What are we doing New Year’s Eve? Oh, not much. Just sticking close to home, staying socially distanced.
“When the bells all ring and the horns all blow “And the couples that we know are fondly kissing “Will I be with you or will I be among the missing?”
We’re all among this missing this year, making this classic all the more poignant as 2020 finally ends. Maybe next New Year’s Eve.
Written by Frank Loesser in 1947, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” has been described as the only notable jazz standard with a New Year’s Eve theme. This sophisticated tune tempers an unrequited love with some hope. We all could use some hope these days.
It’s great no matter who does it. Let’s go.
It’s the ’60s. You’re in a roadhouse, the one hard by the tracks. You hear this.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” King Curtis, from “Soul Christmas,” 1968. (Recorded on Oct. 23, 1968, at Atlantic Studios in New York. That’s Duane Allman on guitar.)
Then you head uptown to a nightclub. You hear this …
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.
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.
This summer marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Loesser, the great songwriter who came up with that holiday favorite, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the best New Year’s Eve song ever.
I know that because I somehow managed to see “Heart & Soul,” a documentary about Loesser, twice this year on Turner Classic Movies.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has a great story behind it. Loesser wrote it in 1944 for their housewarming party, singing it with his first wife, Lynn Garland. They often performed it for friends at parties. Four years later, he sold the song to MGM. His wife didn’t approve. She’d always thought it was theirs alone, something special.
Well, it was special. MGM used it in the 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter,” and it became a big hit, released by at least seven duos that year. Often covered since then, it’s a bit of an acquired taste. If breathy, baby-doll vocals are your thing, then you probably like it.
But the most special of Loesser’s tunes — at least at this time of year — is “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”
Opportunities to dig for records in our corner of Wisconsin run in streaks. We ride out long dry spells, waiting for a month like this:
— Turns out our local used record emporium — Amazing Records — won’t be closing as quickly as first thought. Jim still plans to head home to northern California, but now it might be the end of May before he takes all the collectible records off the wall and loads up the U-Haul to go west. He still has more records to sort through, to toss into the bins.
— In the mail yesterday was a postcard from my friend Jim in Appleton, a half-hour away, announcing a “Huge $1 Tent and Indoor Sale!!” This Jim is the guy who hauls boxes of $1 LPs out to the back yard of his tiny duplex, throws up a tent around the tables and lets you go at it.
— Today, I stopped at the Exclusive Company, which is as close to an indie record store as we get. Stapled to the bulletin board was a flyer announcing a “HUGE Record Sale.” This is still another friend named Jim, who will throw up his garage door and put out his crates.
— Tom, who runs our Exclusive Company store, handed me a flyer for Record Store Day on the way out. Nine bands, six DJs (including local punk legend Rev. Nørb) and special deals. I’m there.
— On the flip side of the flyer, my friend Jeff — who organizes the spring and fall record shows in Green Bay — announces he’s having a record sale on Record Store Day. too.
Here’s hoping there are records as cool as these to be found. I bought both of these from Jim the garage sale guy at shows organized by Jeff.
This is a fierce sax-driven dance scorcher on which the King commands:
“Now how we start to whip up the groove, we want everybody to come on out here and do your thing. And everybody got a thing. We want you come on out here and do it now. ‘Cause that’s when everybody is doing their own thing. That’s what I want to see you do right now.”