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I Stand Accused: A Brief Look Into The Music of King Curtis

Kevin Carr

I’ve started diving more into Southern Soul music lately. And during this exploration I reintroduced myself to King Curtis’s music. The only real knowledge I had of Curtis’s work was his song, “Soul Serenade”, and that he had been on some of the same recording sessions as Duane Allman when Duane was a session player. I actually first discovered “Soul Serenade” from a YouTube video of The Derek Trucks Band covering the track, which led to me researching who was responsible for such a beautiful song, only to find it was King Curtis. Since then, “Soul Serenade” has been a favorite of mine and a song that’s constantly played on my car speakers and that molds itself into almost every jam session I play in. Somehow, up until now, I never took a deeper look at Curtis’s music and specifically at his Live At The Fillmore West album which hosts my favorite version of “Soul Serenade”.

The entire Live At The Fillmore West album is great. “Memphis Soul Stew” kicks off the album with a hot start and introduces the band, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is an absolutely beautiful song that deserves an entire section to be written about it, and “Whole Lotta Love” showed a side of Curtis that I didn’t expect to see. But while it was cool to see his group cover a Zeppelin song in a big band soul style and the soulful ballad of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, it wasn’t until “I Stand Accused” that I realized I was listening to something truly special.

Similar to how it must have been to witness Hendrix challenging the previous notions of guitar playing, that San Francisco audience must have been seeing something historic. Big comparison, I know, but hang on.

Maybe I’m more uneducated on soul music and the history of saxophone players and styles than I thought, but Curtis’s style on “I Stand Accused” changed everything about the way I perceive the saxophone. When the song started, I seriously couldn’t tell if I was listening to a guitar or a saxophone. This was the first time I’ve ever heard a wah wah pedal used by any horn instrument, and maybe even the first time I’ve heard it used by any instrument other than a guitar or bass guitar at all. I’ve always played around with the idea in my mind on how to use effect pedals with other instruments, but always assumed it would be hard to turn it into an electrical signal in order to be effected. But King Curtis managed to do this. And apparently he had already been doing it in 1971, so I’m pretty late to the party on this one.

In my opinion, the wah pedal is the most expressive effects pedal of all time. Originally made famous by Jimi Hendrix, the wah pedal has become a staple effect among countless guitarists. Curtis uses it to great effect, and creates tones I never thought possible of a saxophone, similar to how Hendrix would play the guitar in ways that had never been seen before. As soon as I realized the sound I was hearing was a saxophone being played through a wah-wah foot pedal, my jaw dropped. Curtis creates unbelievable sounds and tones during “I Stand Accused” and expresses everything he could and more. At certain points, his sound was so indistinguishable from a guitar that I could actually picture the notes being played on the guitar, perhaps even by Hendrix. Then, a note would ring out that could only have been from a saxophone and pulled me back to the reality of what I was experiencing: A virtuoso-like musician displaying a new way of expressing oneself through instrumentation, and in quite the masterful fashion.

“I Stand Accused” is not the only instance of Curtis breaking out the wah effect on his saxophone either. Tracks like “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mr. Bojangles” also exhibit Curtis’s unique playing. And it’s songs and sounds like these that remind me why I love discovering new music in the first place. The new styles, unique voicings, passionate dynamics, and the possibility of hearing something so out of the ordinary should excite us, not push us away. Too many people these days seem to only have time for what they’ve heard before, as if music that follows production formulas is the only thing that can arouse people’s curiosity, because it’s the least offensive way of hearing something “new” that won’t bring the listener discomfort. But that discomfort should be celebrated. Life is life because it changes, and music is music because it expresses the changes of people and their lives and the world around us. I hope I always have the open mindedness to give all new music a fair shot, and I hope you do as well. Give “I Stand Accused” a listen, and maybe it will shock your ears as much as it did mine.

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