wax Poetics
Promo photo of King Curtis on sax, circa 1970

Soul Superhero

The massive life and tragic death of King Curtis

In 1971, New York City was going through a Dickensian “worst of times” scenario that included the rising crime rate that turned the streets into a bleak landscape of muggers, purse snatchers, and addicts plotting junkie hijinks between narcotic nods. Crossing class and color lines, heroin was on the rise and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do. As an eight-year-old boy growing up above 110th Street, I witnessed a generation of young men who were introduced to the needle on the street or brought it home when they returned to the States from Vietnam, carrying a heavy camouflage bag and a bad habit.

published online
Originally published in Digital Content
By Michael A. Gonzales

That same year, the underrated junkie film The Panic in Needle Park starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn was released. Director Jerry Schatzberg shot his movie in a neo-documentary style that captured the realness of smack situations. It was a brutal gaze into a wild world and its rainbow coalition of participants. The screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, based on the book by Life magazine journalist James Mills, revealed the desperation, heartbreak, and pain of being in that life.

Located on Seventy-Second Street and Broadway, “Needle Park” was officially known as Sherman Square. It was there where junkies scored, lounged, and sometimes used. It was the kind of place where Puerto Rican junkie Juan Montanez probably hung out on a regular. However, on August 13, 1971, the twenty-six-year-old ex-con was fourteen blocks away shooting up on the outside stairs of a limestone townhouse located at 50 West Eighty-Sixth Street. Sprawled on the stairs with a friend, it’s doubtful that Montanez knew the rich legacy of the five-story building that was then owned by saxman King Curtis, nor could he have had predicted the murderous way he would become a part of its history.

Built in 1907 by the architectural firm Neville & Bagge, 50 West Eighty-Sixth Street was constructed as a mansion for Gilded Age real estate mogul Sarah Harris. According to the website Daytonian in Manhattan, Harris only dwelled in the house for seven years before selling it to a fellow real estate woman, Lydia Gray, who lived there with her family until 1919. Afterwards, the mansion was converted into apartments and went through a series of owners. 

In 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Payor “did a rather substantial conversion,” reported the Daytonian in Manhattan site in 2015. “The basement apartment with its separate entrance received a swimming pool and private gallery. The parlor floor was divided into two large apartments, as was the second floor. The top two floors contained a combination of small apartments and furnished rooms creating a total of 12 rentable spaces in the house.” 

Ten years later, it was sold to Fort Worth, Texas, native Curtis Ousley, better known as soulful saxophonist King Curtis. Standing six feet tall and bulky as a boulder, he was a dark-skinned Southern gent who had lived in New York City for nearly two decades. Ramparts writer Michael Lydon described him as having a “heavy gut of a muscular man living the life of steaks and import beer.”

A prolific musician and songwriter, King Curtis was a much in-demand session man who played on records with a variety of performers ranging from the Coasters to Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke to Duane Allman, John Lennon to Aretha Franklin. Serving as Franklin’s musical director, it was Curtis and his dynamic players the Kingpins (pianist Truman Thomas, guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Bernard Purdie, and keyboardist Billy Preston) that collaborated with the Queen of Soul on her classic Aretha Live at Fillmore West. Recorded and released in 1971, it ranks amongst Franklin’s best albums during her Atlantic Records era. “Jerry Wexler and the Muscle Shoals musicians get a lot of credit for their work with Aretha, but Curtis was one of her favorite collaborators,” veteran soul historian Nelson George wrote. “Her voice and his horn were kindred sounds of soul. He knew how to support her both as a soloist and bandleader.”

Curtis lived ten blocks away at 150 West Ninety-Sixth Street, but he bought the Eighty-Sixth Street apartment house for $100,000 as an investment property. Surrounded by SROs and deteriorating tenements, the Upper West Side neighborhood wasn’t as safe as it used to be or as upwardly mobile as it would become, but the house was still in a prime Manhattan location and would have been a longtime money maker for the musician.

Unlike many of his musician peers who lived day-to-day without planning for tomorrow, Curtis was preparing for those future days when he didn’t have to be on the road or in the studio. Having worked since he was a teenager, he was undoubtedly looking forward to the days when he could just relax.

Curtis Ousley, born February 7, 1934, was adopted along with his sister Josephine by a religious family and spent much of his young years in houses of worship. His daddy played guitar at the sanctified church they attended, a place where gospel music was the soundtrack of life. Young Ousley fell in love with the saxophone sound when he was six years old, when he heard a horn blaring from the radio. 

