Our top 10 King Curtis songs looks back at one of the greatest saxophone players in classic rock history. King Curtis, who’s real name was Curtis Montgomery was a saxophonist born in Texas in 1934. He started playing music at the age of twelve when he first took up the instrument. He was interested in several different genres such as jazz, blues and pop. He turned down a scholarship at music college to join the Lionel Hampton Band. He learnt guitar with this group as well as how to arrange music. In 1952 he moved to New York to become a sessions musician and played with several other musicians including Buddy Holly.
As much as he enjoyed playing both jazz and rhythm and blues, he figured that he would make more money specializing in the latter. From the mid-1950s-60s he continued work as a session musician with people such as The Coasters and Buddy Holly also hired him for session work. He recorded his best-known singles during this period with cuts such as “Soul Twist” and “Soul Serenade.” He would go on to have greater success after moving to Atlantic in 1965. The following year he recorded three songs with Jimi Hendrix which never saw the light of day after they were destroyed in a fire. In addition to his work with The Coasters he was also the leader of Aretha Franklin’s backing band The Kingpins who opened for The Beatles when they played at Shea Stadium in 65. Curtis was also a prolific producer who often worked alongside Jerry Wexler. In 1971 he played on two tracks on John Lennon’s Imagine. Not long afterwards, his life was tragically cut short when he was stabbed to death after an altercation with a couple of drug dealers.
# 10 – Soul Serenade
First up is this jazz instrumental that Curtis wrote with Luther Dixon. It is the title track of Curtis’ album released in 1964. It reached fifty-one on the US pop charts. There have been cover versions of it by Aretha Franklin, Willie Mitchell, The Allman Brothers Band, The Derek Trucks Band, Gloria Lynne and Maxine Brown.
# 9 – Joe South- Games People Play
In 1970, the year before his death, Curtis won a Grammy for Best R&B instrumental performance for his playing on this track that was released in 1968. Also featured on this recording is Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. The track won two Grammy Awards and charted well upon its release as a single from the album Introspect, reaching number twelve on the Hot 100 and number six in the UK.
# 8 – For What It’s Worth
This number is another instrumental cover of the well-known Buffalo Springfield track released in 1966. This version was put out a year later and got to number eighty-seven on the pop charts. There have been many other covers of it over the years by artists as diverse as Rush, Cher, Queensryche, Ozzy Osbourne and Public Enemy.
# 7 – Spanish Harlem
This track was originally by Ben E King and was written by Jerry Lieber and the recently deceased Phil Spector, released in 1960. Aretha Franklin also had her own version which Curtis did not play on, despite the fact that they were frequent collaborators. This version was released in 1965 and got to number eighty-nine on the pop charts.
# 6 – John Lennon- It’s So Hard
Curtis provides the saxophone on this track from 1971’s Imagine. It was one of final recordings before his death that same year. When the album’s title track was released as a single, this was the B side to it. It is one of two cuts on the album that Curtis plays on, the other being “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier.” The album is considered to be one of the greatest of all time and upon its release topped the charts in the UK and the US.
# 5 – Ode to Billy Joe
This next track is not originally by Curtis but is a jazz instrumental version of a song by Bobbie Gentry originally released in 1967, this was released the same year and recorded with The Kingpins. This version was commercially successful reaching number six on the R&B chart and number twenty-eight on the US Billboard 100.
# 4 – Laverne Barker- I Cried A Tear
Released in 1958, this track that features Curtis on saxophone was Laverne Barker’s biggest hit getting to number two on the R&B charts number six on the pop chart. It is one of a number songs of hers that he played on, with his saxophone playing often being considered to be a “second voice” on Barker’s records.
# 3 – Heard it Through The Grape Vine
Here is a jazz instrumental version of the classic track originally by Gladys Knight and the Pips and famously covered by Marvin Gaye. This version got to number eighty-three on the US Pop charts. A song that is regarded as one of the all-time greatest soul classics, like many such songs there have been many covers of it over the past few decades. Other versions include an extended eleven-minute interpretation by Creedence Clearwater Revival on their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory as well as a punk version by The Slits.
# 2 – Soul Twist
Just off the top spot on our Top 10 King Curtis songs list is this instrumental crossover single from 1962. It was his debut single on the R&B charts and his most successful, topping that chart and remaining at the top of it for two weeks. It also crossed over into the mainstream top forty, being the first of three Curtis singles to do so.
# 1 – Aretha Franklin- Respect
Although originally by Otis Redding, this track which features Curtis is without a doubt the signature song from Aretha Franklin released in 1967. The version is very much a different interpretation of Otis Redding’s 1965 original in the sense that whereas his was a desperate plea to a woman, Franklin’s is all about empowerment. It topped both the R&B and Billboard Top 100 charts, as well as many others across the world.