When more than 1,000 people arrived for the midday service at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at Lexington Avenue and East 54th Street, they couldn’t help but see the sign at the entrance. “Soul is the sense of depth, the ability to reach someone. It’s part of what today is about. . .” The message began.
It was signed ‘Aretha Franklin’ on the bottom.
This was a memorial service for musician King Curtis, who had been stabbed days earlier on his doorstep in the Upper West Side and succumbed on Friday August 13, 1971.
Over time, the King Curtis name may have become less well known to the general public. But the music he made – from the staccato “Chicken Scratch” sax solo that rocketed the Coasters hit “Yakety Yak” to the top of the charts in 1958, to his soulful sax wail that set Aretha Franklin’s signature Hit “Respect” added extra pizzazz – lives on.
Curtis was the musical director and band leader for Franklin, whom he referred to as his “little sister”. He and his band opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium and the rest of their 1965 US tour. He played with pal Sam Cooke, who was cheering on his friend’s song “Soul Twist” on “Having A Party.” He brought his unique sound to hundreds of tracks by singers from Wilson Pickett to Andy Williams. Curtis recognized Jimi Hendrix’s talent early on and hired him to join his band, the Kingpins, in 1966. Duane Allman played with Curtis – and became best friends with him. In 2000, King Curtis was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman.
A few decades later comes the new and long overdue biography, Soul Serenade: King Curtis and His Immortal Saxophone (University of North Texas Press) by Timothy Hoover.
The Texas-born saxophonist, bandleader and record producer was born in 1934 and adopted by Josie and William Ousley when he was a toddler – his father played guitar in church. Curtis got his first sax at age 11. And as a high school student, he started playing local venues in Fort Worth, even the all-white nightclubs.
The summer before his senior year, Curtis visited an uncle in New York City. At 6ft 2 and over 200 pounds, “he wasn’t intimidated by his new big city environment and fast-paced lifestyle,” Hoover wrote. “Curtis wanted to see how he stacked up against established New York City competition. What better way to find out than to attend Ralph Cooper’s Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theater?”
He won the heated competition at the Apollo his first two times on stage. And he quickly got work at a recording session in town, the first of many. After returning home and graduating in 1953, Curtis turned down music scholarships to college in Texas and chose New York City as his home.
As his live performances and session work continued to increase, Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun recommended Curtis for the Coasters’ new album. After his 1958 “Yakety Yak” success with the group, Curtis led the house band at the famous Harlem nightclub Small’s Paradise, where he often stayed until 3, 4, or 5 a.m. playing craps, gambling and the like,” wrote Hoover.
King Curtis was magnetic – he was at the center of a music scene that spanned R&B, soul, jazz and pop in the ’60s. People attracted him.
“It was his personality that tied into his looks,” Hoover said in a phone interview. “He was an advocate because he always wore a tie and made sure his shirt sleeve cuff reached over the sleeve of his coat. He always wore a gold watch, liked to wear big furs and big suits and just liked to play the big band leader in town.”
Curtis and his wife Ethelyn Butler had a son, Curtis Jr., in 1959. The couple officially separated in 1964 but never divorced. Curtis reached out to Modeen Broughton, a model and events planner, and the couple lived together in a condo on West 96th Street in Manhattan. Curtis later bought a limestone building at 50 W. 86th Street near Central Park. “He revamped the place,” Hoover said, adding that he often had musicians working with him on some songs or had friends to hang out with.
It was there that Curtis was killed on a warm August night in 1971.
In the basement of the building there was a swimming pool and a pool table. Curtis and Modeen and friends were hanging out there when the power went out — a new air conditioner in the building kept tripping the circuit breaker. Curtis grabbed a flashlight and he and his personal assistant Norman Dugger had to go outside to get into the building’s utility room where they could check the fuse box.
They found a young man arguing with a girl on the stairs. “Curtis was outraged by this uninvited company,” Hoover wrote. “You better take your junk out of here,” Dugger recalls Curtis yelling. The taller man was further agitated by the reply of “No hablo English.”
“Curtis was so angry,” Dugger tells the author. “And he raised his hand and broke the flashlight right over the boy’s head! Man, batteries went everywhere. . .”
The two men fought. “Then King stumbles back and pulls a knife out of his chest. He grabs the guy and hits him three or four times – then he falls to the ground.”
His friends took him to Roosevelt Hospital with a police escort.
He was pronounced dead shortly after midnight. But in the meantime, another man was wheeled into the emergency room, accompanied by two police officers. Dugger recognized Curtis’ attacker. He informed the police and the perpetrator was arrested on the spot.
Rev. Jesse Jackson preached at the funeral service. Stevie Wonder sang a revised version of the hit “Abraham, Martin and John” and added: “and now King Curtis”. He then gave 11-year-old Curtis Jr. his harmonica.
King Curtis may have been at the peak of his career that summer. He had backed Franklin on their groundbreaking shows at the Fillmore West earlier that year, with the live performances becoming two critically acclaimed records by Franklins and his own set. And just weeks before his death, Curtis was at the Record Plant studio in Manhattan with his friend John Lennon to record a few tracks for Lennon’s Imagine album. Lennon was murdered nine years later 14 blocks south of Curtis, also outside of his own home.
The service for Curtis ended with an emotional Aretha Franklin singing the gospel song “Never Grow Old.”
King Curtis was 37.
https://nypost.com/2022/12/03/king-curtis-was-the-greatest-musician-youve-never-heard-of/ King Curtis was the greatest musician you’ve never heard of