Unsung Saxophone Masters# 1 – Curtis Amy

Curtis Amy (1927 – 2002)

Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably heard Curtis Amy. If you listened to pop music and pop radio from the mid-’60’s through the late ’70’s, then you heard Amy’s tenor, soprano or flute backing artists from Carole King, to Ray Charles to the Doors. But as a solo artist, Curtis Amy toiled in virtual obscurity.

Born in Houston, TX, in 1927, Amy’s first instrument was the clarinet at the young age of four.  He was drafted and during his stint in the Army, he started to play the tenor sax. When his time in the Army was up, Amy decided to pursue formal musical training at Kentucky State College (now University), from which he graduated in the early ’50’s.  He then taught school in Tennessee and knocked around playing gigs throughout the midwest for a couple of years, before landing in Los Angeles around 1955.  Once in L.A., he recorded a session with Dizzy Gillespie and continued to pay his dues on the club scene.

Curtis Amy – “24 Hours Blues” from Way Down

While playing at a club called “Dynamite Jackson’s”, in the Crenshaw District, Curtis Amy caught the ear of Dick Bock, the now legendary head of Pacific Jazz Records.  Bock dug the bluesy sound of Amy’s tenor and signed him to the label.  Amy’s first date for Pacific Jazz was The Blues Message, which he co-led with organist Paul Bryant, another L.A. club regular.  The sound on that session is what you would expect – greasy organ and gritty tenor, augmented by Roy Brewster’s valve trombone. The music would have easily fit into any smoky joint in Crenshaw, Watts or even Harlem. Though Bock had brought Amy, Brewster, Bryant and the others in the quintet together for the recording, the cats apparently dug their sound and decided to remain together as a group for a while, taking up residence as the house band at “Dynamite Jackson’s” and cutting one more album, Meetin’ Here, in 1961.

Curtis Amy and Paul Bryant on the title track from ‘Meetin’ Here’

Between 1960 and 1963, Bock and Pacific Records kept Mr. Amy busy as he recorded a total of six albums as a leader or co-leader. All but one included Brewster as a sideman.  They are also notable for containing some of the early efforts of two vibraphonists who are now anything but obscure, Bobby Hutcherson (on Groovin’ Blue) and Roy Ayers (on Way Down and Tippin’ on Through). The unquestionable standout of Amy’s Pacific Jazz Recordings (and of his overall catalog) is his final album for the label, 1963’s Katanga!.  It was originally credited to the co-leadership of Amy and Dupree Bolton, a trumpet player who was as gifted as he was enigmatic.  On Katanga!, the overt blues base of most of Amy’s earlier works has been replaced by a sound that is closer to hard bop. Amy, Bolton, pianist Jack Wilson, guitarist Ray Crawford, bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Doug Sides, burst forth with a power that is still as arresting today as it was almost half a century ago.  Nevertheless, Katanga! was lost in the surfeit of jazz releases at that time.  It all but vanished from the scene, along with the musicians who led the session.

Curtis Amy, Dupree Bolton and Ray Crawford lead a live version of “Katanga” on the old Frankly Jazz television program

Curtis Amy would lead just three more sessions after 1963; a totally forgettable pop album Sounds of Hollywood in 1965, a date that Amy later dismissed as “syrup”;  Mustang;  a Joel Dorn produced album for Verve, which drew some attention from acid jazzers in the ’90’s, due to the funky title track and Peace For Love a very good album that marked Amy’s return to straight-ahead jazz, as well as his recorded swan song.  Though Peace For Love was recorded in 1994, it was not released in the U.S. until 2004, two years after Amy’s death.

