Heavenly Blues: The Soul of King Curtis

Curtis Montgomery was born in Fort Worth, Texas on 7th February 1934. Along with his sister Josephine, he was adopted by William and Josie Ousley, taking their family name. Experiencing a comfortable and stable childhood in the affluent Texan city of Mansfield, his parents encouraged their son when he began learning to play the saxophone at the age of 12, in the hope of emulating his idols Lester Young and Louis Jordan.

As a member of his high school band, it became obvious to all who heard him, that Ousley’s talent was something special. Rejecting the numerous college scholarships he was offered, Ousley instead joined the Lionel Hampton Band. A renowned musician and bandleader, Hampton had been involved with some of the most respected names in the industry, such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker.

Ousley moved to New York, the home of the American Jazz scene in 1952. He found work as a session musician, and recorded with artists like Nat Adderley, Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and The Coasters, contributing to their 1958 hit, Yakety Yak. For the next decade, having taken the moniker King Curtis, he continued to work with major stars, as well as making an impressive number of his own recordings after signing with Capitol Records; notable albums from that period were Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow (1959), The New Scene of King Curtis (1960), Trouble In Mind (1962) and Soul Serenade (1964).

Above: King Curtis – Soul Serenade (1964)

Signing to Atlantic Records in 1966, King Curtis found himself following a different musical path and returning to his first love, rhythm and blues. In 1966 he released two albums, Live At Small’s Paradise and That Lovin’ Feeling, followed by King Curtis Plays the Great Memphis Hits in 1967, and Sweet Soul in 1968. Two further albums, Eternally Yours, a collaboration with the girl group The Shirelles for Scepter Records and Sax In Motion for RCA Camden were also issued that year.

Under Atlantic, King Curtis released Instant Groove in 1969, and Get Ready in 1970. For Ember Records, he recorded the LP ‘Mister Soul’ also in 1970 and back with Atlantic in 1971, he made Live At Fillmore West, which included his greatest hit Memphis Soul Stew and several cover versions, including his rendition of Led Zepplin’s Whole Lotta Love. Leading Aretha Franklin’s backing band The Kingpins, he also appeared on her second live album, Aretha Live At Fillmore West.

Above: King Curtis and the Kingpins performing Memphis Soul Stew live.

Now a major star himself, King Curtis regularly sold out venues across America and Europe, and had even collaborated with John Lennon on the ex-Beatle’s 1971 album, Imagine.

On a personal level, his life also appeared to be taking a turn for the better. After separating from his wife Ethelyn seven years earlier, relations had thawed between the couple and he was seeing more of his eleven year-old son, Curtis Jr., he had also found love again with the glamorous socialite Modeen Broughton, and intended to marry her once his divorce from Ethelyn was finalised.

Whilst entertaining friends at his recently purchased lavish Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan on the evening of 13th August 1971, one of his guests asked King Curtis to turn down the air conditioning. To reach the basement of the building, where the system was, he had to walk past the front of it; seeing two men whom he suspected were drug dealers loitering outside, he ordered them to leave the premises. One of them became aggressive and a scuffle ensued, during which the man pulled out a knife and stabbed King Curtis in the heart. Despite being seriously hurt, the musician managed to wrestle the blade from his attacker’s hands, and turn his own weapon on him.

King Curtis died soon after his arrival at the city’s Mount Sinai Roosevelt Hospital. His assailant, 26 year-old Juan Montanez was found unconscious by the police just a few blocks from the scene of the crime; he was taken to hospital where he was treated and then charged with homicide. A year later, Montanez who had pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter received the derisory sentence of seven years, and served nearly six before his release in 1977.

Over 2,000 mourners attended the funeral of King Curtis, which was held at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. As a mark of respect, Atlantic Records remained closed for the day. The sermon was conducted by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who told the crowd ‘the hope that King Curtis blew into the human soul was the hope that is the spiritual force which is the enemy of despair.’

At the service the Kingpins played Soul Serenade, Aretha Franklin sang the poignant Gospel ballad, Where We’ll Never Grow Old and Stevie Wonder performed Dick Holler’s 1968 hit Abraham, Martin and John, amending the song’s title by adding ‘and now King Curtis.’ The guitarist Duane Allman, a close friend of the saxophonist, who had worked with him on Instant Groove and who would die himself in a motorcycle accident only two months later, remarked ‘About King Curtis – that was one of the finest cats there ever was.’

King Curtis was buried in a red-granite wall-crypt at the Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale New York, also the final resting place of John Coltrane and later Count Baisie. Twenty-nine years after his death, in March 2000, he was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1965, King Curtis gave a rare interview to the broadcaster Hugh Downs, for a recording entitled Great Moments For Young Americans, made on behalf of the U.S. Army. When asked by Downs what his favourite musical style was, without hesitation, he answered, ‘I particularly like the authentic rhythm and blues, I think it has more soul than any other music.’ 

Above: King Curtis – Heavenly Blues (1959)


Selected Sources:

The Day the Music Died – Les MacDonald (2010)

Rock Obituaries: Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Nick Talevski (2010)

Jet, 2nd September 1971





41 years on, long live the King