“The band was playing what church people call ‘reels’—secular music, jazz, and blues,” Curtis told writer Nat Hentoff for his liner notes to 1960’s The New Scene of King Curtis. “I was fascinated. I didn’t know what the instrument was called, but I wanted one. My mother was reluctant to encourage me, because she thought I’d end up playing ‘reels,’ but when I was 12 I finally got my first alto.” The kid began grooving to Coleman Hawkins and Louis Jordan, and the next year started his own group. A few years later, he became a high school student at I. M. Terrell, where fellow sax player Ornette Coleman was also a student. 

Although Coleman was a few years older, Curtis could hold his own and the two became friends. “He was playing a honking tenor, but he began to hear Bird,” Curtis once said of Ornette. “He was always searching for something.” Curtis, too, started playing tenor, immersing himself in music of Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, and Illinois Jacquet, a fellow Texan who played with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

In the 1992 liner notes for the Blow Man, Blow! reissue, R&B historian Pete Grendysa wrote, “While still in school, he formed his own band and adoring fans gave him the nickname ‘King.’ He took his combo to the Jim Hotel in Fort Worth and worked other clubs, most frequently the Paradise owned by friend and supporter Aaron Watkins, who recalled to journalist Roger Kaye, ‘Everybody could tell this guy was something special, and everybody wanted to hear him blow that horn. We had a long 30-foot bar and I remember he’d close his show the same way every time. His closing number was “Night Train” and he’d get up and walk the bar every time.’ ”

Curtis was offered scholarships to Bishop and Wyley colleges in Texas, but instead joined Lionel Hampton’s band, touring the United States and Europe. It was while with Hampton that he learned to arrange music and, like his daddy, mastered the guitar.

He played both jazz and soul well, and, after leaving Hampton’s crew, settled in New York City where he was an in-demand sideman. Many years later, writer Nat Hentoff proclaimed that you could hear Texas in Curtis’s style: “He has that tangy sound and spacious beat that seems characteristic of Southwestern musicians of all idioms… [A]t the core of all his performances is an authority, a strength that comes from knowing and digging his roots.”

It wasn’t until Curtis’s roaring riffs on the Coasters classic “Yakety Yak” in 1958 that his sax sound began to take hold of the public’s imagination. As Rolling Stone journalist David McGee put it, that song “introduced the Curtis sound to the masses.” The Coasters group was signed to ATCO Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, and Curtis also hitched on for a year (1958–1959) and released a few singles, but no hits.

Throughout the 1950s, Curtis worked hard. Recording as a sideman for big artists, a soloist for small labels, and blowing in smoky clubs, King Curtis was no stranger to the Brill Building studios, where many New York City pop/soul records were made. Down the block was Colony Records, one of the more popular record shops in Manhattan during that era. Many musicians hung out there after their sessions, including Curtis. “He was a nice guy, but he had a temper,” Colony employee Tex Wishik said to the New York Times in 1971, “and he wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone.”

Without a doubt, as producer Joel Dorn told writer John Kruth in the 2007 Wax Poetics piece “The King Size Soul of Curtis Ousley,” “He was one of those guys that was a man when he was a boy.” Kruth acknowledges that while Curtis “was a good businessman with plenty of street smarts,” he also dug the wild life of hanging out in Harlem after-hours clubs with dice shooters, poker players, and socializing with gangster dudes like Bumpy Johnson in Harlem.

In 1960, Harlem entrepreneur Bobby Robinson, who owned Bobby’s Happy House record store on 125th Street, started Enjoy Records after recruiting King Curtis to make the single “Soul Twist.” According to Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneers by John Broven, “Robinson had seen Curtis perform at Small’s Paradise and was convinced he could get a hit out of him. The saxophonist wanted to monopolize the lead on ‘Soul Twist,’ but Robinson insisted that he come ‘in and out’ and that he give spots to the other musicians, including guitarist Billy Butler.”

“Soul Twist” was a success, going number one on the R&B charts and #17 pop. The track was also name-checked by Sam Cooke on “Having a Party.” Robinson had his hit, but since Curtis never officially signed with Enjoy, he left for money’s greener pastures. After jumping around to various labels including ATCO, Prestige, and Tru-Sound, Curtis’s mellow 1964 hit “Soul Serenade,” cowritten with Luther Dixon, was cut for Capitol Records.

“Soul Serenade” was a national hit, and its laid-back jazz and soul sound inspired guitarist Jimi Hendrix. According to Hendrix biographer David Henderson in his book ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, the guitarist “sought to emulate it in his playing. He drove his Fender Telecaster to its highest limits in trying to give back the horn lines that had inspired him.”

