On The String: Soul Survivor And Blues Song Man Curtis Salgado Is In Control

Apr 13, 2021

A couple of years ago, The String profiled Nashville’s Colin Linden. He was a chunky little white kid growing up in Toronto and New York in the 1960s who got struck by the blues as if by a benevolent lightning bolt. When he was 11, he approached his hero Howlin’ Wolf in the quiet hours before a show and struck up a long, life-changing conversation. I thought of this epiphany while taking in the story of Curtis Salgado.

The blues is a mighty life force with infinite expressiveness and a mystical ability to travel effortlessly across distance and time, race and class. It’s also the story of America, something Salgado understood intuitively, beyond his infatuation with the sound and feel of the music. After hearing a few records, and especially after seeing the Count Basie Band as a kid, he wanted to know everything. He wanted to live the life. And as you’ll hear in Episode 165 of The String, he’s done that and more, touring the world, beating back two forms of cancer, and winning nine Blues Foundation awards, including the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year prize in 2013.

Our conversation visits several key moments in his journey. Scene one. A kid in an overwhelmingly white town learns about racism from his father’s record collection: 

“He had Bunk Johnson. He had Bix Beiderbecke. He had Louis Armstrong. He loved Ray Charles. On the back of one of these records, it said that Count Basie had to enter Carnegie Hall through the back door at one of the biggest, most influential concerts of all time (From Spirituals To Swing, 1938-39). And I remember going what, why is that? Why? My hero! I had no idea. I'm in Eugene, Oregon. Count Basie has to go through the back door at Carnegie Hall? That's crazy. And I couldn't get it together. And of course, you know, it's layers of the onion. As time goes on, you learn more.”

Scene two. By his mid-twenties, Salgado is working the region in a band with fellow emerging artist Robert Cray. One night, Saturday Night Live actor John Belushi wanders into their bar, blowing off steam from filming Animal House, and has his mind blown by the band and by Salgado’s harmonica playing. He demands to meet Salgado.

“He comes up to me and shakes my hand says, 'You look like a friend of mine, Dan Ackroyd, and he plays harmonica too.' And I thought to myself, who gives a poop? You know, every hippie in town plays harmonica! I didn't know who he was. And from there it launched.” 

It “it” was a friendly consulting relationship as Belushi formed The Blues Brothers and his character around Curtis's swagger and soul patch. Their 3.5-million-selling debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues from 1978, is dedicated to Curtis Salgado. 

Scene three. Salgado’s life as a band member (Roomful of Blues) and band leader bonds him with his heroes. 

“I'm the last generation, the baby boomers, to really see the great black masters who were out on the road and teaching us. I toured with Muddy Waters. I played scores of gigs with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and B.B. King. We backed up John Lee Hooker. We were sleeping in football fields and then doing a concert with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner. And you know, so we're paying our dues. And we're out there learning from these guys. And now there's really just a couple of guys standing.”

Scene four. Salgado eludes a destructive spiral in the 1980s. 

“By the time I was in roomful of blues, my drinking and drugging habit had grown. We traveled back and forth across from the east coast to the west coast and back again in a bookmobile with no windows. And we're an 11-piece band! And the booze got to me, and I was pretty wild. And one day I got fired, because I made a fool out of myself on stage. And I went back to Portland, Oregon. And a year later, I got clean and sober. And that is the linchpin. Once I got clean and sober, and pretty much grew up and got responsible, I just reinvented myself.” 

Scene five. Salgado decides to put together three bands in three different cities to get some variety and stimulus into his newest release Damage Control. Pianist/organist Kevin McKendree (who is also interviewed in the final third of this hour) organizes the Nashville session, including Bonnie Raitt’s guitarist George Marinelli. Also on the album, bass player Jerry Jemmott (Freddie King, Aretha Franklin and more) and organist Mike Finnigan, veteran of Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, etc. 

“I admire these people so much. And I know my strengths and my weaknesses. And I'm good at putting stuff together. And I know where I want the song to go. But I know these guys are going to fill in the blanks. Here's the bones. And then they put in the meat and the muscle. And bang, there it is.”

You’ll rarely encounter an artist in his sixties with so much mileage who’s as enthusiastic and wound up about music and musicians as he was as a teenager, but that’s who you’ll met in this hour.