The lingering road to King Curtis and “Soul Serenade”
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
"King Curtis, man, that was one of the finest cats there ever was. He was just right on top of it, getting next to the young people, you know? It’s a shame.”
So went Duane Allman’s words to a receptive crowd at an Allman Brothers Band gig in Aug. 1971. It was two weeks after Curtis had died, and with him went one of the true titans of the scene.
Curtis racked up as impressive a resume as a musician could have in the 1960s and early ’70s, playing notable spots with Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Freddie King, John Lennon and Duane Allman, not to mention Aretha Franklin’s career-defining run on Atlantic Records. It was in support of Aretha that Curtis recorded what became Live at Fillmore West, in his support slot for the queen before she took the stage with Curtis’ band backing her.
Their efforts there were first cataloged on Franklin’s own Aretha Live at Fillmore West, but the band gets a chance to shine here. And the musicians supporting both Franklin and Curtis are remarkable in and of themselves, with, among others, Billy Preston on organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums and Jerry Memmott on bass, in addition to the Memphis Horns adding that last bit of soul.
It’s a stacked stage, to say the least, and the record they cranked out was indicative of how much power they could generate. And it’s an album I’d known about for more than two decades before I heard it.
The concept of Curtis and Live at the Fillmore West first crossed my path within Scott Freeman’s book Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band. Curtis and Duane Allman had worked together in the studio (an example of which can be found on Duane’s An Anthology record), but Curtis was murdered outside his apartment just a week after Fillmore West’s release. The LP was a fast favorite of Allman’s before his own passing three months later.
And at the time of the book’s 1996 issue, the album hadn’t received a domestic CD release, rendering it essentially invisible, hiding away in moldy basements or tucked in the dollar bins of those dwindling stores that still carried LPs. I can’t seem to find my copy of that book at the moment, but I do recall a section where the author details finding the record in pristine condition in a French record shop, with the store’s owner promptly throwing it onto the store’s stereo to play it.
At A&R Studios two weeks after Curtis’ death, Duane had a few words for the audience the impact Curtis left on him.
“If y’all get a chance, listen to the album he made out at Fillmore West, man, it’s incredible. It’s unbelievable, the power, and, and, emotional stature that man had. He’s an incredible human being, boy. I hope that, well, whatever it was that did it, knows what he did. Boy, it was a terrible thing.”
Between that image, and repeatedly listening to Allman’s words before lovingly working “Soul Serenade” into “You Don’t Love Me,” I had kind of a running note in the back of my head for years — basically, find that record. It lived there with several others in an always-growing tally, but it wasn’t addressed until I stumbled onto it.
I never downloaded this album, I never thought to look for it on CD, I certainly never saw it in the racks in my many pop-ins to record stores over the years. For one reason or another, this was an album I’d decided I would wait to hear when I found the LP. Maybe I wanted my own version of Freeman’s story of finally finding it in a random store across an ocean. There’s a romance in that that’s hard to deny. It just happens that it took more than 20 years and a chance encounter on Discogs to make it a reality.
It wasn’t until the height of the pandemic that I really used Discogs as a shopping vehicle. When going into actual record stores became an issue, hunting around through albums from stores and other collectors became an avenue to bring new records into the house and keep supporting this whole thing at a kind of grassroots level. While I was looking for some specific pressing of a Beatles or Pearl Jam record, say, I might also walk away with an album by Jesse Ed Davis or the Chamber Brothers. It was in looking for some other record that I noticed a nice, clean copy of Live at Fillmore West that the note in the back of my head chirped. There it was, for less than $20 before shipping. And within a week, there it sat on my stereo. And it was a revelation.
I don’t know how many albums I have like this in my collection that I could just as easily play during a party as I could on a late, quiet night alone. But it runs the gamut from the opening thrill of “Memphis Soul Stew” to the aching glory of its closing “Soul Serenade.” And it flips between the two moods rapidly. Curtis’ playing on “A Whiter Shade of Pale” could stand as the definition of soul, just soaring and mournful. And to counter, the raucous reading of Buddy Miles’ “Changes” tears through the speakers and takes the crowd on a thundering groove for seven glorious minutes.
But that “Soul Serenade,” there’s nothing quite like it. It lilts and sways and just captures this peaceful, longing place. It’s a spirit within itself, and a fitting signature for a musical titan like Curtis. My first time through the album, the impulse was to lift the needle and delicately place it back at the beginning of the track, letting the record player’s arm carry though again until it reached the runout. Then, I did it again.
It’s nice to still have stones to overturn with all this record nonsense. I’ve been in a bit of musical rut, at a point where everything feels like a mass-produced product geared toward maximizing licensing or a repackaging of an acknowledged classic. So being able to still discover a complete, whole work of brilliance is comforting.
But it goes beyond comfort to have an album like this on the shelf and spinning on the turntable. It was one that was completely hypothetical for too long, but now it’s as real as can be. King Curtis, man. One of the finest cats that ever was.
Jan. 19, 2022
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org