Something Else! Interview: Soul-blues shouter Curtis Salgado

Curtis Salgado, who has kicked off 2012 with a sizzling new soul-blues debut for Alligator Records, has never been fated with an uninteresting life.

From an early stint playing alongside Robert Cray from 1976-82 to playing an inspirational role for John Belushi’s character in The Blues Brothers film, from sitting in for a pair of 1980s recordings by Roomful of Blues to a 1990s-era stint with Santana, Salgado’s narrative has been as eventful as it has been full of great music. The tale took a dark turn more recently, as the Portland, Oregon, resident battled cancer through the latter part of the last decade, but even then Salgado never lost his fiery determination. And the story continues.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Curtis Salgado goes in-depth in our One Track Mind feature on key moments from his career, with comments on O.V. Wright and Robert Cray.]

Emerging this year with Soul Shot, Salgado has rejoined a stirring solo career that’s already seen him named soul blues male artist of the year at the 2010 Blues Music Awards. Salgado has been nominated in the same category for the 2012 edition, to be held in May.

He stopped by for the latest SER Sitdown to discuss the just-out Soul Shot, those career intersections with Cray and Belushi, and the enduring power of grease-popping, shotgun-shack rattling, ass-wagging soul music …

NICK DERISO: Were there lessons to be gained from the difficult health issues you endured in the last decade?
CURTIS SALGADO: I was given six or seven months to live if I didn’t remove my liver. It’s not just that it was a tumor. It could explode and, if it does, you won’t get a liver and you will die of liver failure. I only had 20 percent of my liver left. So, here’s this time bomb. I end up living all of these miracles, and a whole truckload of love is dumped into my life. The record previous to this one was a bad experience — good songs, good record but the musicians were crybabies. It was so negative, and I didn’t want to work again with that. So, I got out of the hospital and (long-time co producer) Marlon (McClain) came over to the house and we began to move into another direction. I had had a major setback – and I didn’t want to do that again, sit there and it be all negative. I don’t want that.

NICK DERISO: Soul Shot certainly sounds like somebody having fun again.
CURTIS SAGADO: Yeah, see, I wanted to make a basement dance party record. The kind of party where there is a stack of records on a stereo console, various people of all races there. People are blowing weed and drinking. I wanted to make a record that fit that image – and that’s what we got out of (fellow co-producer) Tony Braunagel and Marlon. We started picking songs and I wrote about eight new songs – four of which made the record. What we got was basically four tunes that fit right into the covers. And, working with the Phantom Blues Band, we got that basement party feel. See, the thing about cancer is you know how you’re going to die. Nobody wants to know that. With cancer, that’s what’s so heavy about it. And after all that stuff, I just wanted to be playing music, to get feedback, to get that connection. I’m just glad to be here and make good music, with good people. Making that connection is what it’s all about now.

NICK DERISO: Take us back to the beginning, to the days when you were just starting out.
CURTIS SALGADO: I was playing with a band called the Nighthawks. We actually started before the band with the same name from D.C., but they had their hustle together. We were from Eugene, Oregon, this small college town — really, a redneck logging community with the University of Oregon planted in the middle of it. The Nighthawks in D.C. had a lot more opportunity. Nevertheless, we were real popular in Eugene. Then Robert Cray and his bass player Richard Cousins moved there and we became fast friends. I ended up moving in with Richard Cousins. We had this scene that had some strong bands in it. We had already established ourselves, and were playing all of the cities up and down I-5 in Oregon. We got to where we were playing at the Eugene Hotel in the King Cole Room, a huge ballroom. We put on these little shows, and it would be Robert Cray and the Nighthawks. Robert would open, and then we’d do a set. At the end, both bands would get together and we’d do a little soul revue.

NICK DERISO: And that’s where you met Belushi, right? I was always struck by his interest in the blues and R&B, which — for a comedian by trade — seemed to come from such an honest place.
CURTIS SALGADO: When I tell you he didn’t know anything, I mean it. Dan Aykroyd was trying to get John into the blues, because he wanted to do a skit (for the television program “Saturday Night Live”). He had a band that he championed, in Toronto, called the Downchild Blues Band, but John wasn’t into it. Then he came to Eugene, Oregon, during the filming of “Animal House” — which Robert Cray was also in.

Otis Day & The Knights – Shout (video edit) from FunkyRob on Vimeo.

NICK DERISO: I remember Cray playing bass with Otis Day and the Knights.
CURTIS SALGADO: Right, that’s Richard’s bass he’s playing. What happened was, John Belushi wanted to meet me. But I didn’t know who he was, and I didn’t care. We were in the middle of a set. ‘Who’s John Belushi? What are you talking about?’ After the set, I go over to him, and here’s this guy — a little shorter than me, and pretty stocky. I shake his hand, but I’m turning my head the whole time, looking around. I didn’t care. He says: ‘I really like your harp playing. It reminds me of a friend of mine. His name is Dan Aykroyd.’ And I remember thinking: ‘So fucking what?’ Of course, in hindsight, I know that he was checking me out. He realizes that I don’t know who they are, and also that I don’t care. He says: ‘I’m in the movie,’ and I finally spark up — because Robert’s in it. He’s the one who showed them the little dance routine in “Animal House,” the one they do. We started talking, and I’m a little more interested. Then he drops that he’s on “Saturday Night Live.” I’m blank. He says: ‘It’s a show in New York, and I’m going to be playing with Ray Charles in a few weeks.’ I go: ‘What?!? You’ve got to ask Ray Charles about Guitar Slim.’ ‘Who’s Guitar Slim?’ ‘You don’t know who Guitar Slim is?!?’ Guitar Slim made one of the greatest records: It was on the charts for like 30-something weeks in the early 1950s; it’s called “The Things I Used To Do.” It’s one of the classic blues songs. You can hear how excited I get about this, even now. So he and I made friends.

