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Artist Spotlight: King Curtis

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 7, 1934, Curtis Ousley began playing the saxophone at age twelve, taking interest in jazz, rhythm and blues, and pop music. Determined to become professional musician, he declined scholarships and instead joined the Lionel Hampton jazz band. In 1952, Ousley moved to New York where he became a session musician for a number of record labels. Using the stage name King Curtis, he became known as a skilled and versatile musician, particularly a virtuoso saxophonist.

The late 50’s and early 60’s saw King Curtis working with rock & roll acts such as Buddy Holly (“Reminiscing”) and The Coasters (“Yakety Yak”), while also releasing his best known songs, “Soul Twist” and “Soul Serenade”. In 1965 he began recording for Atlantic Records where he produced his most successful singles, “Memphis Soul Stew” and “Ode to Billie Joel”, to date.

King Curtis also began to produce records at this time in addition to taking the lead in Aretha Franklin’s backing band, The Kingpins. A week after recording a series of concerts with Franklin and the Kingpins, Ousley was returning to his apartment late on August 31, 1971, when he noticed two junkies on his steps using drugs. After telling the men to leave, an argument arose and escalated to a brawl. One of the men drew a knife and stabbed Ousley in the chest. Curtis then wrestled away the knife and proceeded to stab the junkie four times. King Curtis was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he died less than an hour after the altercation. His assailant had been brought to the same emergency room, where police connected him to the murder and was subsequently imprisoned. Atlantic Records closed their offices the day of King Curtis’ funeral, which was attended by family and those who revered the late saxophonist, including Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Brook Benton and Duane Allman. “King” Curtis Ousley was buried in New York’s Pinelawn Memorial Park, the same cemetery where Count Basie and John Coltrane were laid to rest.

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