Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

KING CURTIS (1934-1971)

Saxophonist King Curtis

Saxophonist King Curtis was born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 7, 1934. He spent his formative years surrounded by Texas blues and swing, mainstream jazz, and gospel music. After high school he followed in the footsteps of Illinois Jacquet, the Houston-born innovator of the saxophone style known as "honking," to join vibraphonist Lionel Hampton's jazz band in California. He finally settled in New York in 1952.

In New York, King Curtis shaped his stylistic influences into a fusion of jazz and the popular "honking and shouting" of the rhythm-andblues (R&B) tenor saxophone. He recorded a small number of mainstream jazz albums and in 1958 led his own jazz group. In the 1960s he was a prominent innovator of "soul jazz," which combined his early Texas influences of gospel, blues, and jazz. His first major solo success came with "Soul Twist," which reached the top of the R&B billboard charts in 1962; five years later he had another hit with "Memphis Soul Stew." Unlike his R&B contemporaries, he developed a sound on the saxophone that could be as subtle as it was raucous.

King Curtis also garnered recognition as an R&B and soul studio-musician, becoming Atlantic Records' house tenor-saxophonist and bandleader for Aretha Franklin. His career came to an abrupt end in 1971 when he was murdered in front of his Manhattan home.

Christopher Steinke Harvard University

Gillett, Charlie. The Sound of the City. London: Souvenir Press, 1983.

Shaw, Arnold. Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978.

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