While survivorship is a constant theme of the genre, Curtis Salgado might be pushing it even for a bluesman. The singer/harp player has survived a liver transplant and then two operations to remove cancerous tumors from his lungs -- the most recent of which occurred in July. And while he's happy about that, he was pretty pissed about having to cancel four weeks of a tour in support of his new CD, Soul Shot (Alligator). He's back on the road and play's Dan Electro's in the Heights Friday night, though.
Featuring four originals and seven covers of songs made famous and/or written by artists like Bobby Womack, O.V. Wright, George, Clinton, Otis Redding, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the record finds Salgado in fine vocal and playing form. But he has another niche in pop culture history. In 1977 while living in Eugene, Oregon and fronting a band called the Nighthawks, he befriended an actor in town for a few months to film a movie.
The actor was John Belushi, the movie was Animal House, and it wasn't so long after that the actor and his buddy Dan debuted a skit called "The Blues Brothers." The bit went on to have a pretty decent afterlife.
Rocks Off spoke with Salgado about the record, his relationship with Joliet Jake, and what Texas bluesman Floyd Dixon told him he blew $78,000 on.
Rocks Off: First, how is your health these days?
Curtis Salgado: It is scary. This is my third operation. I had the liver transplant, and it had a tumor the size of a lemon in it, but it metastasized, and now I have liver cancer is in my lung! They took a section out around the tumor, so hopefully, it won't be back.
They removed the lower lobe of my left lung. They said I was really lucky. But I had to cancel four weeks of a tour. And I have a great record out!
RO: What made you decide to sign with Alligator? They have such a rich history as a blues label.
CS: Well, I've known [founder] Bruce IGlauer] for a long time, since the '70s. He's kind of the last of the honest record guys. He's not really a soul guy, but he heard the record and wanted it. And it was the label that I wished for.
RO: It definitely has more of a soul than a blues feel. And, given the title, one would assume that.
CS: I've only made one blues record, but I'm under roots music. It's all blues, soul, rock and roll, and funk. And it's black America's music and now it's the world's music. But we wanted to have "soul" in the title, so people would know what they're buying. I must have gone through 200 names! Put you put it on and dance to it and make love and party.
RO: Of the covers, was there a favorite to record or that you perform?
CS: Not really. The one with the biggest challenge was "Let Me Make Love to You." I mean, that's the O'Jays... that's Eddie Levert! And he is insanely good. I mean... I know how good I'm not. I admire my heroes way too much. I mean... it's Eddie Levert goddamnit (laughs).
But we stripped it down to just the rhythm section and me. I must have sang that song over and over in my house and the studio. I did 18 takes, went home, and then came back and did it another 20 or so times until I felt I had nailed it. But every song on there I love.
RO: Concerning John Belushi...what kind of student was he?
CS: I would go and visit him and his wife and I was basically his muse. I went in there and he had a Blue Öyster Cult record on the turntable. And I was bringing him Magic Sam and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.
He saw me do "Soul Man" plenty of times with the Nighthawks. I turned him onto "Hey Bartender" by Floyd Dixon. I turned him onto a bit of business I put into a song that I gave to him over the phone before he was going do the skit [on Saturday Night Live] like "Girl, are you going to make like a Camel and walk a mile, or make like a Chesterfield and satisfy?" and some other things.
Did he absorb it? He took it up like a sponge. He was that kind of guy. Dan [Aykroyd] had tried to get him into the blues before with a band called the Downchild Blues Band out of Toronto. And in that band were brothers.. do you feel me? They were blues brothers. Then John got it after he saw me. I didn't know who he was at first! I didn't know Saturday Night Live. He even told me that I reminded him of Dan.
And oh man...in Houston you're drenched in that stuff down there. Lightnin' Hopkins... Johnny Copeland... Albert Collins... Gatemouth Brown... Duke Records...
I got a great story. You want to hear?
CS: We had a Monday night gig to make some extra money with some musicians and Belushi shows up. He wants to play with the band and he wants to do "Jailhouse Rock" or "Johnny B. Goode," and I said no, that was cornball, overdone. So I brought him "Hey Bartender" by Floyd Dixon, also from Texas!
The next Monday night he shows up and sasy he's learned the tune. So he gets up...but he does it like Joe Cocker. And the audience is going apeshit, and I don't get it. I didn't have a television, I never saw him do that impression. So he asked me how it was, and I touched his chest and said "You've got to do it from here," not what you just did. And he just said "Yeah." And he respected that.
So they put "Hey Bartender" on the record. And he asked me what I wanted, and I just said "give credit where credit is due." I didn't ask for [money]. So they dedicated the record Briefcase Full of Blues to me, and in the movie, their mentor -- played by Cab Calloway -- is named Curtis.
Years later, at the Chicago Blues Festival, Floyd Dixon comes up to me and said "Curtis, I want to thank you for turning them onto that song. It made more money for me than anything else, I got the biggest royalty check of my life." And it choked me up.
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And I said "It's none of my business, but how much was it?" And he said $78,000. And I said "Wow, what did you do with it?" And Floyd just looked into the distance with a gleam in his eye, and said "I had a wonderful time. I spent it all on a horse." Now that is a bluesman! He gambled it all away, and he didn't care!
10 p.m. Friday, September 14, at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, 1031 E. 24th, www.danelectrosguitarbar.com