Music News & Reviews

Curtis Salgado: The high notes and down beats

The blues marks life’s losses and gains. Few musicians know those ups and downs as well as Curtis Salgado. His R&B-infused blues spans soulful ballads and rip roaring funk, with the occasional burst of intense harmonica.

On Friday (April 10), the Pacific Northwest native will play Jazzbones in Tacoma in support of his latest CD, “Soul Shot.”

Salgado’s ability to mix R&B, funk and blues won him three 2013 Blues Music Awards, including the B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year. He also won Soul Blues Male Artist Of The Year and Soul Blues Album Of The Year for “Soul Shot.”

“Soul Shot” draws from 1960s and 1970s rhythm and blues, and features four Salgado originals as well as covers of tunes from Johnny “Guitar” Watson, George Clinton, Otis Redding and Bobby Womack.

“It’s basically songs from my record collection. It’s a soul record. Get on the floor and dance,” he said.

Salgado, 61, was born in Everett but, “all I remember is Eugene (Oregon),” he said in a phone interview from his home in Portland last week.

After high school, Salgado stuck around Eugene.

“It was the ’70s. I started playing at bars, outdoor keggers and frat houses,” he recalled.

After a recession hit the Eugene economy, he moved to Portland in 1979. “By that point I was in the Robert Cray Band.” He also had his own R&B and blues band, The Nighthawks.

After he parted ways with Cray in the 1980s, Salgado went on to front Roomful of Blues and later formed Curtis Salgado & The Stilettos.

But before all of that, Salgado played a critical role in American pop culture. During a Nighthawks and Cray performance in Eugene in 1977, a then 25-year-old Salgado was accosted on stage by the local cocaine dealer.

“He’s yanking on my pant leg. I was in the middle of a tune, I was singing. He’s going, ‘Hey, Curt! Belushi wants to meet you.’ I don’t know who Belushi is. I don’t own a TV. ‘Buzz off,’ ” Salgado recalled.

Comedic actor John Belushi was in Eugene filming the college comedy “Animal House” and was in the audience that night at the Eugene Hotel. Finally, Salgado agreed to talk to Belushi.

“He didn’t know who the hell I was,” Belushi told the Eugene Register-Guard in a 1979 interview. The “Saturday Night Live” star said Salgado entered his life at just the right moment. “I was kind of sick of rock and roll, and I hated disco, so I needed some place to go.”

“John wasn’t into the blues,” Salgado said. “But he invited me over to the house (where Belushi was staying), and I brought a bunch of records. On his turntable was Blue Oyster Cult records, AC/DC. Basically, I was turning him on to the blues,” Salgado said. “I was kind of his muse, for lack of a better word”

Soon after that friendship developed, Belushi and Dad Aykroyd (already a blues fan) developed their idea for The Blues Brothers with suits, hats, sunglasses and the little patch of chin hair that Salgado sported at the time.

“I turned him on to ‘Hey Bartender,’ ‘Soul Man,’ Groove Me,’ ‘Messin’ with the Kid.’ He saw us do those songs. He wanted to jam with us,” Salgado said.

Later in the 1980s, long after Belushi had died, Salgado’s band was in Chicago for a blues festival where he ran into Floyd Dixon. A cover of Dixon’s “Hey Bartender” was on The Blue Brothers’ 1978 album, “Briefcase Full of Blues,” which is dedicated to Salgado.

Dixon thanked Salgado for the musical referral.

“Curtis, if it wasn’t for you … I made the biggest royalty check I’ve ever had in my life, and you’re the one who introduced it to The Blue Brothers,” Dixon said according to Salgado.

Salgado asked Dixon how he spent the $78,000 check.

“He looked off in the distance and said, ‘Oh man, I spent it all on the horses. I had a wonderful time.’ That … that’s a blues man,” Salgado said, laughing.

The Blues Brothers, their albums and their 1980 movie gave the blues a jumpstart, Salgado said.

“They really pushed the blues forward. They kind of restarted soul and blues back up. It regenerated people’s careers: Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, Walter Horton … .”

Though the blues has cooled a bit since the heyday of The Blues Brothers, Salgado said its root music status may be its saving grace.

“I think music goes in a circle. Rock and roll and blues is such a basis of jazz, of pop music. Music ebbs and flows in its styles and genres. And unfortunately, people get stuck on labels. There is jazz in blues. There is blues in gospel. Soul music is gospel and blues, basically. Hip hop is contemporary rhythm and blues,” Salgado said.

Though he bemoans the state of popular music today (“There’s a guy today with turntables filling up coliseums”), Salgado said the blues “is what you start cooking with. It’s the stock. Plus, it rocks.”

For his own music, Salgado draws on a number of musical genres.

“I like Stevie Wonder. I like the voice of Beyoncé. I like some rap,” he said. “For me it’s a smorgasbord of styles for my own stuff. It all comes out blues, soul, funk and rock and roll.”

Though Salgado is known for his adroit harmonica playing, he said he expresses himself best with writing and singing.

“Singing is the one thing that can make people cry. The human voice moves the masses. Or just the lyrics themselves. They connect everyone. If you take the right words framed in the right music it brings the right feelings: the blues, happiness, loneliness, memories. That is soul,” Salgado said.

But he’s doesn’t downplay the power of the harmonica.

“Harmonica can be a very annoying instrument. But I use it as the cherry on top. It adds something special to a song. You can’t put it in every song,” he said.

In 2006, Salgado, who had been living with hepatitis C, learned he had liver cancer — a complication of the virus.

“I was given six months to live unless I got a transplant,” Salgado said. However, transplant centers will not perform liver transplants if a patient’s tumor is too big, and Salgado’s was. Only one center in the U.S. would accept him, he said.

By then the cancer had spread to a lung. Today, he is free of cancer and has a new perspective on life, he said. But it came with a cost.

“I have one lung on the right and half a lung on the left,” he said. “I’m very lucky to be alive.”

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