King Curtis Finds His Instant Groove

Originally posted April 16, 2008

I recall Rick and I passing some idle time one afternoon or evening in early 1972, pondering music, as we were wont to do. Our topic that day was trying to guess who would be the next entrants into Playboy magazine’s music hall of fame.

When I’d turned eighteen the fall before, my parents had reluctantly agreed that I was old enough to purchase and read the magazine. A family friend about that time had offered to loan me his collection of the magazines, which dated back to the mid-1960s. Being eighteen, I found diversion in every edition of the magazine (it’s useful to keep in mind that those diversions were much more sedate than many things one can encounter on the ’Net these days by simple accident), but I soon learned that two of the magazine’s monthly editions were especially intriguing: August for its pro football preview, an intelligent and comprehensive piece generally written by Anson Mount; and February, for its extensive look at pop, rock and jazz. Among the highlights of the February edition was the revelation of the new entrants into the magazine’s music hall of fame.

Just as I had recently discovered that the articles in Playboy served a purpose beyond filling the space between pictures, so had the editors of the magazine recently discovered that rock music was worthy of their attentions. When one looked at the list of those inducted into the magazine’s music hall of fame, one found the early members to be folks like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. It was about 1969 or 1970 when the focus shifted, and those being honored were rock icons, with the first rock members of the hall being – if my memory serves me – Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

(Two asides here: First, I have been unable so far to find online a list of the members of the magazine’s hall of fame. I imagine I could find one if I subscribed to the magazine’s website, but I’ll save my shekels. Second, I believe my memory of Dylan, McCartney and Lennon as the first rock honorees is correct. If so, the magazine did a dis-service to those giants who ushered rock through the Fifties: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others.)

Anyway, on that quiet evening or afternoon, as some kind of music played from a stereo, Rick turned to me and asked me, “Who do you think will go into the Playboy hall of fame?’

I thought for a moment and remembered headlines from the summer before, news accounts of a murder on the streets of New York. “Maybe King Curtis,” I said, thinking that he was famous enough, he was good enough and he died tragically. Even at eighteen, I knew that a tragic death (and an early one: Curtis Ousley was only thirty-seven) enhanced a person’s image, whether that image was good or ill.

Rick nodded. “That’d be okay,” he said, and the conversation wandered to other topics.

As it turned out, the editors of Playboy ignored King Curtis in 1972. I’d wager – based on my memory of the distinctively sculptured clay busts used to illustrate the piece about the honorees – that the recently deceased Jim Morrison was inducted. My memory tells me as well that in 1971, two of the three honorees had been Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom died in 1970. So the death card worked for those three but not for King Curtis.

I have no idea if the magazine ever honored King Curtis, but it should have. Curtis probably had as much to do with the sound of early rock and roll as any of those early pioneers I mentioned above. In the Fifties, saxophone was one of the key instruments in rock and roll – the guitar was prominent but not yet primary, sharing shelf space with sax and piano – and when you talk about Fifties rock and roll saxophone, you’re talking a lot of the time about King Curtis. In The Heart of Rock and Soul, writer Dave Marsh notes, “Though his own heart may well have belonged to jazz, Curtis played his lungs and heart out on records by everybody from the Coasters to Aretha Franklin. From the first New York Coasters session in about 1956 until his murder in a 1971 street fight, King Curtis backed just about every significant horn session in New York.”

Add to that his significant career as a lead performer, and King Curtis quite likely sits on top, or at least very near the top, of the list of rock/R&B/soul saxophonists.

Another way of assessing Curtis’ value is to look at the oft-maligned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (I do my share of maligning; I mean, the Dave Clark Five?) Sometimes the Hall of Fame gets it right: When the Hall created the new category of sidemen in 2000, the first five inducted were drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, bassist James Jamerson, guitarist Scotty Moore and King Curtis. That’s a stellar first five, and if I had to rank them, I’d put Curtis second on the list behind Hal Blaine.

When I brought up his name in that conversation in 1972, I was only aware intellectually of Curtis’ musical talents. It was a little more than a year later that I began to truly appreciate him. As I’ve mentioned before, during my time in Denmark, one of the tapes that played constantly in the hostel’s lounge was the first Duane Allman anthology, which included King Curtis’ version of Joe South’s “Games People Play,” taken from Curtis’ 1969 album, Instant Groove.

In the next few years, I heard more King Curtis but never looked for the album, though I would likely have bought it had I come across it through serendipity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I became a collector, I began to look for specific albums, and King Curtis’ Instant Groove was one of them. As I dug through crates at record stores and record fairs, I kept my eyes open, but it never showed up. I found other Curtis albums, but not that one.

It’s never been released on CD, as far as I can tell. It’s not even listed in Curtis’ discography at All-Music Guide. (There is an album listed with that title, but it’s dated 1958 and has an entirely different track list. I suspect an error.) And beyond some occasional cyber-digging in the years since I came online, I’ve never looked very hard for the album. But for some reason, while I was looking last month for the Patti Dahlstrom albums and the Blue Rose album, I thought of Instant Groove. And now it’s in my stacks.

As I expected, it’s a very good album. There are no overall credits, just a note that says that Duane Allman provides guitar solos on four tracks: “Hey Jude,” “Foot Pattin’,” “Games People Play” and “The Weight.” The notes on the Duane Allman anthologies list the Muscle Shoals rhythm section as playing on the latter two tracks. Beyond that, it’s guesswork. Chips Moman, who generally worked in Memphis, is credited with production on six of the record’s twelve tracks. Others listed as producers were Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd of Atlantic, Curtis himself, and Curtis with Mardin on two tracks and with Jerry Greenberg on one track.

Highlights? “The Weight” always falls into that category for me, and the version here is pretty good. I also like Curtis’ take on “Hey Joe” and the sweet versions of “Wichita Lineman” and the rather obscure song, “La Jeanne.” There are a few too many strings on “Hey Jude” for my taste, and two tracks – Sly Stewart’s “Sing A Simple Song” and “Hold Me Tight” from the pen of Johnny Nash – don’t work quite as well as the rest of the record.

There are a few clicks and a few whispers of noise; the most notable whispers come at the start of “The Weight,” which leads off the second side of the record. I don’t think they’re bad enough to interfere. If they are, one can always substitute from the first Duane Allman anthology, which is easy to find.

Instant Groove
Hey Joe
Foot Pattin’
Wichita Lineman
Games People Play
Sing A Simple Song
The Weight
La Jeanne
Little Green Apples
Hold Me Tight
Hey Jude

King Curtis – Instant Groove [1969]


One Response to “King Curtis Finds His Instant Groove”

  1. The Daoist Cowboy Says:

    By rare coincidence, I have been listening to this album since about June and I think it’s a killer. La Jeanne is one of the most amazing pieces of music I have ever heard, in any genre, and I’ve got to say that The Weight and Games People Play are up there too. I heard he won a Grammy or somesuch for best instrumental for the latter.
    I suspect that Delaney Bramlett, one of Curtis’ close friends, may be on acoustic guitar duties on The Weight and Games People Play.

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