Maximum Hardcore R&B Man

Maximum Hardcore R&B Man

Maximum Hardcore R&B Man

A Q&A with Curtis Salgado


By Geoff Gehman


Curtis Salgado learned to sing like there’s no tomorrow after watching Buddy Ace, the famously sweaty soul vocalist, work a house party as seriously as a coronation at the Apollo Theater. He learned to live like there’s no tomorrow after receiving a new kidney, an operation aided by everyone from Bonnie Raitt, who paid his rent during his hospitalization, to an ex-girlfriend, who quit her job to become his medical missionary.

Separated by nearly 30 years, those acts of passion and compassion helped make Salgado a uniquely balanced musical citizen. He’s a singer who can sound huge and tiny, careful and caring, muscle-massaging and marrow-scraping. A harmonica player who can bend a note into a banquet. A natural historian who siphons the spirits of his heroes: Little Walter and Sunnyland Slim, Sam Cooke and Magic Sam. A natural teacher who trained John Belushi to become a Blues Brother. An enormously generous, effective entertainer who owns his material and shares his ownership.

On June 12 Salgado and four bandmates will animate and elevate the Mauch Chunk Opera House. He comes to Jim Thorpe riding a wave of good will, having won three 2013 Blues Music awards, including B.B. King Entertainer of the Year. In a recent interview from a bench outside his home in Eugene, Ore, he discussed everything from discouraging Belushi from singing Floyd Dixon like Joe Cocker to kindnesses that encourage him to think he owes the universe.


Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that flat out floored you?

A: It was either Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’” or “Your Feet’s Too Big.” [Sings merrily: “From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet/From there down there’s too much feet”]. When you’re a little kid, that’s something that really sticks with you.

I also liked Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing,” [Meade] “Lux” Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and Anita O’Day’s version of “Boogie Blues.” She had this catch, this little click, in her voice that I found alluring, even though I didn’t know about jazz back then.


Q: You grew up in a music-infused house. Not many kids, after all, have a dad who makes them listen carefully to the phrasing of Ray Charles and Count Basie.

A: I remember putting a 78 onto this little record player and my dad saying: “Shhhh—listen how [Count Basie] uses space.” I don’t know anyone who’s hip who doesn’t dig Count Basie. You’re listening to this groove and it’s so swingy, so hip. Did I know what hip was back then? No. But it definitely hit my auditory nerve.

Another very important early experience for me was listening to the record “Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall” [recorded in 1938]. Goodman’s guys are playing “Sing Sing Sing” and Harry James gets up and blows his trumpet and then Goodman blows his solo [on clarinet] and all of a sudden they start to jam. At the very end—I’ll never forget this–this piano player named Jess Stacy turns the entire thing around in his solo. I don’t just mean the rhythm; I mean the sound, the whole pocket.

At the time I didn’t know the importance of that concert, that until then Carnegie Hall hadn’t accepted jazz. All I knew is that Stacy’s solo was gorgeous. You know, a few weeks ago I found “Sing Sing Sing” on YouTube and I heard that solo again. I’m 60 years old and I still can’t forget it.

My older brothers and my dad taught me to read, and appreciate, liner notes. So when I was older and a Paul Butterfield record came out, I’d look at the names under the song titles–W. Jacobs, McKinley Morganfield, Chester Burnett—and I’d wonder: Who are these guys? Later I found out that Jacobs was really Little Walter and Morganfield was really Muddy Waters and Burnett was really Howlin’ Wolf. This is the music—blues and jazz and folk—that really taught me the history of America. It began my search to find out: Who are the innovators?

I still love the search; it keeps me interested. I’m interested in who invented hip-hop and how that came out. Some of it I like, some of it l don’t. The point is, I’m not locked into liking only one kind of music. If something tickles my auditory nerve, I want to know why.


Q: In 2012 you took a little bit of a left turn and made “Soul Shot,” your first all-soul album. What did you hear in the Detroit Emeralds’ “Baby, Let Me Take You in My Arms” that told you that you just had to record nothing but soul numbers?

A: A friend of mine who plays percussion with the Lowrider Band—their members used to be in War–turned me onto the tune. Until then I had never heard of the Detroit Emeralds, which is embarrassing to say, because I know my stuff. When I first heard “Baby, Let Me Take You in My Arms,” I thought: God, this is cool. It’s such a hip tune; it feels new and fresh; it just feels good.


