An Interview with Curtis Salgado: "Life, living on this planet and all the pain and glory that comes with it"

"By learning the music from all the artists old and new who play the music I have learned about life. It has deeply affected my world view".

Curtis Salgado: Blues is my way of life

Curtis Salgado has a lot to celebrate. In March of 2006 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and told he had eight months to live, unless he got a liver transplant which would generate medical bills upwards of half a million dollars. With no health insurance and few funds, the man who is one of America’s finest blues/soul singers needed a little help from his friends. Numerous benefits were held in multiple cities including a benefit concert featuring Steve Miller, Robert Cray, Taj Mahal, The Phantom Blues Band, Everclear and Little Charlie & The Nightcats. A little less than two years after his initial diagnosis, Curtis was able to record Clean Getaway, an album whose title has an obvious double meaning. Curtis won the award for Soul Blues Artist on the year in 2010.



Curtis Salgado’s musical journey began with his birth in Everett, Washington, in 1954. His family moved to Eugene, Oregon when he was one and he grew up there listening to jazz, and to his father, an aspiring singer of classical music. His ambitions coalesced when, at age 12, he saw Count Basie’s band perform in Eugene. Curtis became a part of the burgeoning Northwest blues scene starting in 1972 with a band called Three-Fingered Jack. Eventually he hooked up with up-and-coming guitarist/vocalist Robert Cray, and recorded the album “Who’s Been Talking.”  In six years with Robert, the higher level of visibility enabled Salgado to sit in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Bonnie Raitt. Aside from being a tremendous vocalist, Curtis is one of the finest blues harmonica players in the country.

In 1979, when John Belushi was in Eugene filming Animal House, he caught Curtis’ act and liked what he heard and saw. Curtis took the actor under his wing and schooled him on blues and R & B history, which Belushi soaked up like a sponge, and used a good portion of Curtis’ show as the basis for the Blues Brothers act he and Dan Akroyd put together. The first Blues Brothers album was dedicated to Curtis.

He left the Cray band before it broke through nationally and from 1984 – 1986 he fronted Boston’s Grammy- Winning Roomful Of Blues before returning to Portland where he formed The Stilettos, who toured nationally with such acts as Steve Miller and The Doobie Brothers. He even did a stint as lead vocalist with Santana in the 1990’s. Clean Getaway was the breakthrough that Curtis has been working toward but the experiences of the past few years have given him a new perspective. Curtis is the newest signing to Alligator Records.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Curtis, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

I grew up in a household that loved music. I was exposed to a huge variety of music. My father was into Count Basie, Ray Charles, Fats Waller and Boogie Woogie Piano Players, just to name a few. I wanted to be part of all that good stuff the moment my dad took me to see Count Basie when I was thirteen years old.



Who were your first idols? What have been some of your musical influences?
A few of my idols early in life were Count Basie, Anita O’Day, Ray Charles, Benny Goodman, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Johnny Guitar Watson, Paul Butterfield, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues LP. These great musicians have also influenced my music.


"Blues taught me the history of my country. By learning the music from all the artists old and new who play the music I have learned about life. It has deeply affected my world view."

What were the first songs you learned?

The first time I performed in front of an audience I was five years old. The songs I sang were “Jesus Loves Me Yes I Know”, “I’ve Been Working on The Railroad” and “Roll the Stone Away”. Those were the first songs I learned.



Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best? Like a friend?
I have worked with so many fantastic musicians throughout my career. We are all very supportive of one another and most of them have become good friends of mine.



Is “blues” a way of life?

Playing music for a living and your only source of income definitely defines your way of life. Since I happen to play Rhythm and Blues, Blues is my way of life.

"I have worked with so many fantastic musicians throughout my career. We are all very supportive of one another and most of them have become good friends of mine." (Photo: Curtis and B.B. King)

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

A couple of the best moments of my career would be singing with BB King and with Bobby Bland. The worst was the time right before I realized if I didn’t stop drinking and doing drugs I wouldn’t have a career.

What does the BLUES mean to you?

Blues taught me the history of my country. By learning the music from all the artists old and new who play the music I have learned about life. It has deeply affected my world view.



