It was a happy coincidence that the release date for King Curtis' new CD on Ace Hot Sax, Cool Licks, was set for this month, since just a couple of weeks earlier the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honoured him in a new category of Sidemen. We were not party to any inside information, I promise, but we are, however, very pleased to join in the celebrations by bringing you this release - which includes some new, previously unissued sides just to whet your appetites.
Curtis' fame did indeed stem mainly from his work as a sideman, stretching over his whole career, from the early Coasters, to acting as Aretha Franklin's musical director in the last years of his life. However, his own-name recordings have included as much innovation and inspiration in their construction as have those 30-second statements for which he is so well known.
We tip our hat to that sideman role by the inclusion of three of his classic backup gigs: The Coasters' Yakety Yak and That Is Rock & Roll, plus Chuck Willis' What Am I Living For. The first two are solos that stand up on their own as timeless classics, while the latter is a case of the perfect riff repeated from start to end - and I bet you are whistling it in your head as you read this!
When John Broven approached me with the news that Ace was planning a King Curtis CD under a new agreement to issue some Atlantic material, I jumped at the chance to be involved. Over the ensuing months we came to the conclusion that aside from the above three tracks, it would be an idea to compile a CD that reflected his first contract (1958-9) with the company. So included are all the available cuts he made under his own name between 1958 and 1959, and include the early singles that have always been the hardest to find, given that many never made it to LP, let alone CD. Additionally, of course, being the eternal optimist, it gives us a chance to put together a follow-up view of the later 1964-1971 material should we find ourselves in the happy position of being able to do that.
On receiving the tapes, a couple of surprises were in store. Despite the well-known lack of unissued material in Atlantic's vaults due the 1978 warehouse fire, what did we find but a session tape from the only Leiber & Stoller session they did on him, which included the original, unedited version of Honeydripper, a number of takes of Restless Guitar, and the never-before-heard Chains. Still catching my breath, this was to be followed by two more previously undocumented tracks from December 1958, Train Song and Splankin'. To say I was ecstatic would be a serious underestimation! All told, this CD now contains the first truly unissued sides since the Bear Family Capitol retrospective (Blow Man Blow) came out in 1993.
I imagine that word has got around that we were planning this CD: for in the last couple of months I've seen two copies of "Have Tenor Sax Will Blow" on London-American - all tracks of which are included on our CD, mostly in glorious stereo - turn up on British auction lists. So it seems like at least a couple of people have decided to opt for the digital and turn in their vinyl. Good move - Tom Dowd's engineering has never sounded more crystal clear than on these tracks and I think you'll agree its been captured perfectly. Take Jimmy Lewis' upright bass work on the jumping Ific, or Jimmy Spruill's guitar on The Shake as fine examples. All in all it's what Ace does best - putting essential music back into the hands of true believers!
By Roy Simmonds