April 22, 2024



Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

imageEver since Milton Mezzrow sang “Really the Blues” (back in the 1930s), popular music has featured the next crop of white singers trying to sound “authentic”. Most of them miss the mark, some tend to oversell, and many become bad caricatures. But every now and then, someone like Curtis Salgado comes along.

The story begins in the town of Eugene, Oregon. Eugene was a university town surrounded by railroad and lumber yards. Curtis Ellsworth Salgado was born on February 4, 1954.

His father was a baker and his mom a housewife. Curtis describes his parents as “open-minded, wonderful people” and the home as ‘a fertile ground for an aspiring musician’.

“My parents were both big into Jazz like Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Erroll Garner. “My fathers’ brother was also way into Ray Charles. My dad would reach out to me, and he’d point out how Count Basie utilized the space, he’d be talking to himself about the record and then go ‘Listen to this guy’. So that’s literally what I grew up on. It was great. My mother could play piano, and she could play Stride piano.”

Curtis began performing publicly at a very young age, and he was indeed a natural.

“I came home from Kindergarten with a note pinned to my shirt and the teacher was asking my mom to teach me ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘I’ve been working on The Railroad’.”

He sang it at the assembly and received the first of many positive reviews. He kept singing, and by high school was singing in all-star glee clubs, including a very prestigious one hosted by gospel music legend, Jester Harrison (author of the camp favorite Amen.)

Not everyone appreciated him, and his parents’ lack of church attendance would serve as an invitation for harassment.

Between sixth and seventh grade the tormenting began in earnest; his books got dumped in the hall, and worse.

“It freaked me out bad, I cried hard and then I got Mono.”

Fortunately, music intervened in the form of a Fender Mustang guitar and an amplifier, both gifts from his father.

He also bought that all-important first record. In this case, it was the comedy classic Ahab the Arab by Ray Stevens. Along with Ahab, his dad bought a set of records that would help to chart the future career choice. One of them was Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. His father pointed out not only the incredible solos, but he also told Curtis, “Count Basie had to come in through the back door due to the racism of the time.”

Eugene might not be New York City, but the town did have some good record stores.

“I had an older brother and sister, and they started bringing home James and Bobby Purify (“I’m Your Puppet”) and Little Richard. I started taking guitar lessons with a guy named Gary Beck while I was trying to learn how to read music. He wanted to play old standards, but I wanted to learn the current hits like “Gloria” and “Little Black Egg”. I would ask him how to play “Gloria” and he would kick me in the shins and say, ‘No, pay attention!’”

imageTired of being a target, Curtis tells his mom, “Mom, this guy kicks me, and this is no fun.” The guitar lessons stopped, but not the journey.

He continues: “My mom was so cool. She brought home a harmonica and an instructional book on how to play the harmonica. “Blues Harp” by Tony ‘Little Sun’ Glover, published in 1965 was, for many years, the only instruction book on blues harmonica available. Virtually every harmonica player who ever attempted to play “Blues with A Feeling” read this book. Also, my brother had the Paul Butterfield album and I listened to that as well.”

An epiphany would occur when his sister brought home a Little Walter record. The light switch was turned on when he heard Marion Walter Jacobs. ‘Little Walter’ Jacobs was a genius. His brilliant playing and inventive technique caused a quiet revolution and changed the way that the harmonica was viewed. Everyone from Kim Wilson to Mark Hummel to Mark Wenner was heavily influenced by him. Curtis was also a member of that club:

“My sister brought me home that Little Walter record and the first song that hit me was “Mellow Down Easy”. It’s genius. It’s still genius. He just like, pulls your heart out.”

Back then there was no YouTube, no TikTok, or sources for instruction, Due to the primitive techniques used in making these magnificent records, it was hard to hear what Walter and other soloist were doing, and there was only one way to learn. Curtis remembers:

“You drop the needle on it, and you went for it, until you met someone a little better than you.

He kept dropping the needle, putting a quarter on it when the grooves were worn out and he also began to broaden the musical horizon.