With no shame in his guitar game, the future space rocker Hendrix came directly from the Black roots of blues and soul, played with Curtis’s band the Kingpins beginning in 1964, and joined them in the studio for “Help Me (Get the Feeling).” A song with Ray Sharpe on vocals, it was recorded over a two-day period. After rehearsing the Kingpins along with the young guitarist at Small’s Paradise, Curtis took them on the road. Hendrix left after four months, but he learned much from the bandleader.

“Hendrix was the King Curtis of guitar,” writer Josh Alan Friedman wrote in Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ’n’ Roll. Curtis’s horn inspired, amongst countless others, E. Street Band big man Clarence Clemons. “His meaty tone was the legacy of his main model, King Curtis,” New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in 2011 about Clemons.

Returning to Atlantic (ATCO) Records in the mid-’60s, King Curtis continued his solid successes through singles such as “Memphis Soul Stew” and a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” both in 1967. Much like Curtis’s friend, future collaborator and labelmate Aretha Franklin, he had a reputation for covering songs so well, they became his own. “Often he has found more underlying meaning in the material than in the previous versions,” journalist Richie Yorke wrote in the liner notes for ATCO’s 1968 compilation The Best of King Curtis, an album that also contained covers of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Spanish Harlem.” 

King Curtis made the kinds of instrumental soul records recording artists don’t make anymore. The kind of music teenagers danced to at parties, doing intricate moves to the honking grooves of “Cleo’s Mood” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs, “Soul Finger” by the Bar-Kays, and “Cissy Strut” by the Meters. It was Curtis’s cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” from Live at Fillmore West (1971) that made music journalist/Middle Blue guitarist Brad Farberman a devotee. 

“Curtis’s version is so slow and ethereal, it still gives me chills,” Farberman says. “And Billy Preston’s haunting organ solo really takes it over the top. Throughout it all, Curtis’s soprano sax is so sweet and piercing. It gets right to the point.” That version of Procol Harum’s enduring song was also used in the 1987 British film Withnail and I

“His definitive statement is the Live at Fillmore West album,” Farberman continues. “He’s taking songs by Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Stevie Wonder, and nearly outdoing the original artists. It’s the sound of a musician examining popular music from the inside. When he made this album, he had already played the sax solo on [Aretha Franklin’s] ‘Respect.’ He had already performed live with Sam Cooke [Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963]. He really knew what made these kinds of songs tick.”

Atlantic Records was known for its soul acts, and in the late ’60s/early ’70s, King Curtis brought the label prestige with his own recordings, as well as encouraging them to sign genius Donny Hathaway, becoming Franklin’s musical director, and recording his own live album while performing as her opening act during the Queen’s three-night stint at the Fillmore West on March 5–7, 1971.

As an attempt to help Franklin cross over to the “long-haired” hippie crowd, Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler arranged and planned the gig while encouraging Franklin to hire Curtis and company as her backing band. Franklin was also recording a live album, so there was no time for compromises.

“King was the consummate musician—a lean and mean tenor man,” Wexler told Franklin biographer David Ritz for his 2014 book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “ ‘King is the right call,’ I said. ‘You know it as well as I do. King can groove you up in a way no one else can.’ ” The nights of the shows, the band was tight, the collective sound—that included the Memphis Horns and backup singers the Sweethearts of Soul (Brenda Bryant, Margaret Branch, Pat Smith)—was right, and everybody involved was ecstatic. 

Aretha, whether swaying on a stool in the middle of the stage or sitting at the piano, brought church and roll to the same stage that was used to hosting the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone. Never far from her side, Curtis wore, as described in the 1971 article Soul Kaleidoscope: Aretha at the Fillmore, “an ornate black leather jacket with a horse’s head coming through a horseshoe done in white leather on the back,” and had a horn around his neck. 

“King Curtis had a knack for putting together top-notch bands and especially rhythm sections,” Burnt Sugar Arkestra bassist Jared Michael Nickerson says. “I’d put his Kingpins of keyboardist Truman Thomas, one of my all-time-favorite guitarists Cornell Dupree, bassist Jerry Jemmott, and drummer Bernard Purdie right up there with the other respected long-standing rhythm sections of the ’60s and ’70s: the Meters, Booker T. and the MGs, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and, of course, the Hi Records Rhythm Section.”

As bandleader, Curtis guided the musicians to paradise. Organist Billy Preston later told David Ritz, “I’ve played a million gigs. I’ve played a million churches, a million buckets of blood, a million nightclubs, and a million concert halls. But never, ever have I experienced anything like playing for Aretha at the Fillmore.”

