King Curtis

A rockabilly hero is revered abroad, ignored at home

Shortly after signing, Curtis and his band rushed over to Jim Beck's studio on Ross Avenue and cut their first sides, which included "If I Had Me a Woman," "Just So You Call Me," "Half Hearted Love," and "Grandaddy's Rockin'." During the next few months, they recorded a total of 16 songs, all but two of which were released on seven singles. They exist now in the collections of the fanatics who swear Curtis was as good as Elvis--that he'd have been as big as the King or the Killer or Carl Perkins if given half the promotion of Sun or RCA artists.

To hear them four decades hence, though, is to discover that Curtis did indeed rank with the best of the lot: On "If I Had Me a Woman," his voice quivers with honest desperation; "The Low Road" transcends the bass-slap-happy genre with its tremolo and piano and sad whistle; and "Don't You Love Me" bristles with boogie and a half-hollered vocal. If rockabilly exists in a time warp, as critic Peter Guralnick once wrote, forever trapped in the mid-'50s, then the good stuff even now manages to escape the history books unscathed, whether it's "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Be-Bop-A-Lula" or Curtis' "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right." (Curtis' King singles are available on the import-only Charly disc Blue Jean Heart.)

But despite the quality of many of his King records, the label didn't do much with them, and when he went into the Army in 1957 and was shipped overseas, becoming a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Network, Curtis asked out of his King contract.

"I pretty much figured I had just about ended my career," he says now with a slight laugh.

It wasn't until nearly 20 years later--after signing on again with the Big D Jamboree in the early '60s as a country artist, after a few more tries at performing and recording with Major Bill Smith in Fort Worth and even Epic Records for a brief time, after a respectable career as a disc jockey in Atlanta and Los Angeles--that Curtis discovered he was more than a footnote in rockabilly's brief, glorious history. While living in L.A., Ronnie Weiser contacted him and suggested recording Curtis to four-track in his living room with another lesser rockabilly great, Austin's Ray Campi. The result was a series of raw and electrifying singles on Weiser's Rollin' Rock label, which were released in Europe only. (They've just been issued on an European-only CD, compiled as The Rollin' Rock & Rebel Singles.)

Curtis, whose flattop with the cowlick in front was once known as the style that launched a thousand haircuts, is content now only to play in Europe. He has no future gigs planned in Dallas or anywhere else, though he's not opposed to the idea. But he knows rockabilly came and went a long time ago, and he with it, and he does not kid himself about why he's an icon abroad and anonymous at home.

"I think the [kids in Europe] identify with that style, the rebelliousness of the music," he says. "When we're over there in Europe, they sort of have this vision that this still goes on every day. If they came to the United States, they think they would go down to some big hall and see Ronnie Dawson perform or go see Mac Curtis. They still think it's like it was until they come here and see it, and then they're surprised and disappointed.

"Then it makes the music more precious to them. They're like, 'Well, they've turned their backs on their own people, and now it's up to us to keep these guys alive.' And I guess they sorta do.

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