“Get Away Jordan,” by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes, had the same gut-wrenching effect that Little Walter did. He was beginning to find music that touched the depths of his soul, and it made his high school year almost bearable. At the age of eighteen he began playing and singing with local bands. He played with Three Finger Jack and Harold and the Nighthawks. (Not the DC band.) They became well known locally and all was running smoothly,

“One day I’m walking down the street with the sax player from Jack, and he tells me, ‘Hey there are these two Black guys in town, and they are really into Blues. They have a band, the guitar player is some guy named Cray, and he’s good.’ At the time, the blues had declined in popularity among Blacks, as it was seen as old fashioned and reminiscent of hard times. So, we went over there and it was Robert Cray and Richard Cousins. We started jamming and hit it off right away, Robert wasn’t all that into it at first, but Richard (his bass player) and I became fast friends right away. I was still playing with the Nighthawks, so I was in two bands at the same time.”

The connection with Cray also became cemented as the result of mutual hero worship for a Southern Soul powerhouse singer/ testifier named O.V. Wright.

Overton Vertis Wright led a crime ridden, calamity filled personal life that ended in the back of an ambulance at the age of 41, but his vocal abilities were heart stopping. He sang Black Music for Black people–no “Mustang Sally” here. OV was too busy spittin’ game in “Ace of Spades” and begging for mercy in “Nickel and a Nail”. He recorded for the notorious Duke record label and the two-fisted gun-toting boss Don Robey.

imageRobey didn’t go after the Motown crossover buck. His biggest stars were Bobby “Blue” Bland and OV. They made tough, hard-edged Soul with a ferocious back beat and razor-sharp horn lines. Texas guitarist Sonny Rhodes introduced Mr. Wright to Curtis and the guys. They listened to Soul, Blues and drew from numerous sources for their sound. Things were moving fast, and no one was looking back.

Curtis found himself playing in two bands until he realized that the Nighthawks were only going to go so far. Robert Cray was something else entirely.

“Robert hasn’t changed one iota since then. He was just as good then as he is now. He was a natural. He’s brilliant and could pick any song out of the air and play it, and he sang just like you hear today.”

The band started picking up gigs around town and word got out very quickly that these guys could really play. There was a hotel in Eugene called the Eugene Hotel and it has a ballroom and a lounge that’s still there today.

Curtis remembers the night the next chapter began:

“So, I’m sitting on a couch in our apartment and Richard comes in and says that Robert got a part in a movie, and they want to use our instruments. We didn’t have a T.V., so it’s 1977 and I have no idea what Saturday Night Live is, and so I have no idea who any of these people are, but the next Saturday we are playing at the hotel and these people show up and this one guy wants to meet me. Turns out his name was John Belushi and we ended up smoking a joint and talking music. Five days later I got a phone call and it was him. I ask him how he got my number, and he whispers, ‘I have my ways.’ He then tells me to come over a have dinner with him and Judy and adds, ‘Bring your records.’”

“So, we sit and watch Gunsmoke, and he copies every actor on the show. I turned him onto all this great music and artists like Floyd Dixon and Willie Mabon, and he starts putting together the ideas that will lead to the Blues Brothers.”

The two of them began a friendship and professional relationship with Curtis mentoring the young comic. He would be at home or at a gig, the phone would ring, and it was Belushi. When the flabbergasted Curtis would ask him: “How the hell did you find me, the answer would always be, “I have my ways.”

One night John asked him quite seriously: “What can I do for you?” Curtis answered: “When it comes time, you can give credit to this music where its due.”

There was also the night (actually night becoming morning) when the actor told Curtis, “You know if you got a good lawyer you could certainly get some creative consultant points.” Curtis noted, “I had no idea about that stuff, I guess he might have been feeling guilty.”

After that, Animal House exploded in American movie theaters, followed by The Blues Brothers. Every college frat suddenly had a guy named Bluto, bands were playing “Louie Louie” and “Shout,” and The Blues Brothers was the most popular Halloween costume everywhere. Belushi called him one night and said, “I’m going to mention you on Saturday Night Live this week.”