Q: I’m pretty impressed by the wide range of tunes on “Soul Shot.” I mean, who the hell else would tackle George Clinton and Parliament’s “Gettin’ to Know You”?

A: That was one of my favorite songs on “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” [1976]. When I first heard Parliament, I thought: What is this? What’s all this stuff about funk being brought by aliens to the Pyramids? These guys were just laying out this gumbo of funk and psychedelia and doo-wop and whatever. They were so prolific and so influential and so much fun. They did a sort of disco thing on “Gettin’ to Know You” and I decided to put a good backbeat on it. I just rocked it, hopped it up, made it a hardcore rhythm & blues.


Q: Then there’s “Strung Out” from Johnny “Guitar” Watson, one of your main men.

A: The guy who originally sang “Strung Out” was Little Frankie Lee, who was “Guitar” Watson’s cousin. I got to know Frankie Lee in 1970 at this Oakland place called the My Club: I was one of two white faces in the crowd. Later, I backed him up, like I backed up Albert Collins and other blues guys who played in Oakland. Let me tell you, Frankie Lee could sing his butt off. He could put the microphone on the ground and walk away and still sing like a bird. He could sound like Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke and Little Frankie Lee all rolled into one. Man, he was the real deal.


Q: And then there’s the silky soul of the O’Jays’ “Let Me Make Love to You.”

A: Oh man, that was turned on to me by one of my producers, Marlon [“The Magician”} McClain, a funk guitarist and one of the founding members of Pleasure, a band out of Portland that had a huge [1979] hit called “Glide.” It’s been downloaded and sampled many times, especially the bass line. Marlon said: “Curtis, man, you ought to sing this song.” I thought I could sing it until the allergies started getting in the way. My transplant suppressed my immune system, which means that during allergy season I have this wash of mucous rolling down the back of my throat.

So I went to a voice specialist for help. I did that song 18 times in the studio and I didn’t get it. I just didn’t nail it the way [O’Jays singer] Eddie Levert nailed it. I kept watching an old “Soul Train” clip of him doing it live to a backup track and I thought: Man, that cat can sing.

So I took a rest and went back to my house and for a week or two I practiced [“Let Me Make Love to You”]. Back in the studio, I must have done it another 18 times, until the last four times I was singing it the way I wanted to sing it, from top to bottom, until I had grown into the tune. Jesus, that was a workout. [Sings seductively: “Let me make loooovvve to you”]. I mean, who can touch Eddie Levert? I can’t touch that guy’s grooves. But that’s my version, and I do it from the heart, and it’s in pitch. And that’s all I can ask for.


Q: Why did you call “Soul Shot” your “most challenging” record and “the solid best thing I’ve ever done”?

A: Well, I was involved in it a lot. I took singing lessons again to work my way through this allergy. I got to make another record with the Phantom Blues Band, a contingency of L.A.’s  finest studio and road musicians. [Keyboardist] Michael Finnigan, for example, has played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan. To me, they’re a kind of modern-day Booker T. and the M.G.’s. I arranged the background vocals and told the horn players what I wanted them to play. I wrote songs that fit perfectly with the covers; “A Woman or the Blues” shows that I’m very well versed in old-style quartet gospel. And I didn’t make the covers sound like the originals. The O’Jays’ version of “Let Me Make Love to You” has violins and horns and background singing. Our version is just a rhythm section and me singing. We stripped it down. You don’t want to do a carbon copy of a tune.

Another satisfying thing is that “Soul Shot” was picked up by Alligator Records, which is known for picking up nothing but the blues. [Label founding head] Bruce Iglauer is really a hands-on person; he flew in to see my band during a blues festival in upstate New York, in the middle of a storm [before Hurricane Sandy in 2012]. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but Alligator; they have my back.


Q: Speaking of road mates, you and bassist Tracy “Big Dog” Arrington have been touring together for nearly 20 years. Why do you enjoy gigging with him? Like you, he comes from a musically funky family; he and his brother, who’s a drummer, used to make their preacher father dance on Sundays by playing tunes by the likes of Wilson Pickett and James Brown.