How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
I am very involved with my audience when I am performing. It’s a team effort, we work together. The more the audience responds, the better I play. The better I play, the more the audience responds. We need each other.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The most interesting period of my life is the one I am in right now.

Why do you play the blues?

I play blues, but I also play Rhythm and Blues, Funk and Soul. I find the blues in most all music. I play this music because it makes me feel good. It’s what I am passionate about.



What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Life, living on this planet and all the pain and glory that comes with it.


What does blues offer you?
My livelihood and lifestyle.


Let’s go back even further. What do you like about your first album?
Making records is a learning experience. I feel like I learn more about myself and my craft with every record I make. There is always more to learn.



Tell me about the beginning of the Robert Cray Band? How did you get together and where did you start?
I am going to try to keep this short because this is a long story. I met Robert Cray and Richard Cousins in 1974 or 1975. They moved to Eugene, Oregon from Tacoma, Washington. I heard about them from a local musician whose name was Ratso. We went to their apartment to ask them to come jam with us. Robert didn’t want to come but Richard joined us. Richard and I hit it off immediately, becoming fast friends. I was underage at the time and couldn’t get into the bars. I asked a friend of mine to go check out Robert and Richards’s band for me. He called me later that night and said “This band is FANTASTIC!”. Robert is a great singer and guitar player. A few days later Robert and I met and we too became fast friends. And the rest as they say is history.



How were your recording hours with Robert Cray? Do you remember something funny?
We recorded together back in the 1970’s. We were either laughing or recording. It was a very easy atmosphere filled with humor. It was our first record so we were all very excited. I feel honored to have played on it.

"Playing music for a living and your only source of income definitely defines your way of life. Since I happen to play Rhythm and Blues, Blues is my way of life." (Photo: Curtis and John Belushi)

What kind of guy was John Belushi?

I found John to be very intense. He was very serious about his craft, comedy and acting. In person he wasn’t like the character he played on Saturday Night Live. He was a down to earth guy. I remember Judy Jacklin, his wife was cooking us dinner one night.

John was watching a Western TV show called Gunsmoke. He imitated every actor that came on the screen. He was constantly working on his craft.



What advice would you have given to Sonny Boy Williamson?
You don’t give a man like Sonny Boy Williamson advice. You keep your mouth shut and listen to what he has to say. Then you learn from it. Sonny Boy was a great player. Had he not died when I was 10 years old I would have loved to play with him.

What would you ask of Little Walker?

To take care of himself and stop drinking, assuming that he and I were close.

What gift would you have given to Taj Mahal?

I would give him an ancient instrument from the Mediterranean, I am sure he could play it.

What mistake of music would you want to correct?

There are no mistakes in music. Music is in the ear of the beholder. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.


"I play blues, but I also play Rhythm and Blues, Funk and Soul. I find the blues in most all music. I play this music because it makes me feel good. It’s what I am passionate about." (Photo: Curtis with Carlos Santana and Buddy Guy)

Give one wish for the music. 

It would be nice if real, old, lowdown blues would become mainstream.


What does HARP mean to you?
Coolest little instrument in the world.



How do you describe your first band, the Three - Fingered Jack?
In Three Fingered Jack we played Marvin Gaye to Little Feat, to Frank Zappa to Muddy Waters. Never any top 40, and I am lucky to say I never have.


I wonder if you could tell me a little about your tours with The Doobie Brothers and Steve Miller?
Those were my first major tours, playing big venues in front of big crowds. It was very exciting. Everyone was nice to us. I became great friends with Steve Miller and we are still good friends to this day.


Who are some of your favorite blues musician of today?

Bobby Bland, BB King, Otis Clay, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughn, Rick Estrin, Jay Blackfoot, Nick Moss, Igar Pardo from Brazil, Duke Robilard, There are a few. The list is endless.

Three words to describe your sound & your progress

Hardcore Rhythm and Blues.

Were there any places where you did especially well?

Most of my travels to this point have been here in the US. I am hoping to tour more outside the states but for now my fan base is mostly here in the US. We do pretty well here.

