King Curtis became one of soul music's most celebrated saxophone players, despite his relatively short recording career.
He was born Curtis Ousley on Feb. 7, 1934, in Fort Worth, Texas. He became a sax player at age 12 and was influenced by such blues and jazz musicians as T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan. In the '40s, Curtis began playing tenor in hometown clubs and school bands.
In 1950 Curtis turned down college scholarships to begin touring with jazz great Lionel Hampton. Three years later, Curtis relocated to New York, where he became a session musician for a variety of pop, soul and jazz artists.
A short list of the artists he subsequently accompanied during the course of his career include Nat King Cole, Buddy Holly, LaVern Baker, Bobby Darin, the Drifters, Neil Sedaka, the Isley Brothers, the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin and Eric Clapton.
The first band Curtis led was King Curtis and The Noble Knights, later to be named the Kingpins (when they backed Aretha Franklin). Curtis had 15 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, from 1962 to 1971.
His highest-charting singles were three top-40 instrumentals, including the #1 R&B track "Soul Twist" (RealAudio excerpt), which pop-soul singer Sam Cooke mentioned in his 1962 hit "Having a Party."
One of Curtis' most memorable sax breaks came on the Coasters' 1957 #1 smash "Yakety Yak" — he can be heard on a number of the group's recordings.
In the late '60s, Curtis had R&B hits with "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode to Billy Joe" (1967). Beginning in 1967, Curtis became active behind the scenes at Atlantic Records. He signed other artists and produced for several of them, both on his own and in collaboration with famed producer Jerry Wexler.
One of Curtis' final guest spots was playing sax on John Lennon's Imagine LP in 1971.
Later that year, on August 13, during a heat wave in New York, Curtis was carrying an air conditioner into his apartment on West 86th Street. Two men shooting drugs blocked his pathway. When Curtis asked them to move, they became violent. One of the men, Juan Montañez, stabbed Curtis in the heart.
Though Curtis was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the age of 37.
Four days later, music giants including Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Duane Allman attended Curtis' funeral, at which the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached the sermon.
Before the service, the Kingpins played an hour-long version of one of their hits, "Soul Serenade." Franklin closed the service with a spiritual.
That same day, the offices of Atlantic Records (Curtis' label from 1958–1959, and later from 1965 to the end of his life) were closed for the day in his honor.
Just a few of the saxophonists who have emulated his style include Michael Brecker, Tom Scott and Clarence Clemons.
In 1989 Collectables Records issued Best of King Curtis. Five years later, Razor & Tie Records released Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis.
Next month, Curtis will be among the first "side-men" inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Foundation will introduce the new category, after controversy erupted last year over Bruce Springsteen's induction without the E Street Band.
Other birthdays on Monday: Earl King, 66; Jimmy Greenspoon (Three Dog Night), 52; Alan Lancaster (ex–Status Quo), 51; Brian Travers (UB40), 41; Garth Brooks, 38; and David Bryan (Bon Jovi), 38.