King Curtis – Complete Atco Singles (review)

King Curtis – The Complete Atco Singles (Real Gone/Rhino/Atlantic) review

This 3-disc set sees several songs making their debut on CD

King Curtis was best known as the man who laid down those honkin’ sax solos on the classic Coasters’ hits of the Fifties. Yet, he also managed to score many great instrumental smashes on his own, before his untimely death in 1971. The Complete Atco Singles brings together his entire output for the label, during two separate stints, and puts them all in a new three-CD set from Real Gone Music. Many of these sides are making their debut in the digital domain.

Disc one begins with “Birth of the Blues,” a driving R&B number with fake crowd noise. “Ific” was a Curtis original that paid tribute to early rock n’ roll with a funky beat, while “Castle Rock” recalls the great Benny Goodman instrumentals of the 1940’s. “Chill” sounds like the backing track to what would later become “Kookie Kookie Lend Me Your Comb.” If these descriptions seem all over the road, they are. Perhaps that’s why nothing seemed to hit for Curtis as a solo artist originally. None of these tracks were hits, and most of them are making their debut on CD.

Curtis would leave Atco in 1962 and immediately score a big hit with “Soul Twist,” and then “Soul Serenade” (neither of which are on this collection). Brimming with his new found success, he’d find himself back at Atco in 1966.

Oddly, his first release for the label was “Spanish Harlem,” which used the identical backing track from Ben E. King’s original. It was a successful move, sending the single into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. “Quicksand” was even better, featuring some searing guitar work. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is propelled by some fine sax work, but is overrun with too much horns and strings. Better suited for this arrangement was the country cover “Make the World Go Away.” Curtis’ original “Pots & Pans” is where he really starts to let loose – the band lays down such a funky groove, you really don’t want it to end.

“Memphis Soul Stew” was another standout for the saxman – he directs his band as if adding ingredients into a recipe. It’s a brilliant idea and one of his finest moments. He would revisit this approach many times, especially to good use on “Instant Groove.”

Curtis’ bread and butter was making instrumentals out of current R&B and pop hits. Hearing him tear through “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” makes you wish that he was on the Motown roster to add his sax to the original track. He turns “Harper Valley PTA” into a funky groove, while “Games People Play” is pure soul and features some fantastic slide work from Duane Allman. Another guitar ace, no less than Eric Clapton, provides some stinging fretwork on “Teasin.’” “La Jeanne” is stunning with its acoustic guitar and strings, while “Rocky Roll” reprises his role in “Yakety Yak.”

Curtis was plugged into the burgeoning, underground rock movement as well, and his covers of songs like “For What It’s Worth,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and especially “Whole Lotta Love,” show a deeper connection with the genre than one might expect.

No matter what material he was tackling, Curtis always played with a youthful exuberance that is still as infectious as it was the day it was recorded. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 3-disc set that manages to keep your attention throughout – and that is the true genius of King Curtis. —Tony Peters