A: Well, first off, he’s a fine musician. We also get along; we can live together on the road for four weeks at a time in a van pulling a trailer (I’m at a midrange level: I can’t afford a bus). He’s on time. He asks me: What can I do to help?

All my band members get it. They know that if you’re in my camp, you have to do what you agreed to do, that you have to turn it around. A lot of musicians are complete knuckleheads. They don’t move equipment, they don’t hustle. And they’re brats. They have playing skills but no social skills. They don’t realize there’s no crying in baseball.


Q: You were the beneficiary of many acts of kindness after your 2006 liver transplant. There was a benefit concert starring Steve Miller and Robert Cray, your former band mate and longtime pal. While you were in the hospital Bonnie Raitt paid your rent. How radically did those kindnesses change your life?


A: Well, I had been playing benefits, constantly, before the transplant. When I discovered I had liver cancer, the tables were turned on me. I had no health insurance and I had a tumor that was 5.5 centimeters–the size of a lemon. If I didn’t get it removed, I would die. They couldn’t cut it out; if they did, I wouldn’t have enough of a liver to live. I could only have a transplant. But here’s the catch: the cut-off level for a transplant was a five-centimeter tumor.

My ex-girlfriend—we had broken up a year or so before—came back into my life. She quit a six-figure job and moved into her garage, which her brothers dry walled and turned into a little apartment. She got herself a medical dictionary and went to work learning all she could about liver transplants and hospitals where livers are transplanted. At one point she said to me: “What do you think of going to a hospital in Omaha, Neb.? They’re the only ones returning my calls.” I said: “Well, I’ve got a pretty good fan base there. So Omaha it is.”

Meanwhile, my manager helped put together a benefit starring Steve Miller, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, Everclear and me with a 14-piece band. A theater was donated; The Oregonian [newspaper] offered two full-page ads for free. There were around 300 volunteers. We played until 2:30 in the morning. And we made enough money to get me into the process of getting this transplant.

When I learned about the benefit, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and I sat down on the toilet and bawled like a three-year-old. I thought: I’m not worthy. How can I pay it back? I can’t pay it back. The whole thing is, I owe the universe. The whole thing is, it’s all about love.

The whole thing is, my whole life changed. I realized that life is finite and that you can’t waste time and energy on jealousy, hatred and other negative emotions. Everybody’s got to work together, as stupid and saccharine as that sounds. If it doesn’t work, reinvent it and try it again. It’s all about listening and being patient, giving and learning.


Q: You introduced John Belushi to the great wide world of soaked-in-the-wool, marrow-scraping blues, which opened the door for him to invent the Blues Brothers act with Dan Aykroyd, his friend and “Saturday Night Live” partner. What was the best advice about singing you gave to him?

A: I’ve told this story so many times, it’s like an oral tradition with me. John was in Eugene, filming “[National Lampoon’s] Animal House” [in 1977]. He saw me play with my band, the Nighthawks, and really dug me. I first heard about him when I was performing onstage at this Eugene hotel and this small-time coke dealer walked up to me and yanked on my pants leg and said: “Belushi wants to meet you.”

“I’m in the middle of a song, dick, get away.”

“Belushi wants to see you.”

“Get away–I’m fucking singing.” Later I learned that he had overheard Belushi saying, “I want to meet that singer,” and he told me because he wanted to score some brownie points with Belushi.

Anyway, Belushi became a fan of mine, and we became friends, I had dinner with him and hung out with him and Judy Jacklin [Belushi’s wife] at his house. I played him tons of my old blues and R&B records by cats like Floyd Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, Magic Sam. At one point he said to me: “I want to sit in with you guys, I want to jam. I want to do ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”

I said: ‘That’s corny; that’s like doing ‘Louie Louie.’”

“How about ‘Jailhouse Rock’?”

“I can’t do that; that’s all about Elvis. Look, I’ll bring you a tune.” So I brought him “Hey Bartender” by Floyd Dixon.

We were playing in this packed Eugene club when I called Belushi up onstage to sing “Hey Bartender.” And the audience goes apeshit; they’re just about peeing in their pants. I didn’t realize how phenomenally popular he was. You have to understand, I had never seen “Saturday Night Live,” mainly because I was always playing on Saturday nights, so I had never seen him do his thing on the show.

