Sunday, March 11, 2007

King Curtis & The Kingpins - 8th Wonder (Atco 6582)

8th Wonder

In 1943, a Houston sax player named Illinois Jacquet played a wailin' solo on a Lionel Hampton record called Flying Home. It would climb to #3 on the 'race record' charts, and is considered by some to be the first rock & roll record. That honkin' and hollerin' vamp would spawn a whole generation of 'bar-walking' Texas sax players, and the joint was jumpin'. Growing up outside of Dallas, two young kids were paying attention. Coming up out of their respective High School Bands, Grady Gaines would go on to lead Little Richard's fabled Upsetters, while a young Curtis Ousley took off for New York.

Ousley landed a job in the band of Sam 'The Man' Taylor, who had been instrumental in creating Atlantic Records trademark sound with his elemental saxophone work on early R&B sides by Ruth Brown and Joe Turner. Curtis would continue that tradition, becoming their new 'go-to guy', laying down those stammerin', stutterin' solos on big hits by The Coasters, Chuck Willis and Clyde McPhatter. His own ATCO sides from this period (recorded under the stage name he'd been using since high school, King Curtis), went nowhere, as did an album called Have Tenor Sax Will Blow.

By 1960, he had signed with Prestige, and was exploring his Jazz roots together with great side-men like Nat Adderley and Wynton Kelly. In addition to continuing his session work for small labels like Wand/Scepter (think The Shirelles), he would also release a cool album called Trouble In Mind in 1961, on which he actually sings the blues!

Ousley formed a band around this time called The Noble Knights, that played locally in New York. As we've mentioned before, Bobby Robinson heard them playing at Small's Paradise up in Harlem and bet Curtis he could deliver him a hit record if he let him produce it his way. According to Bobby, that way included a 'less is more' approach that gave the rest of the Knights a chance to stretch out a little bit. Soul Twist would become the first release on Robinson's Enjoy imprint, and a massive hit, topping the R&B charts for two weeks in early 1962.

King Curtis set about forming a crack touring band that he would dub The Kingpins at this point, bringing in great musicians like fellow Texan Cornell Dupree on guitar.

When Little Richard 'got religion' in 1957, Grady Gaines' Upsetters had gone to work for Little Willie John. After that arrangement fell apart in early 1962, Sam Cooke hired them to go out on the road with him. They would share the bill with King Curtis many times that spring, and Sam couldn't help but notice how tight The Kingpins were. Cooke began bugging him about replacing Gaines as his back-up band, but Curtis kept telling him to forget about it, that they were making too much money as freelance studio musicians in New York. Cooke persisted, going so far as to 'name check' Soul Twist in his top five smash Having A Party that summer. After ego problems between Sam and certain members of The Upsetters came to a head, Curtis gave in and consented to go out on tour with Cooke in January of 1963.

Lucky for us, RCA recorded a show from that tour down in Miami at a chitlin' circuit joint called The Harlem Square Club. The resulting album has recently been remastered, and captures both Sam and Curtis at the height of their game. You should own a copy.

The King signed with Capitol around this time, but his singles failed to even dent the charts. An album called Country Soul didn't make much noise either. His second album for the label, Soul Serenade, is an out of print gem. Even though the title track (written by Curtis and Shirelles producer Luther Dixon) barely made it to #51 R&B in early 1964, it has become one of King Curtis' most enduring songs (...helped in part, I'm sure, by the great version that Willie Mitchell took to the R&B top ten in 1968).

By late 1965, King Curtis was back with Atlantic Records, where he would once again become a pivotal part of their sound throughout the 'soul era' at the label. One of the first projects he was involved in was as a producer. Ray Sharpe, a guitarist friend from his Fort Worth days, had had a minor hit in 1959 with a song called Linda Lu. Curtis brought him to ATCO, and the 1966 single Help Me (Get The Feeling) is credited to Ray Sharpe With the King Curtis Orchestra. That 'orchestra' included a young Jimi Hendrix. Although the record tanked, the hot backing track would turn up later on (more on that in a minute). His driving sax would help propel Herbie Mann's Philly Dog into the R&B top 40 later that year.

