The King...King Curtis!

King Curtis…to me, the name says it all. I don’t know of another tenor saxophonist who sounded like him, conceptualized like him, or had such an understanding of the blues on that instrument. His playing with Aretha Franklin is well documented (that’s him on R-E-S-P-E-C-T) and his live recording ‘Live at the Filmore West’ is a gem (released just one week before he was murdered in 1971).

One recording, in particular, that I want to write about here is from a live recording in Montreux, Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June, 1971 under the leadership of both King Curtis and Champion Jack Dupree. It is called, appropriately, ‘Blues at Montreux’. The tune I want to talk about is called Poor Boy Blues. I first heard this on an NPR broadcast while I was in college in the early 1980’s. It was a late night blues show and I decided to throw a cassette into the player and record it. The next day when I listened back to it I heard a couple of older, more traditional vocal blues tunes, a Dizzy Gillespie piece, and then it happened. It happened slowly but within a couple minutes into the tune, lightning stuck! It reached to the depth of my soul and forever changed the way I hear and play music.

At the beginning of the tune, behind Champion Jack Dupree’s beautifully raw and raspy vocal, the wispiness of King Curtis’ sound was initially a turnoff for me. At the time, I was more heavily into the ‘newer’ school of tenor players who didn’t have the old school ‘fooh-fooh’ airiness in their sound. I decided to listen anyhow. I am forever thankful that I did. I had no idea of the impact this one tune would have on my understanding of music! What happened during his solo was nothing short of an epiphany for me. His concept, his sound, his phrasing, his use of altissimo and the low end of the horn (the complete range of his instrument), the vibrancy of his tone, the groove and interaction under him, the way he listened to everyone and them to him, his rhythmic diversity and complexity, and his absolute commitment to what he played, nearly put me on the floor. It was a truly cathartic experience. Goose bumps don’t even begin to describe what I felt from this player I had never even heard of before. Over the next year or so, I must have listened a couple hundred times to that one particular recording…in the car, under headphones, in my house, at college, in other peoples car, other people’s houses, etc…By the end of my first listen to this tune I was a convert to the school of King Curtis.

As is always the case, I gradually got into listening to other music and eventually lost or let someone borrow that cassette. I always remembered the impact of it and, after many years of on and off again searching for this recording, I finally came across it a few years ago on CD in a used record store. It is now available on iTunes and from various other places. It still moves me and gives me goose bumps. This is a desert island recording for me and I just now listened to it and thought I should really let some more folks know. The audio sounds great, the playing is raw and full of emotion and passions run high throughout the entire recording. If you are in the mood for blues that are authentic, passionate, beautiful, full of soul, movement, and emotion, I highly recommend you check this recording out. I hope you do. Happy listening.

BTW, in my first visit to Ornette Coleman’s loft in NYC, the only picture I saw was a Polaroid on his kitchen table of a plaque dedicated to the late great King Curtis. King, indeed.

For more on King Curtis and his music, check his Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Curtis


In 1970, Curtis won the Best R&B Instrumental Performance Grammy for "Games People Play".[14]

Curtis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000.[15]


King Curtis

  • The Good Old Fifties (1959)
  • Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow (1959)
  • Azure (1960)
  • King Soul (1960)
  • Soul Meeting (1960)
  • Party Time (1961)
  • Trouble in Mind (1961)
  • Old Gold (1961)
  • Night Train (1961)
  • Doin' the Dixie Twist (1962)
  • Country Soul (1962)
  • Soul Twist and other Golden Classics (1962)
  • It's Party Time (1962)
  • The Best of (1962)
  • Soul Serenade (1964)
  • Plays Hits made by Sam Cooke (1965)
  • That Lovin' Feeling (1966)
  • Live at Small's Paradise (1966)
  • Play Great Memphis Hits (1967)
  • Memphis Soul Stew (1967)
  • Sweet Soul (1968)
  • Sax in Motion (1968)
  • Instant Groove (1969)
  • Everybody Talkin (1970)
  • Get Ready (1970)
  • Blues at Montreux (1971)

King Curtis and The Kingpins

  • King Size Soul (1967)
  • Eternally, Soul (1968) with The Shirelles
  • Soul Twist(1962) with The Noble Nights
  • Live at Fillmore West (1971)