Hanging Out With the Legendary Curtis Salgado

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Curtis SadalgoOne thing I picked up on instantly was that Curtis Salgado has a lot to say and that this man is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge in the blues world and beyond. What I found most intriguing about Curtis, other the serious music lesson I got, was at how real and humble he is. It took me about 2 seconds to realize that this guy puts off an amazing amount of positive energy and he truly is one very classy individual. I suppose that comes with being on deaths door and living to share that experience with others. The show he played at the King Cat Theater in Seattle was great. Opener Dudley Taft unleashed some serious guitar driven blues rock to the crowd before Salgado opened his portfolio and distributed a night of blues, jazz and soul with just the right amount deep country and early rock undertones. It is clear that he and his career have been affected by many different genres of music, from Count Basie to Johnny Cash and O.V. Wright to Jerry Lee Lewis. His harp work was splendid and his partners on stage came and got him, finding the pocket on many occasions throughout the night. He had a great stage presence and took some light-hearted jabs at his drummer and the sound guy. After the show we asked if we could have 5-10 minutes with him which turned into nearly 40 minutes and we could have easily talked all night. We didn’t even get into any of the blues brothers stuff, although Curtis offered to do another story on that, so stay tuned.
Interviewing him was quite a pleasure, he is a very funny man and it was an absolute blast hanging out with him and Andrea. My thanks to Curtis Salgado, Andrea Crawford and Shawn Skager from Electric Phase.

This is how the interview went:

ABB: This is quite an honor and I thank you for spending some time with us.

CS: I’m the one that is honored that you want to do this.

You played a new tune tonight, that was a great song, I really enjoyed it.

I wish I would have wrote it. It’s an old soul song written by a cat name O.V. Wright. A lot of people don’t pay attention to him (he is one of the best soul singers ever).
There’s a lot of these singers that I call, “hard soul”. Singers deep rooted in southern soul. O.V. Wright is one of the most moving I’ve ever listened to. He was from Memphis and he sang “Ace of Spades” and “Don’t Let My Baby Ride” and he had a string of hits in the southern market. He was on the same label as Al Green, Hi Records. O.V. is just as tough as Al Green.

At this point Curtis explains to us how several types of music are connected.

If you are into blues, you’re into jazz, If you’re into jazz, you’re into soul, If you’re into soul, you’re into gospel. It’s all mixed together. The lines are really blurred. We are not a blues band, we are rhythm and blues. We play the blues. I love it when people call us that but we are not a blues band. Now R&B is everything from Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Stevie Wonder. It’s just a category put together for Billboard Magazine. It used to be called “Race Music”. Some people think a writer for Billboard Magazine changed the name to be accepted in the 30’s & 40’s.

Any new R&B artists coming out now that you kinda dig?

Lot of people out there. There’s this white guy Marc Broussand from Louisiana singing his butt off. He’s doing the exact same thing as a Vegas musician named Michael Grimm from America’s Got Talent. He is a Las Vegas heavyweight. He sings Blue Eyed Soul. Any white guys that sing black music is called Blue Eyed Soul. Who do I like? What I listen to is predominantly black music. Unless it’s bluegrass music or deep country. Tammy Wynette, George Jones you know the real country. Johnny Cash. All the King records artists.

Curtis SadalgoSo, do you think there is a connection between that kind of music and blues?

It’s all criss crossed. It’s all story telling music. Ralph Stanley sounds like a lot of soul to me “A white soul singer”. Johnny Cash said there is no more country. It’s not about wearing a hat and cowboy boots. Country people are the ones that picked cotton, worked in coal mines, steel mills, etc…
Their lifestyle created the music, as opposed to the music creating the lifestyle. I’m not hearing country music anymore. I’m hearing 70’s rock sang by people wearing cowboy hats. One night I sat in Nashville and there was this guy covered in gold jewelry, a jade necklace, except he was wearing bib overalls! He was talking to this young guy and they were discussing how to twang your voice – in Denny’s working on the twang.(At this point Curtis “twangs” his voice as an example…and he can “twang”)
Now Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, those guys grew up in the south, they were from the hills and they lived the lifestyle. So the lifestyle led to the music.
I grew up in Oregon. My parents were jazz enthusiasts. My father was into Count Basie. He took me to a Count Basie concert and at a young age I knew who everyone in the band was.
I said that’s who I want to be. Leon Thomas and that was in the 60’s. All jazz and the blues for me back then.
We would watch Hootenany but the emergence of the Beatles started to change things. Up until then, most of the hits in America were coming out of New Orleans. My sister and brother were into the blues though and I followed what they listened to. I didn’t want to sing anything I didn’t understand. Until I learned what a mojo was and started hanging with the culture and learning the culture I didn’t sing it. A “Mojo” Comes from slavery, it came from Africa. It was a love potion.

We’d like to talk a little bit about your addiction and your recovery and what was your bottom?

