Ousley, Curtis [King Curtis] (1934–1971)

By: James Head

Type: Biography

Published: December 5, 2006

Updated: August 10, 2015

Curtis Ousley, better known as "King Curtis," saxophonist and guitarist, was born in Fort Worth on February 7, 1934. Ousley was raised in Mansfield by adoptive parents. As a child, he was fascinated by the music of saxophonists Lester Young and Louis Jordan, which he heard regularly on the radio. Hoping to encourage their son's musical interests, Curtis's parents gave him a saxophone when he was twelve. He honed his skills playing with his high school band and with a pop band he formed.

He moved to New York City in 1952 and subsequently played with Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter, The Coasters, the Alan Freed Band, and other groups. Throughout the 1950s he toured the United States and Europe with Lionel Hampton's band. During that time, Curtis mastered the guitar and learned to arrange music. He stopped touring in the early 1960s, moved back to New York, and soon became one of the best-known saxophone players of the 1960s. He played backup for numerous singers, including Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Sam Cooke, Connie Francis, Nat King Cole, the Coasters, and Buddy Holly.

Curtis formed his own group, the Noble Knights, in the early 1960s. He later changed their name to the King Pins. The group signed with Enjoy Records and recorded a Number 1 R&B single, "Soul Twist," in 1962. In the 1960s, fifteen of Curtis's recordings made the pop charts. He recorded for Prestige and Capitol Records and signed with the Atco label in 1965. He stayed with that label for the remainder of his career, making numerous records, including King Curtis Plays the Great Memphis Hits, That Lovin' Feeling, and King Size Soul. A couple of his songs, "Memphis Soul Stew" and "Ode to Billie Joe," recorded in 1967, were huge hits. Curtis had even more success in the late 1960s, when soul music became more popular. His record sales soared, and he became highly sought after for concerts and music festivals around the country and in Europe. He was at the apex of his career—producing Freddie King, directing Aretha Franklin, and working on a John Lennon album—when he was fatally stabbed outside his New York City apartment. He died from the wounds on August 14, 1971. He was survived by a son, Curtis, Jr. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Ed Decker, ed., Contemporary Musicians (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995). Michael Erlewine, et al., eds., AMG All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts' Guide to the Best Blues Recordings (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1999). H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (New York: Macmillan, 1986). Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (London: Macmillan, 1988). Irwin Stambler, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977).

  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James Head, “Ousley, Curtis [King Curtis],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ousley-curtis-king-curtis.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 5, 2006
August 10, 2015

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