His work in the studio brought him in contact with a largely ignored staff arranger named Arif Mardin, a Turk that Nesuhi Ertegun had hired and then promptly forgotten about. It was Curtis who brought Mardin's considerable talents to the attention of Jerry Wexler in 1966. As you may recall, when Aretha's Muscle Shoals sessions went south in early 1967, Wexler brought the Fame musicians north, ostensibly to record an album called King Curtis Plays The Great Memphis Hits. Once that was finished, Wexler hunkered down with Curtis, Mardin and Tom Dowd to help him finish Aretha's historic album.

King Curtis was all over it, recycling the Ray Sharpe track from the year before which, with the addition of some new horn charts and lyrics penned by Aretha's sister Carolyn, would become the cookin' Save Me. When the crew in the studio was stuck trying to formulate a bridge to round out Otis Redding's Respect, it was Curtis who came up with the idea of using the bridge section from When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, which he had just recorded for the Memphis Hits album. According to Mardin, "Respect is in C, but that bridge, Curtis' saxophone solo, is in F Sharp - a totally unrelated key, but we liked it! We liked those chords, so we put it in." If that solo was the only thing he ever did, that would be enough for me, man!

Mardin and Ousley became pretty much inseparable from that point on, and worked together on sessions both in New York and Memphis. They recorded the classic Memphis Soul Stew at Chips Moman's American Studios in July of 1967. Today's cool B side (the flip of Theme From the Valley Of The Dolls) was recorded down there that December and, in addition to the usual Memphis Boys, includes the very cool Bobby Womack (an American regular himself by then) on guitar. It's got this kind of Sanford & Son thing goin' on, right? Great stuff.

As the only African American member of the 'inner circle' of producers and arrangers at Atlantic, King Curtis had earned his stripes by consistently adding his own brand of genius to countless sessions over the years. As the decade drew to a close, his own albums like Instant Groove (on which he would use the Ray Sharpe track once again as the basis for the title cut) and Get Ready took their place alongside Atlantic's new roster of artists like Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie and The Allman Brothers Band, all of whom revered him.

By 1970, the touring line-up of The Kingpins had solidified, and in addition to Dupree on guitar, included the legendary Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie on drums, Jerry Jemmott on bass, and Truman Thomas on the keys. Jerry Wexler convinced Aretha Franklin to use them as her back-up band, and booked the whole lot of them into the Fillmore West in February of 1971. The addition of the Memphis Horns and Billy Preston on the Hammond organ made for one kickin' band, let me tell ya. The concerts were taped, and spawned two incredible live albums, the aptly titled Aretha Live At Fillmore West and King Curtis Live At Fillmore West. Check 'em out!

Curtis had become a top-notch producer by then, and had worked on great albums by Roberta Flack, Donnie Hathaway and old Texas pal Freddie King. In the wake of the Fillmore gigs, he became Aretha's musical director, and was producing a long-awaited solo album on Sam Moore.

On August 13th 1971, King Curtis was carrying an air conditioner into his apartment on West 86th Street in Manhattan. Two junkies were sitting on the steps, blocking his way. When he asked them to move, one of them stabbed him in the heart. He was taken to nearby Roosevelt Hospital, but there was nothing they could do.

Atlantic Records closed down their offices on the day of his funeral. Jerry Wexler delivered his eulogy, calling him a "sensitive virtuoso." Aretha Franklin sang the haunting Never Grow Old. He was buried in a cemetery out on Long Island.

Years later, Aretha had this to say to author Gerri Hirshey; "King Curtis could make me laugh so hard... he was a soul superhero, and I miss him still."

Me too.


Blogger Mephisto said...

great post, boy.. you sure put a lot of work in them with all those links... thanks ;)



1:17 AM  
Blogger Marco said...

Another gem of a post on great musician.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Vincent said...

That was a fantastic piece of writing... I am the proud owner of both of the Fillmore records that you speak of, as well as a bunch of 45s. I never knew how he was murdered however... what a shame indeed. I 'd like to ask a nagging question if I may. The Rinky Dinks classic "Hot Potato"; does Curtis play guitar on that record? Reason being the track appeared on a King Curtis comp that I bought some time back where they make a loose reference to Curtis having guitar skills. Please set the record straight for me.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Vincent -

A burning question indeed, and one we've been investigating as part of Case One over at soul detective.

