First, a little housekeeping: I’d like tell you a bit about the scope of my Essential Music list and the criteria for making the list. The series is confined to American musicians. It doesn’t include blues and country musicians or musicians primarily from the ’50s—for example, the doo-wop crowd or pioneers of rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And it doesn’t get into the California surf scene, including the Beach Boys, or the many wonderful Motown artists. I will cover these broad categories in the future.
The list does not take into account either the popularity of specific artists or the number of records they sold. Rather, the main criterion is playing time in my own house. There are a number of artists I might have considered for this list who I just don’t play enough for some reason, or whose catalog is simply too small. The larger an artist’s catalog, the more options I have had to play over the years. The top 15 or 20 names on my Essential Music list were no-brainers for me, and as the list advances toward #1, such is increasingly the case. The top names on my list are artists whose music I am most likely to play in any given week, and have over the last four decades. No essential artist on my list began a career as late as the ’70s. For my well-spent money, the most fertile musical period was the ’60s and in certain cases the ’50s. Of all the featured albums by the artists on my list, few were recorded after 1969.
With that background in place, let’s talk about artist #23 on my list, the late King Curtis. King’s 45s—“Soul Serenade,” “Soul Twist,” “Twisting with the King,” and “Wobble Twist”—have dominated my Wurlitzer jukebox for decades. And King’s now hard-to-find and mucho expensive album Soul Serenade (Capitol Records) has been played to exhaustion. Two good albums to start with are Instant Soul and King of the Sax (Fuel 2000 Records). Both are actually CDs, not records. The King is no doubt best known for all his solos on the Coasters records, including “Yakety Yak” and his ’60s single “Memphis Soul Stew.” Like Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, King Curtis rose to the top of my list with a complementary voice, guitarist Billy Butler (a cowriter of and soloist on “Honky Tonk”).