I ain’t putting up with this any longer, he must have thought.
The second week of August 1971 in New York was hot and humid, steamy and sultry. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, each of those days reached 90 during the day and cooled only into the high 70s at night. The end of the week brought a little relief — 10 or so degrees cooler — but apparently not enough relief.
So Curtis Ousley went out and got himself an air conditioner. As Thursday night turned to Friday morning, he lugged it back to his brownstone apartment at 50 W. 86th St., a long block west of Central Park.
When he got there, a couple of guys were sitting on the steps. Junkies, they say. Doing drugs, they say. They got into it, Curtis Ousley and the dudes on the stoop. One of them pulled a knife. He stabbed Ousley in the chest. Ousley grabbed the knife. He stabbed that guy four times.
Curtis Ousley — known professionally as King Curtis, the great sax player — and his attacker, one Juan Montanez, wound up at the same hospital. Ousley died an hour later. Montanez survived, only to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
That was 41 years ago today — Aug. 13, 1971.
King Curtis, then just 37, had reached the top after 25 years of hard work.
Yes, he was just 12 when he started playing the sax in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. One of his hometown peers was Ornette Coleman, the great jazz sax player who was four years older. Ousley’s first big gig came in Lionel Hampton’s band. At the time of his death, King Curtis had lived in New York for almost 20 years and had become one of its most highly regarded session men.
And 1971, oh, what a year that was for King Curtis.
Early that year, Curtis and his band, the Kingpins, backed Aretha Franklin on her tour. In July, he did session work, solos, on two cuts on John Lennon’s “Imagine” album. Also that year, a new TV show needed a theme song, so he reworked his 1962 song “Hot Potatoes (Piping Hot)” as “Soul Train (Hot Potato)” and recorded it with the Rimshots.
His new album, “Live At Fillmore West,” was released in early August, a week before he came across the dudes on his stoop. It was recorded in San Francisco in the first week of March, at the same time as “Aretha Live at Fillmore West.”
“Memphis Soul Stew,” King Curtis, from “Live At Fillmore West,” 1971. It’s out of print but is available digitally.
King Curtis never lived to see this album become his biggest solo hit. It reached the top 10 on the Billboard jazz and soul charts and topped out at No. 54 on the Billboard Top 200 in the week after his death.
“Memphis Soul Stew” is just one of two original cuts on the record, which begins with that one and ends with “Soul Serenade.” Jammed in between are scorching and/or simmering covers of familiar tunes by Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Butler, Buddy Miles, Bobbie Gentry, Jerry Jeff Walker and Stevie Wonder.
All that scorching and simmering was performed and arranged by Curtis, yet seasoned by the mighty Kingpins. That all-star band included Billy Preston on organ, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and the formidable Memphis Horns.
Please visit our other blog, The Midnight Tracker, for more vintage vinyl, one side at a time.
The rest of the story: Juan Montanez, who was 26 at the time King Curtis was stabbed to death, was charged with second-degree murder. During his trial in February 1972, he agreed to plea to a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. He got seven years in prison and served almost six, the maximum possible with good behavior. He was released in December 1977. He hasn’t been heard from since.