“Did you ever hear a tenor sax/swingin’ like a rusty axe?” As opening lines go, that's a not-inaccurate bit of music criticism. The question comes from the Coasters’ 1959 recording of Leiber and Stoller’s “That Is Rock and Roll,” one of many early rock songs to feature the exceptional session playing of legendary saxophonist King Curtis. Curtis cut plenty of solo tunes during the 1950s and early 60s, showcasing his braying, stomping, gloriously powerful sax mettle, and in between solo performances he recorded equally amazing session work on group hits such as the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” Chuck Willis’ “What Am I Living For?” and Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers' “The Honeydripper.” These songs, plus about twenty additional instrumentals, make up the bulk of Hot Sax, Cool Licks, the most enjoyable and comprehensive collection of Curtis’ session work available.
Curtis’ sax style—delirious, unhinged, operating way outside the proprieties of “tasteful” jazz playing—was one of the foundational sounds of rock 'n' roll. Younger music fans may not remember a time when rock songs regularly featured “dynamite saxophone solos,” but Curtis’ instrumental influence extends even beyond succeeding generations of sax performers. His closest stylistic peers at the time were not fellow tenor sax players, but outrageous R&B performers like Little Richard and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Like those artists, Curtis’ was capable of adding level upon level of foot-stomping flavor to what were sometimes colorless, workmanlike recordings of early R&B standards. Check out the pre-glam stomp of his take on “IFIC,” for instance, the bubbly tear of his instrument bringing the song’s primal blues pressure to a boil. Curtis was brilliant at bending notes so hard and heavy that they came out sounding almost distorted. in that sense, he is perhaps an unstated influence on the next several decades’ worth of electric guitar skree noises.
Here’s another example of how Curtis elevated every recording he played on: as I mentioned, among the other great cuts on Hot Sax, Cool Licks are two versions of “The Honeydripper.” One features the original vocals of Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers, while the other (“Part II”) replaces the vocal melody with Curtis’ playing. And boy, does he absolutely wreck Version II. Curtis somehow matches the vocal lines note for note, but adds all these weird bends and greasy bwaaaamp noises. Early on in the song, he breaks out a quick solo that’s so fun and decadent it could have been dropped into the Stooges’ Funhouse twenty years later.
Like many of the early architects of rock n roll, King Curtis’ music tends to be more appreciated than it is enjoyed, but his style is the furthest thing from old-fashioned. As long as killer solos continue to have their appreciators, Hot Sax, Cool Licks will remain a key document of the early rock 'n' roll scene.