April 22, 1978  – Sure enough, Curtis and the Band were playing a gig and on a break turned on the bar TV. SNL comes on and Paul Schaeffer is doing an impression of Don Kirshner host of the show “In Concert.”

In his best nasal twine Paul introduces the Blues Brothers as being there “With the support of fellow artists Curtis Salgado and the Cray Band.”

The reaction was mixed. There were those in the club who felt that Curtis’ act and style had been stolen. There would even be Curtis’ friends in later years who wanted to confront Belushi and Akroyd, but Curtis passed on it and played it forward. Says he, “I played a major part and never felt like I got ripped off.”

He played it forward with the Robert Cray Band till 1982 when he joined Roomful of Blues from 1984 to 1986. In 1988 Curtis was at the crossroads once again, this time behind the substances.

imageIn October 1988 he checked in to rehab, got clean and stayed the course ever since. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also had bypass surgery and liver cancer, and beat them both. Over the years he has toured with his own bands and received success all over the world. Having played every major blues festival stateside he has brought the “blue eye testify” to Guam, Canada, Europe, Brazil, the Philippines and Hong Kong. He’s come a long way from Eugene, but still maintains a very approachable small town lumber yard superintendent demeanor that endears him to the fans. His writing stands out as every bit as formidable as his singing. The combination of the two of them have garnered him major awards, including BB King Entertainer of the Year, Soul Blues Album of the Year, and Song of the Year.

Recent years have found Curtis continuing to tour, but also to be in great demand on the Blues cruises. The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise features him almost yearly. He laughs when he remembers one of the early cruises when it was still the Ultimate Rhythm and Blues Cruise. “We ran out of food and for pizza we were eating hot dogs with pizza sauce on toast!”

Like everyone in the music business, COVID put his life on hold. He remembers getting on a flight from Seattle to Portland and it was empty, and the gigs did dry up. However, he was able to get unemployment and keep rolling. Through good times and the bumps, he has continued to mature musically in both style and substance. And his latest album is a testament to that.

The album was recorded in three separate studios, and the players read like a who’s who of heavy hitter bad ass studio men. Among them is Jim Pugh on organ, Tony Braunagel on drums, Johnny Lee Schell on guitar, (the late) Mike Finigan on piano, and Kid Anderson. And the writing matches the quality of the playing.

I asked him if he had a daily writing schedule and he just laughed and said: “That’s waaay too professional!!” However he does it, the songs are all top notch and well crafted, something you see so little of these days.

The Album is titled Damage Control, and opens with the Gospel voiced chords to “The Longer I Live” and roars out twelve tracks later with a Larry William classic. In between it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of classic R&B and Blues grooves that never gets old or repeats itself.

Some highlights include:

1)“You’re Gonna Miss My Sorry Lee Ass,” which sounds like Dr. John and Jerry Lewis having some fun.
2) “Count Of Three”, which sounds like a lost tune by General Norman Johnson.
3)”Hail Mighty Caeser”- A direct homage to Huey “Piano” Smith—a Classic.
4) “Damage Control”- A real Randy Newman feel to this one.
5) “Slow Down” – one of the great nasty Rock and Roll songs of all time. Covered by the Beatles and a group called Crow, the Salgado version reeks of Dixie Peach and Thunderbird, as it should.

And finally, when John Belushi asked what he could do, Curtis asked him to not forget the guys who made this music. Apparently, the comic icon arranged that for at least some of the artists on the album.

Several years after that night Curtis was at the Chicago Blues Festival, a woman in a golf cart approached him, and asked him to go with her. She took him to another stage and there sat Floyd Dixon, author of “Hey Bartender,” the song featured prominently on Saturday Night Live.

He jumped up and hugged Curtis while thanking him profusely for using the song and seeing that he got royalties for it.

Curtis asked him if it was a decent check, to which Floyd replied, “Oh, hell yes, Seventy eight thousand dollars to be exact.!!!!”

Curtis was ecstatic. He asked:” Did you buy a house or put it in savings?” Floyd took off his shades, he looked off into distance and smiled and said, “Oh no, I spent it all on the horses and I had a wonderful time”.

Curtis just laughed and thought, “Now that’s the blues.”

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