I have 22 years in recovery and it(the addiction) still almost killed me. I started shooting drugs at 13 – White crosses(speed, the stuff truckers use).
It was probably then that I got Hep C. By 2006 had 28% of my liver left and I had been sober for 16 years. It melted away. I have had it for a long time.
I had it when I got sober in 1988. Drinking was the thing to do back then. It wasn’t because my family was abusive. It came down to if you want to hang with these people you do this. I did it all man. I never had what most people call a bottom. I had a lot of them… I just had a revelation.
I started thinking a lot about the medical information I was reading.
The information was – this shit is bad for you.
When you do the kind of drugs I did, your heart is being dissolved. My heart would speed up and slow down. A lot of wear and tear.
But drugs always came to me. People always wanted to hang ya know. Get Curtis “High” and they could hang out. I never spent money – okay, haha….I’m sure I spent plenty of money, but it just wasn’t fun anymore. I kept trying to turn away but it was hard. Me and my girlfriend would shoot up drugs for “sexualrecreation” and I remember looking at her and going “I gotta quit.” I thought I was gonna die.

How did you quit?

How did I quit? Well one night I had scored, we used to make money back then. There were always lines around the block of people coming to the shows. $3000 split 5 ways.
Anyways, there was this doctor in our circle who told me that if you ever want to quit, come see me. “I’m not going to push anything on you but if you feel like talking”… He said he was there. I found him one night and grabbed him and said I really want to talk to you. I’m ready to go in, I’m really tired of this shit. At that time, the club owner came up and said what are you guys talking about? Doc replies, “Curtis says he wants to go into rehab”, at that point Tony(the club owner) chuckles and shines a light in my eyes. Their smiles went from laughter to “Okay…then” when they saw my yellow eyes, they said, “maybe you should”.
I was really sick. So, the next day they showed up at my house with 2 band members. I’d been up all night partying and shooting drugs when they came in and sat down and said, “are you really serious”? I said hell yeah, I’m really serious. Doc said for $1000 I can get you in a program. I said I don’t have don’t have that kind of money but he said the band members have agreed to pay, and when they offered rehab, the first thing I asked was “are they going to push Jesus on me?” They said no, you decide what you want for a higher power. Then they made me sign a contract. I stayed up for the next 4 days getting high, then on Sunday morning my keyboard player came over and said “okay let’s go”. So I started stuffing a paper sack with one sock and a comic book, you know, kinda like the movie, “The Jerk”. When I handed my bag to the woman at the rehab center she looked in it and said coyly, “we’ll be keeping this right here for you, okay?”

How did getting clean affect your performances?

Made it better.
A lot of people can’t do it without liquid courage. Not me, I said “watch my smoke” I got a kick out of being different, I used to be the party guy and I could pull it off. I could stay up for 3 or 4 days and still perform at festivals but I started screwing up. It caught up with me and I was doing things like falling on stage. I was too loaded to play a show in Portland once towards the end and had to sit and watch someone sitting in for me. When I quit I decided to totally reinvent myself I said “watch this!”

How did you feel when the blues world rallied around your need for a very expensive liver transplant?

This young lady here was a big part of the story(he points to Andrea Crawford, his life partner). At breakfast one day my manager tells me the Rose Garden has been donated to you. Bonnie Raitt paid for my apartment for a year. Robert Cray, Art Alexis, Taj Majal, Steve Miller, wanna come in and do this show for free to help me.
I stood up and went in the bathroom and cried. I don’t wanna owe people stuff, it bothers me. I wanna do my part. I do not take that lightly. It really makes you humble. 300 volunteers at the Portland show. There we shows in Santa Cruz, Omaha, Eugene, Portland and Seattle. We raised $250,000 just at Rose Garden.
Here’s how it makes you feel. How do you pay that back?

Did you think you were going to die at any point?

Hell yeah, I was give 6 or 7 months to live, my liver had a tumor the size of an egg growing on it. It could explode at any time and I was already in the 6th month. I needed a living donor and at the very last minute Andre offered me her liver, a 40/60 split! We were broke up at the time and I said I’m not gonna take your liver. She said,”you don’t have a choice”. We had a problem though, each test they do is $20,000, so we got down to the end and we were $100,000 short. My heart also was not beating right. Finally we had the green light and said let’s do this. We were ready to go but discovered we were short of money. The hospital said we are not going to do it. It wasn’t the doctors but the people that handle their money.
That’s when 2 people stepped up with their life savings and donated $100,000 so I could live. I didn’t know it at the time but the liver is the Super Bowl of transplants. After everything that had went down they decided to put me on the organ donor transplant list. This was at the last minute. I’m 3 or 4 days out from operation at this point and was running out of time. What are the odds of getting a liver in 4 days in the middle of Omaha? Then it happened. A donor liver became available.
Even if everyone else forgets about it, I never will. There is something going on I can’t explain.
Through all of this I have gotten the chance to get involved with others going through what I went through. Andrea and I have taken part in liver symposiums.
In closing, when you are in music – it’s about validation.
It’s about getting in the pocket and squirting. It’s like being in the rubber room beating on the walls. It’s that release. I don’t care about the Grammys and stuff like that anymore. I used to be really caught up with I wanna big someday (haha)and why it happens to some people and not to others.
I’m just happy to be here – I’m the luckiest guy on the planet. I’m the guy that stops to smell the flowers, I’ve won all these Grammys, I won the lottery. I am grateful today.

Check out the Curtis Salgado website

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By Glen Casebeer/Northwest Music Scene
With Shawn Skager/Electric Phase

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