KING CURTIS: The Complete Atco singles (Real Gone/Rhino)

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King Curtis (Ousley) was one of the giants of early soul. He was right there at its conception garnishing hits like ‘Yakety Yak’ and ‘Charlie Brown’ with his singular, distinct sax style and during the genre’s Golden Age he played with most of soul’s gallacticos – most notably, of course, Aretha. The Texan also enjoyed his own successful solo career and most of that success came whilst he worked for the Atco label. Curtis enjoyed two stints at the Atlantic subsidiary; 1958 – 1959 and then from 1965 till his untimely death in 1971, stabbed outside a Manhattan brownstone.

Reissue specialists Real Gone (in collaboration with Rhino) have here collected all of King Curtis’ Atco singles (all the A and B sides) and the 66 tracks (spread over 3 CDs) form an impressive body of work.

The first ten cuts come from Ousley’s first stint with Atco and tracks ‘Just Smoochin” , ‘Chill’ and covers of ‘Honeydripper’ and ‘Birth Of The Blues’ owe more to the sound of authentic R&B than urban soul, hardly surprising given the time span. None were hits and so Curtis moved first to Enjoy and then Capitol where he scored with cuts like ‘Soul Twist’, ‘Do The Monkey’ and ‘Soul Serenade’ – the tune that would become his signature.

That success led Atco to tempt him back in 1965 and over the next 6 years he released none albums and some 28 singles. Interestingly many of the tunes that featured on the singles were never included on his LPs, so for Curtis completists, this collection is a must.

The fare on offer is similar to what many other soul instrumentalists offered in the 60s; that’s to say, a mix of originals and well-chosen covers. And it was a cover of Ben E King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ with which Curtis kicked off his second stint at Atco. Unsurprisingly for the 60s, the Atlantic/Atco execs simply dubbed Curtis’ sax over the original backing track; they then repeated the process with the Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’. Other soul tunes that King Curtis famously covered include ‘Dancing In The Streets’ (writing credited to “Allison/Allison” rather than the Motown team!), ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ and ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’. He also found plenty to cover in the worlds of, pop and rock – ‘Harper Valley PTA’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ for instance. King Curtis’ biggest Atco hit, though, was the original ‘Memphis Soul Stew’. The cut featured the best of Muscle Shoals’ session players and throughout his solo career, Curtis used only the best studio players (be it in Memphis or New York) to augment his distinct, honking, old school sax sound.

To make this collection even more essential to 60s soul collectors, the compilers have discovered both sides of a previously unreleased song ‘Ridin’ Thumb parts 1 and 2′. Part 1 features a rare King Curtis vocal but there’s still plenty of raucous sax to let you know who the cut’s by… in essence, the mark of a great artist; original, distinctive, a one off… King Curtis.

(BB 4/5)