King Curtis, 1934-1971

Yakety Yak is one of the great pop records. It has sharp lyrics and tight vocal harmonies. It also has that famous saxophone part, played by the great King Curtis.

‘King’ Curtis Montgomery was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1934. He started playing the saxophone aged 12 and while at high school he played with his fellow student, the future jazz great Ornette Coleman. After a spell in Lionel Hampton’s band, he moved the New York in 1952 to become a session musician. He recorded with artists as diverse as Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, and Andy Williams, and in 1958 he cut Yakety Yak with The Coasters.

Curtis moved to Atlantic Records in 1965 and his solo career began to flourish. In 1967 he recorded his signature tune, Memphis Soul Stew, and the following year he contributed a wonderful version of The Christmas Song, made famous by Nat King Cole, to Stax Records’ Soul Christmas LP, the best Christmas album ever recorded.

But these were turbulent times in America. As I write in the current issue of Thinking Minnesota, “the homicide rate multiplied by two and a half times between 1957 and 1980, from a low of 4.0 per 100,000 to a high of 10.2”.

King Curtis was one of the victims. On August 13, 1971, he returned to his New York home and found two drug dealers in the doorway. He asked them to move and, when they refused, a fight broke out. As the New York Times reported,

As they reconstructed the fight, the suspect drew a knife and stabbed Mr. Curtis, who was well over 6 feet tall and powerfully built.

Before Mr. Curtis collapsed the police said, he seized the knife from his assailant and stabbed him. Mr. Montanez, according to the police, staggered from the scene before their arrival.

The musician was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died. 

In March 1972, his killer was sentenced to seven years for second-degree manslaughter. He was released for good behavior in 1977.

Curtis was just 37 when he was murdered, leaving his 11 year old son without a father. He left behind an incredible body of work but, had he lived, there would have been so much more. Behind the bare numbers of crime statistics are human stories like that of King Curtis. For now, I’ll leave you with his sublime version of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. It was recorded in San Francisco in March 1971 and released on the classic album Live at Fillmore West just one week before his death.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.