Writer Woody Haut, author of Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, was in the audience the first night. “It goes without saying that Aretha backed by King Curtis couldn’t help but be a monumental occasion,” Haut tells me. “Just seeing King Curtis and his band on his own would have been enough. After all, we’re talking about one of the greatest bands ever assembled, every bit as hard-hitting as the Count Basie band at its best. But both Curtis and Aretha? Looking back, it really does seem like it was some kind of collective dream, and like the best dreams, it can be dimly recalled but never reproduced.”

Two months after the triumph, Atlantic released Franklin’s live album, with its haunting Jim Marshall cover, which was both a sales and critical success. “Aretha Live at Fillmore West is one of the peaks of soul music, and it has everything to do with Curtis,” Brad Farberman says. “I think the difference here was that this was not just a band, or even her band, but collaboration. This was the greatest vocalist of all time meeting the greatest bandleader of all time.”

King Curtis’s own live album wasn’t released until the first week in August 1971. Indeed, that year was shaping up as a great one for the thirty-seven-year-old musician. In addition to the slamming gigs, Curtis also appeared on Donny Hathaway’s exquisite song “Giving Up” on his self-titled second album, recorded two tracks with John Lennon at the Record Plant (“It’s So Hard” and “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Mama”) for the Phil Spector–produced Imagine album, had an old song, “Hot Potato (Piping Hot),” used for the theme of a new show called Soul Train, and bought the eight-family apartment house at 50 West Eighty-Sixth Street for a hundred grand.

Fast-forward to August 13, 1971. Curtis visited the property to install a new air conditioner. It was close to midnight, but instead of the humid block being deserted, junkie Juan Montanez, twenty-six years old, of 100 West Ninety-Second Street, was sitting on the stairs shooting up with a friend. Curtis asked them to move, but, when Montanez refused, the men got into a fistfight.

King Curtis was a big man with big hands who wore a thick ring on his left pinkie. I would presume that a slam or punch from him would hurt like hell. In a coward move straight out of a B-movie, Montanez pulled out a knife and plunged the blade into Curtis’s chest. Curtis removed the knife and got in a few feeble stabs into his attacker. Montanez stumbled up the block as King Curtis collapsed.

Though I have no idea how much time passed, eventually, the paramedics arrived. By the time the ambulance screeched into Roosevelt Hospital driveway, the soulful saxman was dead. When police arrived at the hospital, they discovered that another man was being treated for stab wounds, so they investigated. That patient was Juan Montanez

Soul expert and crime novelist Nelson George, a native New Yorker who was fourteen when the saxophonist was murdered, remembers it well. “King Curtis’s death, to me, is a symbol of the random violence that marked New York City in the ’70s,” says George, whose latest book, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic Books), was published in August. “Junkies took over sections of the city and tainted much of the rest. The clubs and R&B scene that nurtured King Curtis and so many others would be weakened and eventually destroyed by the heroin.”

Four days later, as Jet magazine reported, a crowd of over two thousand “relatives, family friends, colleagues, and people who just loved his music” gathered at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church to say their farewells. For an hour before the funeral, the Kingpins played. Stevie Wonder performed “Abraham, Martin and John”; Jesse Jackson and Rev. C. L. Franklin preached the service; and Aretha, backed by Cissy Houston and Arthur Prysock, sang “Soul Serenade.” The New York Times reported: “Older jazz musicians in the congregation included Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn and Herbie Mann.”

In the meantime, Jet kept it real by reporting of the beef between Curtis’s miffed “former shake dancer wife” Ethelyn Ousley, whom he’d been separated from for seven years, and girlfriend Modeen Broughton. Because of a “disrespectful” seating arrangement, Mrs. Ousley, with her eleven-year-old son, Curtis Jr., stormed out of the church before the ceremony was over. Curtis was buried in a red granite-fronted wall crypt in the West Gallery of Forsythia Court mausoleum at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, New York. 

Six months later, during Juan Montanez’s trial in February 1972, he agreed to plea to a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. The punk got seven years in prison, served almost six, and was released in December 1977. “It’s heartbreaking when any artist dies,” Brad Farberman says, “but King Curtis was really ascending so fast at the time of his death in 1971. Look at his active last months, and then we lose him in August. I would say he had a lot more left to do.” 

Years later, Franklin told soul historian Gerri Hirshey for the book Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, “King Curtis could make me laugh so hard...he was a soul superhero, and I miss him still.” King Curtis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

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