King Curtis Laukea

King Curtis

Curtis Ousley (February 7, 1934August 13, 1971), who performed under the name King Curtis, was an American tenor, alto, and soprano saxophonist and session musician who played rhythm and blues, soul, Rock and roll, and soul jazz. He was also a Musical Director and Record Producer. He is best known for his distinctive sax riffs and solos on such hits as The Coasters' "Yakety Yak"(which later became the inspiration for Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax"), and his own "Memphis Soul Stew".


Curtis was born in Fort Worth, Texas. During the 1950s and early to mid 1960s he both worked as a session player on such records as "Yakety Yak" and recorded his own singles. He played on the Buddy Holly song "Reminiscing," after Buddy himself personally hired him to do some studio work. His best known singles from this period are "Soul Twist" (Enjoy Records) and "Soul Serenade" (Capitol Records). In 1965 he moved to Atlantic Records, where his most successful singles were "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode to Billie Joe". He led Aretha Franklin's backup band, The Kingpins, and produced records, at first with Jerry Wexler and then by himself. He also recorded for Groove Records.

One of his last releases was the critically acclaimed Live At Fillmore West which boasted heavyweight live versions of "Memphis Soul Stew" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered". Musicians Billy Preston (organ), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Cornell Dupree (guitar; Curtis had a long standing relationship with Dupree), Pancho Morales (percussion), Bernard Purdie (drums) and The Memphis Horns backed up Curtis. The album's live version of Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale was used as the title music in the seminal 1980s British comedy film Withnail & I.

Curtis also played a rousing sax solo on "It's So Hard", a song featured on John Lennon's Imagine album, which was released just weeks after his death.


On Friday August 13, 1971, at the height of a New York heat wave, King Curtis was carrying an air conditioner unit into his apartment at 50 W.86th St. He found his access blocked by two men administering drugs to themselves. He asked them to move. There was a scuffle, and one of the men, later identified as Juan Montanez, stabbed King Curtis in the heart with a knife. (According to Sam Moore, the attack was witnessed by Aretha Franklin and Moore himself, both of whom were arriving at Curtis's apartment to discuss recording sessions he was producing for them.) Curtis was hurried to Roosevelt Hospital, but was dead on arrival. The funeral was held four days later. As the mourners filed in, Curtis' Kingpins played an hour long version of "Soul Serenade" and a number of musicians got up to play. Jesse Jackson preached the service, and Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, Brook Benton and Duane Allman were among those attending. Aretha sang the closing spiritual, 'Never Grow Old'. The Atlantic Records office closed for the day.

Curtis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000.

Partial discography

  • 1959 The Good Old Fifties
  • 1959 Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow
  • 1960 Azure
  • 1960 king soul
  • 1960 Soul Meeting
  • 1961 Party Time
  • 1961 Trouble In Mind
  • 1961 Old Gold
  • 1961 Night Train
  • 1962 Doin' the Dixie Twist
  • 1962 Country Soul
  • 1962 king curtis & the Noble Knights - soul twist
  • 1962 Soul Twist and Other Golden Classics
  • 1962 It's Party Time
  • 1962 The best of
  • 1964 Soul Serenade
  • 1965 Plays Hits Made by Sam Cooke
  • 1966 That Lovin' Feeling
  • 1966 Live At Small's Paradise
  • 1967 play Great Memphis Hits
  • 1967 king curtis and the kingpins - King size Soul
  • 1968 Sweet Soul
  • 1968 king curtis and the shirelles - Eternally, Soul
  • 1969 Instant Groove (Includes four songs with Duane Allman on slide guitar)
  • 1970 Everybody Talkin
  • 1970 get ready
  • 1971 Live at Fillmore West - live
  • 1971 Blues a Montreux
  • 1972 mr Soul
  • 1972 Soul Time
  • 1985 Live In New York
  • 1994 Instant Soul - The legendary King Curtis - compilation
  • 2006 Memphis Soul Stew
  • 2007 The Platinum Collection


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