King Curtis Live at Fillmore West – A Slight Return

Story by Hambone Sparklewell

King Curtis Live at Fillmore West, nine tracks of live music (44:30) recorded in March 1971, was produced by King Curtis, Arif Mardin, and Jerry Wexler and released August 1971 by Atlantic. A superior expanded version with five new tracks was reissued by Rhino in 2006.


While returning from with a recent voyage to Atlanta to bathe in the current mutation of the Grateful Dead organism, your crosseyed correspondent (and his band of intrepid pilgrims) visited Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon and spent some time near the resting places of Duane and Gregg Allman and Berry Oakley. Rose Hill was more like a magic garden then a cemetery, and we were surrounded by singing birds and yellow coins of light that the noon sun flung down, through the bobbling leaves, but there was not a living soul in sight, not as far as the eye could see, even way down among the long lines of plain stones marking the remains of unnamed Confederate soldiers. This visit to Rose Hill rolled over Hambone like a two-ton peach, so, upon his return home, he did some thinking, and some reading, and some listening. 

Bill Graham was a believer in educating the hippies in San Francisco, and he would often feature classic R&B, soul, and blues artists from the South. On March 5, 6 and 7, 1971, at the Fillmore West, with recorders rolling, King Curtis’ band, the Kingpins, along with the Memphis Horns, opened the show, and then they served as the backing band for the headliner, Aretha Franklin, who was joined by Ray Charles for a reprise of “Spirit in the Dark.”

The Fillmore West was too small (capacity 1,150) to permit Bill Graham to pay Aretha’s fee — $20,000 — so Atlantic Records decided to try to recoup the loss by recording two live albums instead, one for Aretha and one for King Curtis. (The album that Aretha Franklin recorded that night will be addressed separately. Oh, goodness.)  

The Kingpins were led by Texas-born, jazz-trained King Curtis on saxophone and included Billy Preston on keyboards, Jerry Jemmott (from Macon) on bass, Cornell Dupree on guitar, and  Bernard Purdie on drums. The Royal and Prodigious Badassery of this group is legendary, as becomes apparent from the very first song. 

King Curtis introduced each musician in turn as they played, much like Sly Stone introduced each musician on “Dance to the Music,” much like Archie Bell introduced each instrument on the famous “Tighten Up.” Instrumental music like this speaks with an immaculate, pure and sonic tongue and serves as a perfect stepping stone for people schooled in pop or rock but interested in the means by which jazz musicians repurpose lyrical melodies to serve as launch pads for their instruments. 

Familiar pop songs by Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bojangles), Procol Harum (“Whiter Shade of Pale”), Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered”), George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”), Bobby Gentry (“Ode to Billy Joe”), Led Zeppelin (“Whole Lotta Love”), Buddy Miles (“Them Changes”) – previously recorded with Hendrix, and more are passed through Curtis’ jazzy funky prism, and saxophone, guitar and keys carry the “vocal” lines.

There are many technically proficient musicians who can rain down a million notes on an audience, and then there are musicians who seduce their audiences with melodies. King Curtis played melodies and ran a band of Serious Groovers. But while this recording was being mixed, bad things happened, which circle back to the Allmans, whose epic Live at Fillmore East had just been released.

On August 13, 1971, after confronting a pair of dealers arguing on his doorstep on West 86th St., King Curtis was stabbed, and he died before his Fillmore record was released. Duane Allman, who had just played with Curtis on several recent sessions and who had served a Peruvian internship with Curtis, was in tearful attendance at his funeral, along with Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha, Ornette Coleman, the Isley Brothers, and more. Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin sang, and the Kingpins played “Soul Serenade,” and Duane was moved, deeply. Two weeks later, when the Allman Brothers played live over the radio (WPLJ) at A&R Studios in New York, Duane paid homage.

Butch Trucks told that story best, and you can read it in this link to the story from Rolling Stone.

Duane Allman only played 294 gigs over his short 28 months with the Allman Brothers Band, and there was no one like Owsley or Betty Cantor to document those performances. Duane’s penchant for making his instrument speak can be traced here, to this record, and the lessons he learned from King Curtis.