To be blunt, I’m a little pissed off. I mean, they go crazy for me, but not this crazy. And then he starts singing and he’s, well, he’s singing like he’s mentally retarded.


Q: You mean, he’s acting spastic, doing the Joe Cocker impersonation he made famous on “SNL.”

A: Exactly. Anyway, after the song is over we head offstage and he’s right behind me and he says: “What do you think?” We’re standing on this little dance floor and nobody’s around. And I say: “Well, was that Joe Cocker?”

“Yeah, I do Joe Cocker on the show.”

“Well, let me get this straight: You’re John Belushi and you’re singing this song by Floyd Dixon in the voice of Joe Cocker.” We were standing side by side and I reached out with my left hand and tapped his heart–tap tap tap—and I told him: “You’ve got to come from here; you’ve got to sing from your heart and soul.”

And you know what he said? [Quietly, somewhat sheepishly] “Yeah, okay, man, yeah.”

The Nighthawks didn’t want to travel, so I ended up joining Robert Cray’s band. “Animal House” wrapped up filming in Eugene and Belushi went back to New York. One day he calls me and says: “We’re going to do [the Blues Brothers act] on ‘Saturday Night’ and we’re going to mention your name.” I told him to make sure to mention that I’m in the Robert Cray Band.

The night of [the Blues Brothers’ 1978 debut on “SNL”] we’re playing in this university bar in Corvallis, and the place is packed. We played an extra long show, so we could take a break and watch Belushi do his thing. [“SNL” keyboardist] Paul Schaffer is playing [music impresario] Don Kirshner and he says: “Thanks to Curtis Salgado and the Cray Band, here are the Blues Brothers.” And then Belushi begins to sing “Hey Bartender,” and everybody in the bar immediately says: “Hey, man, he’s copying you.”

I say: “That’s not me. I’m not that fat.” I’m a bit upset. But they keep on saying: “No, man, that’s you; he’s ripping you off.”

You know, I saw the Blues Brothers later on at the Concord Pavilion in California and they were amazing. No, Belushi can’t sang, although he sang a ballad and he was great. And Aykroyd is not a great harmonica player by any stretch of the imagination. But they were fantastic front men. And they were smart enough to surround themselves with some of the best musicians money could buy.

I used to get the moniker “The original Blues Brother.” That’s not really true. I think it’s more accurate to say that I was Belushi’s blues muse.


Q: You’re not only an extremely caring, careful singer, you’re extremely careful and caring when it comes to talking about singing. So what advice would you give to a singer who wants a long, healthy career as a soul/blues/hardcore R&B performer?

A: One, don’t smoke. Two, take voice lessons and learn how the vocal cords work, what’s really going on there. Three, pick somebody to emulate. Some people just have natural voices. Most people have to start somewhere.

Four, sing in pitch and learn how to shape the vowels. Take the word “in.” [Sings: “I’m going in”]. Now, maybe the word “through” is better {Sings: “I’m going through”]. See what I mean? It sings nicer.

And, five, listen to Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole. Maybe Frank Sinatra, too. He phrases beautifully and creatively. He can take a word and make five notes out of it.


Q: Give me two items from your “Bucket” list.

A: Well, I’d love to go to the Pyramids. I love history, so I’d like to see Cairo and Alexandria. And I’d love to play blue-funk harmonica on a Parliament song with George Clinton.


Q: Now how about an item from your “Fuck It” list?

A: Hmmm. Let’s say avoiding mean people.


Curtis Salgado: The Scoop


In 1975 he helped organize a blues festival in Eugene, Ore., so he could mix it up with a bigger blend of bigger musicians, including guitarist Albert Collins.

He crowned Collins “The Master of the Telecaster.”

In the movie “The Blues Brothers” the Cab Calloway character is named Curtis, a thank-you to Salgado for inspiring the Blues Brothers.

He performed with Calloway while performing with Roomful of Blues.

His own songs range from “Lip Whippin’,” a harmonica workout, to “20 Years of B.B. King,” with lyrics consisting of King song titles.

He’s making his first record with the Phantom Blues Band and his road band. It will also be his first album of mostly his songs. He declines to reveal the one cover, by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, because he wants to keep it a surprise.


Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Curtis Salgado, he thinks Sam Cooke rules a wonderful world. He can be reached at