So I was listening to some music today — specifically an old R&B instrumental called “Night Train,” by King Curtis — and as I enjoyed his honkin’ sax I kept thinking to myself, why does that song sound so familiar?
I don’t mean just familiar in the sense that I’d heard it before, because practically everybody would know the song if they heard it. No, it was because it was triggering a dim memory of a time when I had it hammered into me again and again. Finally it hit me; when I was in the high school band we played it endlessly, at rehearsals and while marching.
I’ve written before about my dubious talent on the clarinet, but apparently it was good enough to get me into the band when I first entered high school. (Or maybe their standards were just low.) However, my musical career was shortened by a slight complication — I was a football player.
I’m not sure how it is now, but at that time the band existed mostly to play at football games, so if you were on the varsity football team then you couldn’t very well march in the band at half-time or sit in formation and play during the game. But I figured I was OK because — like all new football players — I had been placed on the junior varsity when the season started. Unfortunately things can change.
Even though I wasn’t particularly skilled I was so big that I was moved up to the varsity part-way through the year, so I had to say goodbye to my band-mates and hello to my football team-mates. At the same time I traded in my itchy wool band uniform for football garb, which was more comfortable in some ways, but came with the increased risk of getting clobbered. Of course, it was the end of my marching band career — which might have been a merciful thing.
As for King Curtis, the Texas-born musician (whose real name was Curtis Ousley) was one of the best of the many fine saxophonists who have inhabited R&B music through the years. First rising to prominence in the 1950s and perhaps best known for backing up the Coasters, he just about owned the charts until his death in 1971 at just age 37, the victim of a street knifing witnessed by Aretha Franklin and Sam Moore.
During his career he recorded a lot of good stuff, including his 1969 Grammy-winning performance on “The Games People Play.” And even if “Night Train” wasn’t one of his chart-busters, it’s still a good song and a special favorite of mine — although when I hear it I can still feel the tight collar of that itchy band uniform.