NICK DERISO: You were an unsigned act at that point, though, right? And he ended up putting out a hit album with a bunch of songs that you turned him on to?
CURTIS SALGADO: Yeah, I started bringing him records. Universal Studios had put him up in a home, there in Eugene. He called me up like two days later, and we started listening to all of this old music. I remember he comes to me one day and says: ‘I’m going to play a character called Jake, and Dan’ — I still don’t know who this guy is — ‘is going to do a skit with me on “Saturday Night Live.” We’re going to call it the Blues Brothers.’ It still didn’t faze me. I had never seen the show. But I was probably the first person, anywhere outside of whatever small circle of friends they had, who knew the Blues Brothers were coming — first on TV and then as a movie. I don’t know if Dan had even started the script. At that point, it was just a skit. He had this pile of my records — probably a foot and half tall. I’m at one end of the table, and he’s at the other, with these LPs in the middle. He goes: ‘What can I do for you?’ I didn’t have any kind of smarts. I should have said: ‘I would like five percent.’ Later on, he offered it to me again. I just said: ‘I want you to give credit where credit is due, name these people — tell everybody who they are. Make sure you credit them.’ I had already turned him on to “Hey Bartender,” by Floyd Dixon, who was a big hero to me. Belushi wanted to jam, and I told him: ‘We’re not going to be doing “Johnny B. Goode,” dude. I’ll bring you over a song’ — and that was the tune.

NICK DERISO: You’re working once again on Soul Shot with co-producer Marlon McClain — whose seminal funk band Pleasure toured with Earth Wind and Fire after hitting in the 1970s with the slap-bass gem “Glide.” He seems to completely get the interesting mixture of blues and R&B that has always been a passion for you.
CURTIS SALGADO: A funk pioneer guitar player from Portland, Oregon. He and Nate Phillips and Bruce Carter, they were the world-class and influential band called Pleasure. Bruce Carter was as bad as any drummer on the planet, on the level of Dennis Chambers or Peter Erskine or any of the greats. He could do anything. Eventually, Kenny G would put him on retainer, and that didn’t get him the recognition that he deserved. But Bruce Carter was beyond the realm of comprehension. These three guys comprised a rhythm section that’s legendary, and from right here in Portland. There’s not a lot of things like that coming out of Portland. These young black studs came out of here and they were laying it down. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were influenced by Pleasure. When the Time first came out, they went to see Pleasure and Earth Wind and Fire, and took Marlon out to the car to play the demos for “777-9311.” They’re going: ‘What do you think?’ He’s really enriched in the contemporary funk and R&B — and I love that stuff. Marlon was also influential in getting Jeff Lorber’s fusion band out there.

NICK DERISO: In that way, he was perfect for what you wanted to do with melding styles.
CURTIS SALGADO: I was a big fan of Pleasure, though by the time I met Marlon they no longer existed. I walked into his office and said: ‘Will you produce me?,’ because I like funk — and I wanted to mix funk and blues together. I still haven’t done it right yet, but I thought what if you took the nuances of the blues, one of those quirky riffs that Lightnin’ Hopkins or Skip James or Robert Johnson does, and you made that kind of the theme but did it with a Parliament feel? A blues riff overlying funk. Not playing the blues and making it funky, meaning three chords and a bridge with everything syncopated. I mean, a song with no blues changes, but with a blues riff in it. That’s what I wanted to do, and he played funk. Things haven’t completely worked out, though we’ve covered a few and written some stuff — “Jump Into Love” and “I’m On My Way Home” being the closest that I’ve gotten. But that’s how we met, and we’re still trying to find the perfect sound.

NICK DERISO: The new record does so much — really, as much as any solo project you’ve had — to underscore that long-held interest in soul music.
CURTIS SALGADO: It is a longheld interest. But all of this — blues, soul, R&B — it’s all black music, with one thing branching off into another. And I like a lot of different music. I was a big Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart fan — still am. I like Buckethead, a lot of different stuff. But I grew up on Count Basie; I love that as much as I love Little Walter. I love Dinah Washington as much as I love Muddy Waters. I just like American roots music. I’m a huge bluegrass fan. I love hard country, real country — not this namby-pamby stuff they put out today. There’s so much music out there, but you’ve got to kind of hone down what it is that rocks your boat.

NICK DERISO: Is there a new act that does it for you?
CURTIS SALGADO: I’ve always got my ear open to new stuff, but I keep finding myself going back to the stuff that’s already been done. I find that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s the same thing, just scrambled differently. Nobody is going to be doing anything differently, I don’t think, anymore. If you were to come here and look into my record collection today, you’d find stuff that’s predominately black and predominately old. I like the Black Keys, but I get tired of it. I like Jack White, too. They’re into the blues. But they’re not laying the shit down like they used to.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.