Curtis Ousley (born Curtis Montgomery; February 7, 1934 – August 13, 1971), who performed under the stage name King Curtis, was an American saxophonist known for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, blues, funk and soul jazz. Variously a bandleader, band member, and session musician, he was also a musical director and record producer. Adept at tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, he played riffs and solos on such hit singles as “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, and “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters (the latter of which later became the inspiration for Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax”) and his own “Memphis Soul Stew”.
Curtis was stabbed on August 13, 1971, during an argument with a pair of drug dealers he discovered on the steps outside his Manhattan apartment. Curtis was attempting to carry an air conditioner into his apartment when Juan Montanez refused to move from the entrance. A fight ensued and Montanez stabbed Curtis. Curtis was transferred to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died. In March 1972, Montanez had his sentence reduced from second degree murder to second degree manslaughter in exchange for pleading guilty and served seven years. However he was released on December 5, 1977 from Wallkill State Correctional for good behavior.
On the day of Curtis’s funeral Atlantic Records closed their offices. Jesse Jackson administered the service and as the mourners filed in, Curtis’s band, the Kingpins, played “Soul Serenade”. Among those attending were Ousley’s immediate family, including sister Josephine Ousley Allen, other family members, Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, Brook Benton and Duane Allman. Franklin sang the closing spiritual “Never Grow Old” and Stevie Wonder performed “Abraham, Martin and John and now King Curtis”. Allman went on to honor Curtis by interleaving a medley of “Soul Serenade” into the band’s rendition of “You Don’t Love Me”, first in a show at the Academy of Music on East 14th Street in Manhattan on August 15, and later during a live in-studio recording at A&R Studios in Manhattan on August 26, recorded for posterity and released on LP as part of the band’s Dreams compilation in 1989.
Curtis was buried in a red granite-fronted wall crypt in the ‘West Gallery of Forsythia Court’ mausoleum at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, New York, the same cemetery where Count Basie and John Coltrane are buried.