In the years between the mid-60’s and the start of this century, Amy, though invisible to the jazz scene, was anything but idle.  He married Merry Clayton, a fine and extremely underrated vocalist in her own right (she is the female singer who gives Mick Jagger a run for his money on “Gimme Shelter”). Together and separately, they worked constantly in Hollywood.  When Merry joined Ray Charles’ Raelettes, Curtis signed on for a three-year stint as Brother Ray’s musical director.  When The Doors went for an orchestral sound on 1969’s The Soft Parade, they called on Amy as one of the saxes. It’s Mr. Amy that you hear soloing on the hit “Touch Me”.  Mr. and Mrs. Amy are also heard all over Carole King’s immortal album Tapestry, Merry as a background vocalist and Curtis on reeds – that’s his soprano sax on the break on “It’s Too Late” and his flute that rides out “So Far Away”.

From The Smothers Brothers show, here’s “Touch Me” by The Doors, with Curtis Amy on tenor

Curtis Amy died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. Though he was reluctant to be called a “Texas Tenor” or a “West Coast Jazz” player, he left a fine body of work that is worth exploring by fans of any niche or genre of Black American Music. I recommend that you start with Katanga! and work your way in. You’ll find much to like.

Recommended Recordings

  • Katanga! – (EMI Japan) – CD available as import
  • Groovin’ Blue – (EMI Japan) – CD available as import
  • Peace for Love (Fresh Sounds Spain) – CD available as import – hard to find
  • Mosaic Select 7 – Curtis Amy (Mosaic Records)  [a 3-CD compilation of all of Amy’s work for Pacific Jazz, including Katanga!] – OOP but it can be found, at a price, from Amazon and eBay

7 Responses to “Unsung Saxophone Masters# 1 – Curtis Amy”

  1. thanks for taking the time to do such a post.

  2. […] Los Angeles’ Central Avenue in the early sixties, playing alongside L.A. heavyweights such as Curtis Amy and Jack Wilson, so yes, when Roy Ayers spoke of Trane, he knew what he was talking about, first […]

  3. […] of The Fox and sent to San Quentin, where he remained until 1962. Upon his release, saxophonist Curtis Amy tracked Bolton down to work with him on what would become Katanga! , Amy’s most famous album. […]

  4. Reblogged this on Moist Paula's Horn Chic and commented:
    This is my first time re-blogging, but I couldn’t have stated Curtis Amy’s case more thoroughly than the writer at Curt’s Jazz Cafe so I was delighted to notie a “reblog” button on the post. I stumbled on this blog upon deciding to try and find out a little more about the saxman behind the iconic tenor solo on “Touch Me Baby” by The Doors. The thing that struck me about this comprehensive blogpost about the life and career of Curtis Amy, whose name is probably unknown by millions of fans of The Doors were there words “toiled in virtual obscurity”. Once again I’m reminded of the legions of fantastically adept, talented musicians who have done and are doing just that. I find this to be a touchy subject and I think about often.

    • Hi Paula,

      I’m so glad that you liked the Curtis Amy post. I’m honored that you reblogged it. I’ll be reviving the Unsung Sax Masters series shortly and I hope that you find more that you like. It’s nice to meet you.

  5. Filthy McNasty Says:

    What work did he do for Carole King?

  6. When I first heard Touch Me, by the Doors, I was unimpressed. Their music on the Soft Parade album, now with an orchestra, did not sound like the group I learned to love quickly in 1967. But as the song begins its ending, on comes this sax solo with the sweetest sound I ever heard, and I am and was a jazz enthusiast. I’d seen some of the greats, but never heard of Curtis Amy. I looked for his albums and couldn’t find any. It took a few years until I did. But that sax solo…my god. He was so great, the Doors brought him to play Touch Me live with them on the Smothers Brothers Show. Doors organist Ray Manzarek raves about him in his book on the Doors, “Riders on the Storm,” noting that they were so blown away by Mr. Amy’s solo, they did the unheard of; bringing a session player to a live (TV) gig…NATIONAL TV! The Doors were all into jazz, and drummer John Densmore can be see in the new film about John Coltrane, and sometimes appears at the theater for Q &A afterwards. Though I finally did get a few Curtis Amy LPs, I tossed my turntable years ago and have to search for his CDs. If you’re a rocker and want a taste of great jazz sax, Amy’s solo on Touch Me is a great start. So sweet. Mmmmmmmmm.

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