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Often referred to as the last of the great r&b tenor sax players, Curtis was that and a whole lot more. Born February 7, 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas, he was playing professionally by the age of 15. He moved to New York permanently around 1954 and soon caught the eye of Jesse Stone, and was introduced to the joys of session work, where one could earn as much for a session as had been obtained from a week’s gigging in a little club on 8th Avenue – which had been his mainstay up till then. Commencing with sessions for RCA’s Bob Rolontz, he graduated via Herb Abramson to the Atlantic fold. Up until this time, and for a further couple of years until 1957 or so, his playing was very much in the mainstream r&b mould. He was gradually replacing Sam “The Man” Taylor as THE name to be called for the backing sessions, and although always more fluid than Sam, his work did not particularly stand out from the other players of the time. But in 1958 he was called by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to play on their Coasters sessions, at which time he adopted a downhome, chicken-scratch (as he put it) sound, based on the hillbilly players he had heard back home. Whether he invented the solos, or, as some suggest, the producers hummed the lines to him first, is academic. The pure “rightness” of them led people to ask who had played them, and Curtis became probably the first session man to be credited publicly at that time. The success of those records led him to believe that he should be trying to get a hit under his own name, and between 1959 and 1962 a flurry of singles surfaced from a plethora of labels, none of which had much success, despite often being right in the then-current style of the Duane Eddy hits – rumbling guitars with driving sax solos. The session work meanwhile continued unabated, always at Atlantic, but increasingly at other venues, including Prestige, who signed him to an open-ended contract to make some jazzy stuff, along with backing the blues roster. His stabs at jazz were not critically acclaimed (by the then very conservative jazz fraternity) and the Prestige R&B subsidiary TruSound had him firmly in the r&b mould. He tried vocalizing too but by 1962 he was still searching for the elusive hit, when Fire/Fury entrepreneur Bobby Robinson saw him in a club, and told him he could help him find one. The result was “Soul Twist” based on an earlier Curtis tune called “Jay Walk”; but Curtis was already a smart businessman (he’d set up his own publishing venue, Kilynn, a couple of years earlier for instance), and he had only agreed to cut one LP for Robinson if the single took off. Those dozen or so tracks have subsequently been recycled endlessly! But the hit made him something of a hot property, and Capitol signed him, through a deal with Bert Berns Lookapoo Productions. Minor hits ensued there initially, such as “Beach Party”, but Capitol wanted him to retread “Soul Twist” over and over. Frustrated, he used his own money to cut “Soul Serenade”, a tune he had written with Luther Dixon. Again, huge hit status was not forthcoming, but the song is no doubt the one of his that has been most recorded by other artists, and continues to be so. The unsatisfactory nature of the Capitol relationship allowed Jerry Wexler to woo Curtis back to Atlantic in 1965, whereupon after a quiet start he began to make albums of great quality, and to be in on the southern soul bonanza that began around the same time. His own “Memphis Soul Stew” was a surprise minor hit, much in that vein. Atlantic allowed him to flourish and develop in other directions, and he became something of a general factotum around the place. Talent spotter – he found Donny Hathaway; producer – of the two Freddie King albums on Cotillion; and of course, by late 1969, Aretha Franklin’s musical director. He continued to have many irons in the fire, exemplified by the last six months of his life: January 1971 he played live with Delaney & Bonnie; February saw him producing material on Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) for an album, cutting tracks of his own, and travelling with Aretha; March was the month of the landmark shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco – his own and Aretha’s albums cut over the 3 days are legendary; April he’s travelling with Aretha; Early June sees him doing overdubs with John Lennon for his “Imagine” album in New York; and late June he travels to Montreux for the jazz festival where he cut the acclaimed duet album with Champion Jack Dupree, and on to Paris for shows with Aretha. Returning to New York in July, he’s appearing live with Delaney & Bonnie again and his busy schedule continues, until the evening of August 13th, when he was stabbed and died enroute to the hospital outside a house he owned on 86th Street.

In many ways, Curtis was a bridge between the older sax styles of Arnett Cobb (who he revered) and Sam The Man Taylor (who he replaced), and the names who picked up his mantle after his death – David Sanborn, Kenny G et al. He was never one of the frantic blowers of the Big Jay McNeely ilk; indeed, his forte was melody. In his last known interview with Charlie Gillett in April, 1971, he picks up his sax and plays “Stranger On The Shore”, telling Charlie how much he likes the tune. Many sax players have paid homage to his legacy; but few have managed to emulate in one place the subtlety, the inventiveness, the warmth, and the sheer technical expertise that Curtis managed to bring to the art of the 25-second solo.

Roy Simonds September ’04


More research available by email
from SoulMusicHQ.com
Discography
Sessionography
Photo and graphic scans


Recommended listening
Hot Sax, Cool Licks – UK Ace CDCHD 757
The King Of The Sax - US Fuel 2000 302-061-378-2 /‘04
Blues At Montreux- US Collectables 6331 /02
Razor & Tie – US Atco 2054 /94
Live At The Fillmore West - US Koch International 8024 /99
Trouble In Mind/ It’s Party Time – UK Ace 545
Old Gold/Doing the Dixie Twist – UK Ace 614
Blow Man Blow – EU Bear Family Box Set CD 15670

 


 
   
   
             
               
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