Bud Kennedy

King Curtis: Fort Worth musician shared stage with Aretha, Beatles

Wall of Fame portrait of I.M. Terrell alumnus “King Curtis” Ousley
Wall of Fame portrait of I.M. Terrell alumnus “King Curtis” Ousley Courtesy Fort Worth school district

King Curtis played sax on a Buddy Holly song, opened for the Beatles in New York and played on John Lennon’s Imagine album.

After his 1971 death from a stabbing in front of his Upper West Side brownstone in Manhattan, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder sang at his funeral.

He originated the “yakety sax” sound still heard today as a comedy theme.

And more than 60 years after he played in the I.M. Terrell High School band, “King Curtis” Ousley is finally on the Fort Worth school district Wall of Fame.

On the list of famous stars from Fort Worth, King Curtis is arguably the blues equal of movies’ Ginger Rogers, pop music’s John Denver or his Terrell classmate, jazz great Ornette Coleman.

District archivists have worked to update the Wall of famous alumni photographs in recent years. The 160 honorees include 16 graduates of long-closed Terrell and its predecessor, Fort Worth Colored High School.

“Uncle Curtis was very much part of Fort Worth,” said a nephew, musician Tobi Hero, returning a call from California.

“He found out at a funeral once he was cousins with Ornette and Ronald Shannon Jackson,” Hero said, naming another Terrell music graduate. A sister lived in the Lake Como neighborhood, Hero said: “He’s got cousins all over Fort Worth.”

In 1981, former Star-Telegram music critic Roger Kaye told how Curtis switched to the tenor sax and nicknamed himself “King Curtis” in high school.

He played clubs such as the New Jim Hotel downtown and the old Paradise Inn on New York Avenue, not far from a marker remembering him today on Evans Plaza southeast of downtown. He left in 1954 for New York and wound up in jazz great Lionel Hampton’s band.

With fellow Terrell graduate Cornell Dupree on guitar and his band, the Kingpins, he opened for the Beatles’ breakthrough 1965 concert at Shea Stadium in New York.

Filmmaker Barbara Lochridge, Hero’s wife, is trying to gather more of Curtis’ local history.

“He came from I.M. Terrell, went to New York and became this star musician who also invested and owned apartment buildings,” she said. “He made something of himself.”

In 2017, high school students will again attend Terrell. Now an elementary, it will become the district’s first performing arts high school.

And add more names to the Wall of Fame.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.