The case is primarily concerned with Joe Haywood, but in researching his 45s that were released on Bobby Robinson's Enjoy and Rampage labels, we encontered this:

"New detective Harry wrote to inform us that the first Ramrods release on RAMPAGE (Soultrain, pts 1&2) was the same recording as a 1963 release by a group called "The Rinkydinks" (imagine?) on ENJOY 1010 - Hot Potato, pts 1&2. You can check this out for yourself by going to the "R" page on the rejuvenated site and playing the real audio links...

Somebody on their site says that The Rinkydinks were a Canadian band, but I think our own detective Dan is probably right about them being a New York group put together by King Curtis (who had the first ever release on ENJOY with "Soul Twist") in 1962."

To confuse matters further, while doing research for this post, I found out that the last entry under 'King Curtis' in Joel Whitburn Presents Top R & B Singles; 1942-1999 (the essential reference guide) is:

RAMPAGE 1000 - Soultrain (Parts 1& 2) by THE RAMRODS, which entered the charts in July of 1972, and almost made the R&B top 40. King Curtis had been dead for almost a year. No further explanation was given as to why it's listed there...

Here's my guess, but so far I can only 'postulate':

Hot Potato was probably a track recorded during Curtis' stint with Robinson in 1962, cut around the same time as Soul Twist. When Curtis signed with Capitol sometime in 1963, Robinson decided to release the song under a different name.

It's my guess that he took Curtis' sax out of the mix, and that the 'Rrinkydinks' are really 'The Noble Knights' laying down a hot groove. Bobby was simply getting some more mileage out of his master tapes. (King Curtis was no stranger to this practice himself, as we've seen with the Ray Sharpe record mentioned above).

Robinson had done pretty much the same thing with Les Cooper's Wiggle Wobble, leaving off Cooper's vocals and sending the instrumental into the R&B top 20 in late 1962. (In an interesting aside, it is reported in some places that the blazing saxophone on Wiggle Wobble is played by King Curtis. According to John Morthland's liner notes in The Fire/Fury Records Story, it wasn't Curtis, but Joe Grier of The Charts).

ANYWAY, why Robinson re-released the Rinkydink's tune again in 1972, giving yet another name to both song and band is beyond me. The wild thing is that, if RAMPAGE 1000 was released in 1972, then the next release by The Ramrods;

RAMPAGE 1003 - Soul Express

(a real mover!) must have been released even after that... nobody is claiming that King Curtis was on
this record, so I'm guessing (again) that it's a different line-up of Ramrods/Rinkydinks entirely.

SO, the real answer is still pretty much up for grabs, but I think the 'recycled backing track' scenario makes a lot more sense than King Curtis suddenly becoming an excellent rhythm guitarist for one record, and then never playing the instrument again.

What do you think?

3:48 PM  
Anonymous gerald said...

Thanks for the info on King Curtis and the song.
I was wondering where you learn your linking skills? I've tried but havent found an easy to follow tutorial. Very impressive, neat and professional.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Vincent said...

I dunno'. Sounds like your theory of recycling backup tracks is the only logical explanation. What brought up my wanting to know had to to with Larry and his writeup about "Blue Nocturne" back in December wanting to know who played guitar on that track. Just for kicks and giggles, I'd love to think it was the late great Duane Allman since he cut his teeth playing on all those great Atco sides back in the day. Could be though... All I can do is thank God I found both "Hot Potato"/"Soultrain" and "Soul Express" on original 45s and rock on... Maybe it's better that it remains a mystery. Thank you for your insight. This is why I state on my blogroll that I learn by watching you since you all really know your stuff... and believe me, I'm learning a lot some several hundred dollars or so later :)

8:21 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Vincent -

I hate to be the one to bust the ol' bubble, but the guitarist on 'Blue Nocturne' was an American Studio musician by the name of R.F. Taylor, who apparently was a trumpet player as well. It was recorded at the same session as its A side, 'Memphis Soul Stew' on the Fourth of July, 1967.

Allman did indeed play with Curtis, on 'The Christmas Song' (ATCO 6630), which was recorded in New York in October 1968, and on the 1969 album 'Instant Groove' (ATCO SD 33-293), which was put together from both Memphis and Muscle Shoals sessions held that February.

