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Playing to the Mainstream

Riding the Rails with King Curtis

by LORENZO WOLFF

One of the best sections of the New York City public transit system is that stretch of the “A” train that passes between 125th street in Harlem and 59th street. When the A Train is running express it means 64 blocks of uninterrupted movement. Sure, the ride is nice for napping or catching up on some reading, but what’s really great about this leg of the Blue Line is that it gives the subway performers a much longer span of time to perform. Acrobatic dance groups can stretch their routines another five minutes, street preachers can add a little extra depth to their sermons and the musicians are free to blow those extra 16 bars that the conductor and the sliding doors would otherwise have censored. 

It’s probably unrealistic, but whenever I see a tenor sax player riding the rails I think of King Curtis coming to New York in the early fifties and doing the same thing. Before he tore through that famous “Yakety Yak” solo, and much before “Soul Twist” bounced and prodded its way to the top of the R&B charts, I picture him as an eighteen year old kid from Mansfield, Texas with a beat up horn and a soulful, syncopated sound, riding back and forth between Columbus Circle and 125th street. You can almost see him in a wide lapel with his meticulously maintained hair tightly slicked back. His church shoes, bright with the glare from the fluorescent subway lights, stand out against the dirty floor as he shares the sounds that would decorate records by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Buddy Holly. A train ride like that would be worth any MTA fare increase.

Unfortunately we can’t catch him entertaining strap-hangers anymore. All we have to go on are those divine records that he released. Classic instrumental cuts like his version of “Tennesse Waltz” or his take on “Ain’t That Good News” are enough to make even the most cynical wallflower tap their foot, while slow dance tunes like “Bill Bailey” croon and plead with the utmost confidence. More than his chops or his tone, what’s really unique about King Curtis is his restraint, as in “Tanya”, a mid-tempo feel-good groove originally penned by Joe Liggins. The song’s just slow enough that most horn players wouldn’t be able to resist plugging every phrase with their favorite fills, but Curtis lets the silence become a band member, comping him and providing a muted answer to his melodies.

Unlike most of the other great sax players of fifties and sixties, Curtis was playing to the mainstream. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were breaking down boundaries and creating new harmonic ideas in their own fields, but their sounds never had the layman appeal that seemed so natural to King Curtis. Maybe that’s why I don’t picture Coltrane on the A train, blowing “A Love Supreme,” or Bird running up and down his Be Bop scales. Instead I see Curtis in his church shoes, playing for a car full of smiling faces.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com