible, but still I think that a lot of people don't realise Curtis' full impact – the amount of music he created and his popularity. He recorded way over twenty albums during his LP period, spanning 13 years. He worked in many fields, be it r&b, jazz, blues, pop, rock, soul, MOR, even country. In his book Timothy chronicles in detail Curtis' life, analyses his recordings and lists the line-ups of his various bands. There are also many clips from the articles of the day, but in those interviews my only wish would have been to edit more those quotes, to take off unnecessary fillers and to avoid tautology. But on the whole, it was great to read about one of my musical heroes.