If you’re a sax player and you’re into rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock ‘n’ roll , or soul, then King Curtis is a player you should check out.
Dean Hilson from the Sax School Online Tutor Team shares a quick introduction to the music of King Curtis and why he was such a huge influence on pretty much every sax player that followed him.
Dean will suggest some tracks and albums for you to go away and listen to, and we’ll dig into some classic King Curtis solos.
And, there’s a solo transcription for you too, which you can get FREE from our Locker. You should definitely sign up for that, because that’s where we keep all of our free saxophone resources.
Rock N Roll Sax
Each month in Sax School we focus on something new with our members. This month it’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll sax, and our members are learning a fun original Challenge Song called “King Twist”. This follows on from our Blues Mastery course which is included with Sax School PRO membership.
Why do we need to know about King Curtis?
King Curtis had an incredible work ethic. He moved with the times, taking his sax playing from jazz, rhythm and blues to rock and roll, and soul. Curtis was a career sax player who wasn’t afraid to follow the money. He moved from jazz to rhythm and blues when it’s popularity took off. And he said “I love the authentic rhythm and blues more than anything, and I also like to live well.”
Where he went, others followed. Everything he played has been learned and copied by other sax players that came after him.
Tragically King Curtis was murdered at the age of just 37 years old. What could he have achieved if he had lived longer?
King Curtis was born Curtis Montgomery in Fort Worth, Texas in February 1934. He and his sister were adopted by the Ousleys, and he became Curtis Ousley.
Curtis started playing saxophone at the age of twelve in the Fort Worth area. He got into many musical genres including jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular music.
Right from the start, Curtis set out to be a career sax player. He turned down college scholarships in order to join the Lionel Hampton Band.
In 1952 Curtis decided to move to New York and became a session musician, recording for big name labels with artists such as trumpeter Nat Adderley (younger brother on Cannonball Adderley), country singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings, and Buddy Holly and Andy Williams.
King Curtis’s Career
King Curtis and the King Pins even opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, and Curtis went on to record with John Lennon as a solo artist.
Curtis was a hardworking musician who seems to have avoided the drug and alcohol problems that dogged many of his contemporaries. Sadly he was stabbed and murdered by drug dealers on the doorstep to his home in New York in 1971. Curtis fought back though, managing to disarm his attacker and stab him 4 times.
Both men were taken to the Roosevelt Hospital, where Curtis later died. However the Police became suspicious about the other man with stab wounds, and charged Mr Montanez with Curtis’ homicide.
King Curtis was posthumously inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. From jazz big bands to small vocal groups, from rhythm and blues to rock, the sax playing of King Curtis spanned and influenced a whole generation of music lovers and musicians.
King Curtis Albums and Tracks to Check Out
For a taster of Curtis’ early career, check out “ The Coasters Greatest Hits.” This is the definitive early rock and roll saxophone style. You’ll have heard the track “Yakety Yak” before, and Curtis’ staccato style in his solo is instantly recognisable, becoming known as “Yakety Sax” – a style in itself. In 1963 Boots Randoph recorded his own track “called “Yakety Sax” inspired by Curtis’ solo, and it was a huge hit – best known as the Benny Hill Show TV theme.
Soul Twist released in 1962 was a big hit for King Curtis. It’s is a great example of the classic, mid career King Curtis sound – it’s authoritative, dirty, gritty and rockin. Other great recordings from this period are “Sack O’ Woe Twist” and “Wobble Twist”.
Saxophone Effects Innovator
Always the early adopter, King Curtis was in the vanguard of saxophone players experimenting with the use of electronic effects on saxophone, along with Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris and Rusty Bryant. Curtis used effects on the soprano sax and you can hear great examples of this on the track “I Stand Accused” on the Live at Fillmore West album.
“Live at Fillmore West” was Curtis’ last album and regarded by many as possibly his finest recording. It includes legendary tracks such as “Whole Lotta Love”, and “Whiter Shade of Pale.” On many of these tracks Curtis plays soprano sax. Curtis and the Kingpins also recorded “Aretha Live at Fillmore West with Aretha Franklin at the same sessions in March 1971 – considered one of Aretha’s finest.
The Solo Transcription: Yakety Yak
This solo ticks all the boxes for what you want from a great rock ‘n’ roll solo of this period. It references the melody, it’s harmonically simple, completely within the chord, rhythmically driving and packed with attitude.
There are some techniques you’ll need to execute this solo properly.
- Staccato tonguing technique: Say “taka tah” or “taka toi”. Use these for sections such as the pick-up.
- Scoops and Bends: Scooping up to the note, pretend you’re saying “Twah”. To bend the note downwards by a semi-tone (like in bars 12, 25, and 28) move your lower jaw quickly as if you’re saying y’all”.
Watch the video for a demonstration of this technique. You can also achieve this with regular articulation but it’s more difficult.
This solo goes by quickly, so you might want to practice it slowly with a metronome or using a slow downer app.
Don’t forget to grab your free solo transcription from our Locker – the link is above – so you try it yourself.
And if you’re into this style of playing, you should definitely check out our Blues Mastery Course.
It’s available as part of our Sax School Pro membership. In Blues Mastery we dig deep into the playing of King Curtis, as well as Lee Allen, Red Prysock, and Sil Austin, to help you develop your own improvising skills on saxophone.