Here’s a clip of saxophone superman and soul music legend King Curtis with his 1967 single and signature tune “Memphis Soul Stew”. No self-respecting soul compilation album should be without it as an opening track.
King Curtis was a giant when it came to sax, touching on soul but also R&B and rock ‘n’ roll as well, playing the famous solo in the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”, and playing with fellow Texan Buddy Holly too. By the time the 60s rolled around, he’d recorded for a number of labels and in a number of styles. Yet, I really think this is his signature tune once he found a home on Atlantic Records by 1965.
“Memphis Soul Stew” is an ode to Southern soul music that brings out something of the funk that lays at the heart of it. It helps that he had some heavyweight players behind him including Jerry Jemmott on bass, Bernard Purdie on drums, and long-time collaborator Cornell Dupree on guitar. These guys became known as the Kingpins, recording a number of sides with Curtis from the mid-60s to the early 70s. Along with the Memphis horns, it’s hard to think how much better these guys could have done in the raw talent department.
King Curtis’ sax would also be a sought after element on other people’s records, and Curtis’ enthusiasm and natural leadership skills made him a success behind the desk as well as in the role of musical director for Aretha Franklin in the early 70s. He of course worked with Jerry Wexler, being in the Atlantic Records stable. And he played on John Lennon’s Imagine album as well.
But like Lennon, his life would be cut short by violence. Curtis was killed in the street just outside of his home in the summer of 1971. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral. But, with a recorded legacy behind him, and with the contributions he made to the development of soul music, it’s impossible to forget him.