Tag Archives: King Curtis

41 years on, long live the King

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.


Filed under August 2012, Sounds

And so another year ends

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.”

Written in 1947, it’s 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. It’s great no matter who does it. Listen for yourself.

It’s the ’60s. You are in a nightclub, 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 to a nightclub uptown. You hear this …

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” the Ramsey Lewis Trio,” from “Sound of Christmas,” 1961.

… and this …


“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Eydie Gorme, from “That Holiday Feeling!” Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, 1964. (Sorry, Steve sits this one out.)

… and this.

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Lou Rawls, from “Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho,” 1967. It’s out of print.

Years later, a husband-and-wife duo revives that style.


“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Brian Setzer and Julie Reiten, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” the Brian Setzer Orchestra, 2004.

This is for Jeff O. Better late than never, my man.

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Filed under December 2010, Sounds

Still Amazing

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.

“Instant Groove,” King Curtis, from “Instant Groove,” 1969.

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.”

Our friend Larry over at Funky 16 Corners wrote earlier this year about the basic backing guitar track on “Instant Groove,” tracing it to a 1966 tune called “Help Me (Get the Feeling)” by Ray Sharpe.

“Lift Your Love Higher,” Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, from “Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose,” 1972. It’s out of print, and I can’t find this cut on any greatest-hits compilation.

You’ll hear echoes of “Treat Her Like A Lady,” the smash 1971 single by this Miami pop-soul quartet. They really were brothers and sisters, Eddie and Carter and Rose and Billie Joe.

Midnight Tracker update: There’s a new post over at our companion blog, The Midnight Tracker. It’s a double shot of J.J. Cale and Billy Preston (and Sly Stone). Enjoy!


Filed under April 2010, Sounds

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

That’s the question posed by the great songwriter Frank Loesser, who also wrote another holiday classic — “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

We’ve seen plenty of New Year’s Eves, and we long ago left the crazy parties behind. We’ll leave Amateur Night to the amateurs.

The only time it’ll get anywhere close to wild for us is at midnight, when we’ll stick the fireworks in the snow and fire them off.

Just three questions for you, then.

Do you like your sexy, sophisticated New Year’s tune as a solo by one of America’s great female pop singers, served up in vintage nightclub style?


“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Eydie Gorme, from “That Holiday Feeling!” Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, 1964. (Sorry, Steve sits this one out.)

Or as a sexy husband-and-wife duet, paying homage to that style?


“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Brian Setzer and Julie Reiten, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” the Brian Setzer Orchestra, 2004.

Or as a sizzling, sax-driven instrumental with a style all its own?


“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.)


Filed under December 2008, Sounds

Swinging over to Ray’s Corner

We are back at Ray’s Corner, but doing it a little differently tonight.

We usually dig through tunes from my dad’s collection, but tonight’s tune — one of mine — popped up on shuffle play and struck me instantly as one he probably digs.

As our regular readers know, Ray’s Corner is the apartment with the loud music, and the place where the martinis are made of gin with the vermouth bottle held about a foot away.

Tonight’s loud music comes from sax great King Curtis, blasting away on a swinging instrumental of a tune done first in 1951 by Frank Sinatra and the Harry James Orchestra.

“Castle Rock” was written by Ervin Drake, Al Sears and Jimmy Shirl. Drake’s web site insists it’s the first rock ‘n’ roll song, with its lyric “I held her tight and rocked around the clock” coming three years before “Rock Around the Clock.” (Good story if true. Most lyric transcriptions say “I held her tight and danced around the clock.”)

Ain’t no lyrics on this version, though.

“Castle Rock,” King Curtis, 1958, from “Atlantic Honkers,” a 1986 compilation that’s out of print. This two-record set also features Joe Morris, Tiny Grimes, Frank Culley, Willis Jackson, Jesse Stone and Arnett Cobb. Everyone shares an LP side except for the King, who gets one to himself.

The liner notes don’t say who’s bashing those mad drums midway through the song. We know only that the King recorded this one in New York on Dec. 3, 1958.

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Filed under September 2008, Sounds

Whole lotta familiarity

One of my regular stops is Flea Market Funk, run by DJ Prestige, one of the great crate diggers of our time. (You ought to make it one of your regular stops, if you haven’t already done so.)

DJ Pres is forever hitting The Spot, that mysterious East Coast open-air flea market, and coming up with remarkable tune after remarkable tune.

Last night, he posted a cover of “Whole Lotta Love” by Collective Consciousness Society, or C.C.S. No matter what you call them, I’d never heard of this British group.

But once I heard the cut, I said … hey, I’ve heard this before. And, no, not by Led Zeppelin, either.

I just about fell over. The arrangement on the C.C.S. cover is almost exactly the same as the one on King Curtis’ cover of “Whole Lotta Love.” What’s more, both covers were recorded in 1970. Why they sound almost alike, I don’t know and can’t say.

DJ Pres says:

“’Whole Lotta Love’ by C.C.S. is right up there with Dennis Coffey and Ike and Tina Turner’s cover versions of the mighty Zep. I think it might even be better IMHO. The flute, which many people may be annoyed by, just furthers this band legitimacy. Their interpretation, often out of time, and a bit odd and Jazzy, is definitely a hit for me.”

He has a whole bunch of detail about the studio musicians backing C.C.S., but I have none about who might be backing King Curtis. All I know is that he’s on tenor sax, recorded in New York on Dec. 14, 1970. Larry over at Funky 16 Corners also wrote about the King’s version a while back, but he didn’t know much more than I do. The comments on Larry’s post also point out the similarity between the two versions.

Grab this, then head over to FMF and grab the C.C.S. cover, then enjoy.

“Whole Lotta Love,” King Curtis, 1970, from “Atlantic Honkers,” a terrific 1986 compilation of R&B sax tunes on the Atlantic label. It’s out of print.


Filed under June 2008, Sounds

It’s New Year’s Eve! Stand back!


It wasn’t until we owned our first house that Janet and I felt grown up enough to host a New Year’s Eve party.

Until then, we were out at the bars with all the other amateurs on New Year’s Eve. We were young enough that New Year’s Eve was essentially one big high school or college reunion night.

But as 1988 turned into 1989 — as best we can remember — we hosted a New Year’s Eve party at our rambling old house on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin. We had lots of food, drink, friends and party favors.

Our lingering memory of that party is that of one of our friends — who shall remain nameless — holding court in our dining room, holding party poppers and blasting away.

“Stand back!” our friend would shout. Then our friend would pull the string — pop! — and shower the room with confetti.

Ever since, every time we see a party popper … “Stand back!”

Or, every time New Year’s Eve rolls around … “Stand back!”

Having a New Year’s Eve party? You may want these tunes for your mix.


“Thank You for a Good Year,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift to You,” 1988.

Or one of these three versions of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” That familiar tune was written in 1947 by Frank Loesser, who also wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”


A bluesy instrumental version by King Curtis, from “Soul Christmas,” 1990. Recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York on Oct. 23, 1968. That’s a young Duane Allman on guitar.


A swinging big-band version by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” 2005.


A laid-back acoustic version by Mindy Smith, from “My Holiday,” 2007.

Oh, and be sure to get plenty of party poppers.

Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: The photo of the party popper was taken by Hazel Jones of the UK and was posted online in July 2007 at the Museum of Temporary Art.

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Filed under December 2007, Sounds