"An ideal band for me would be two keyboard players, a drummer, a guitar player, a bass player, a conga player, three background singers, a three piece horn section, a 3 man road crew and enough money to pay them all well." (Photo: Curtis with Roomful of Blues)

What are some memorable gigs you’ve had?

There are so many I could write a novel. The one that comes to mind right now is when I was playing in a band called Roomful of Blues. We were doing an early show and a late show with Cab Callaway and his orchestra. We were in New York City at a place called The Savoy Ballroom. A famous dance hall with a lot of history. Cab Callaway was in his late 70’s. His voice wasn’t as strong as it had been when he was a younger man, his moves weren’t as smooth, but he didn’t miss a beat. He had just as much charisma as he had ever shown. He performed with all his soul and had the audience in the palm of his hand. He was amazing! It was a huge lesson to me in every aspect of show business. The consummate professional. It was a performance I will never forget.

What were your favorite harps back then?

I play Horner harmonicas, I always have. But, I will play anything as long as it’s in tune.

Is which song can someone hear the best of your harmonica work?

Lip Whippin’ on my album Soul Activated.

Where did you pick up your harmonica style?

I listen to all harmonica players that have had any kind of success. The first harmonica player I listened to was Paul Butterfield. Then I discovered the black blues masters, Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson One, Sonny Boy Williamson Two, James Cotton and Junior Wells. There is a local harmonica player I grew up listening to by the name of Paul Delay.

Since he was in the same area I had someone I could go see in person. He was just as good as the harmonica players I mentioned. He was a major influence on me.


If you say just “Blues” you are putting a ceiling on the types of music you can do. If you want to make a career in music don’t limit yourself to just the blues. 

Are there any songs that you've written where the lyrics are very personal for you?

Yes. I Shouted Your Name, Sorry Don’t Mean Nothin’, Bright Silver Moon. All the songs I write myself are personal.

To which person do you want to send one from your songs?

I wish I could send a song to my mom but she died when I was 23. She hasn’t heard me play since I was a very young man. I have grown lot since then and I wish I could share it with her.

What do you think is the characteristic of you personality that made you bluesman?

I love the music, I tried a to work a 9 to 5 job, it just didn’t fit me.

 

What music would you have played at your home alone?

I have a huge music collection. I play it all the time. I am playing music ALL the time. Much of my collection is LP’s so I still play them on an old fashioned turn table.

 

Happiness is……

Being surrounded by the people I love.

 

What was the first gig you ever went to?

Count Basie with my dad.

 

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

A Forest Ranger.

 

What was the last record you bought?

Freddy King Box Set and Tammy Terrell, Motown.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Radio was a different deal altogether. Record companies were different. Marketing was different. The entire industry is different. Everything about music has changed. Anyone with a computer can make a recording. There are 4500 bands in Austin, Texas alone. Everyone is fighting for the same audience and the same dollar. This is a really deep question that would require a really long answer.

What’s the best band you ever played in?

My own.

What turns you on?

Laughter.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the blues craft?

If you say just “Blues” you are putting a ceiling on the types of music you can do. If you want to make a career in music don’t limit yourself to just the blues. Learn everything about music there is to know. Learn to read music, learn it’s history, listen to all types of music and the people that are the innovators and creators of it. The blues will find it’s way into the music you make.

Has treatment made your life easier?

Treatment saved my life making my life possible.

 

What do you think about your new “house” in Aligator Records?

They’re great. So far, so good.

Do you believe MUSIC takes subject from LIFE?

Yes. All music is written about life and the experiences we get from it.

Describe the ideal BAND to you?

An ideal band for me would be two keyboard players, a drummer, a guitar player, a bass player, a conga player, three background singers, a three piece horn section, a 3 man road crew and enough money to pay them all well.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs? What musicians/songwriters have influenced you most as a songwriter?

Some from events in my life. Some from current or political events. And some from my imagination. Influenced: Johnny Guitar Watson, Dorothy Lovecoats, Sam Cooke.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to continue to make good records, to play in front of as many people as possible, continue working on my craft and hopefully play in Greece someday.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?

Perseverance and determination.


Curtis Salgado's Official Site


 

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