Now, as far as the 'links' go... I'm a firm believer in 'em, and I think that's one of the coolest things about the whole web experience. Instead of static bibliographies and footnotes (like books have), the references are instantaneous, and provide an easy and unobtrusive way to cite your sources, and at the same time point your readers in the direction of more music and information.

They are, however, a royal pain in the butt, I'm with ya on that, Gerald! I put 'em in after I write the post, which takes about an extra hour to do.

If you want, you can email me (redkellyAToptonlineDOTnet) and I'll try to go into more detail.

Thanks one and all for the feedback, it is MUCH appreciated.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous juliette said...

holy $^&*! This blog is amazing. Thank you. I'm never leaving.

3:08 AM  
Anonymous Roy Simonds said...

Fell across this blog today! As a complete KC fanatic for the last 30 years I thought I might help you out and make some notes on your comments. First Curtis came to Atlantic/Atco by way of Bob Rolontz, who was then head of A&R at Groove (the RCA subsidiary) who claims to have given his name to Ahmet Ertegun; or according to Curtis himself (interviewed shortly before his death in April 1971 by Charlie Gillett) he was approached by Jesse Stone in a club on 8th Avenue, and offered session work at the label (Stone was then working as a talent scout for Atlantic). He didnt take the stage name King Curtis at that time -- he had been known as King Curtis since his school days according to most sources; his first record in 1954 was definitely under that name (although there was indeed another King Curtis around at the time - one Eddie Curtis, who was later a co-writer on one of the tracks on the Have Tenor Sax LP incidentally). You mentioned the co-writer of Soul Serenade as being LUcky - it was Luther Dixon (the Shirelles producer). And finally the guitar playing bit - Curtis was indeed a guitar player, albeit not exactly a master at it. You can actually see him grab a guitar and play on the video thats around of his 1971 Montreux appearance. The Rinkydinks was definitely him playing lead guitar. The reissues on Rampage with the title "Soul Train" was specifically because that TV show had picked up the original single for its theme -- and Bobby Robinson obviously wasnt gonna let a source of revenue disappear! The follow up Rampage single by the Ramrods as you say had absolutely no connection with King Curtis. Moving on to "Blue Nocturne" -- sorry, although R F Taylor was on the session, it is 100% definite that Curtis played the guitar himself. YOu might also pick up the cd called "Didnt He Play" (for which I did the original sleevenotes on the LP version, but my namecheck has been excised from the cd!) where you will find the demo version done in Herb Abramson's studio a few weeks before the Memphis sessions.

If any of you out there are into seriously detailed discography of King Curtis, I am happy to let you have a copy in Word format (180 odd pages) by email. You'll be surprised at what he did play on!Drop me a line at

5:10 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Well, how about that! Thank you, Roy for setting the record straight.

I guess King Curtis was indeed some guitar player if everybody thought the lead he played on Blue Nocturne was by Duane Allman! ...and I never realized that the 'Soul Train' theme was based on 'Hot Potato'. That is a definite trip.

It's great to see that Curtis' legacy has been explored so thouroughly, and that an 'expert' like you actually exists... can't wait for my copy of the discography!

Thanks again for all the input!

8:43 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Hey folks, here's some more about King Curtis' guitar chops:

From July through Dec. '66 I lived in Montreal, PQ, Canada and every Monday night I would go to the Esquire Showbar, 1234 Stanley St., a true HOME of
R&B. On one of these occasions I had the privilege of catching King Curtis & the Noble Knights, and besides his excellent sax work, KC sometimes
played a white Fender Jazzmaster guitar!

Yours in Music,
Lee Van L

Thanks, Lee!

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Bob in Naples, FL said...

Is there any source that lists all the single hits by others that Curtis played sax on) (eg:Yakety Yak-Coasters)Thanks, former DJ Bob in Naples, FL

10:16 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Bob -

I'm not sure hoe detailed it is, but King Curtis expert Roy Simonds left this in the comments a few years ago:

"If any of you out there are into seriously detailed discography of King Curtis, I am happy to let you have a copy in Word format (180 odd pages) by email. You'll be surprised at what he did play on!Drop me a line at"

Drop Him A Line!


8:31 AM  

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