Curtis Salgado is the blues. He's all feeling and heart and soul and surprise. There's something in his persistent energy — the fact that he was John Belushi's muse for the Blues Brothers, the fact that he's 20 years clean and sober, that he continues to perform and travel despite an ongoing fight with cancer — that refuses to stop.
And after more than 35 years in the music industry, eight albums, and countless tours and concerts, he's still going. The release of his newest record, Soul Shot, has taken Salgado everywhere from Brazil to the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland.
It's not always like this, he says, but he's grateful for the bustle in his schedule now.
"The way the music industry is, we're like migrant farm workers in a way," Salgado told opbmusic's Dave Christensen during an interview and performance session late last month. "The crops are in in the summertime."
Salgado calls Soul Shot the best record he's ever made. He covers classics, such as Bobby Womack's "What You Gonna Do" and Johnny Watson's "Strung Out," plus his own originals, many of them autobiographically rooted. The song "He Played His Harmonica" references one unforgettable hobo of his Eugene childhood.
Salgado was raised in a musical home, starting first with the guitar before moving on to the blues harmonica. He grew up listening to the masters — Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Earl "Fatha" Hines and Earl Gardner and Ray Charles. "And then my sister brought home a Little Walter record and that changed my whole life," Salgado says. "I just went crazy."
"Even back then in those days I knew that a 9-5 wasn't what I wanted to do… So I stuck with it." By 18, he was playing at Eugene nightclubs and taking vocal lessons on the side. He formed a band with close friend Robert Cray, and began touring and performing nationally.
In 1977, Salgado met comedian John Belushi while Belushi was in Eugene to film Animal House. The two struck up a friendship around Belushi's growing interest in blues and soul music and began jamming together. Salgado is often credited as the inspiration behind Belushi's Blues Brother character Joliet Jake Blues. "I was Belushi's muse," Salgado says.
The Blues Brothers became a phenomenon, growing from the original Saturday Night Live skit into a major motion picture and a best-selling album, Briefcase Full of Blues. Through it all, Salgado says Belushi kept his pledge to "give credit where credit is due," including dedicating the first album to Salgado. But he seems to have a bittersweet memory of the experience and a sense of a lost opportunity that may have helped boost his career.
"I was 23 years old. I was just a kid from Eugene who liked black blues and soul music. I didn't know how to talk to a lawyer," he says.
Now, years later, Salgado says he's proud to have been a part of helping bring the music he loves to a larger audience. "I'm a part of something that turned out to… boost the blues," he says.
Salgado's contribution to the blues industry has not gone unnoticed. He has won the 2010 Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Artist Of The Year, and claims that the true joy of his work lies simply in "just being alive."
Alive, indeed — but he's forever playing the cancer game. Salgado recently learned of a cancerous mass in his lung and is scheduled for surgery after the Waterfront Blues Festival. "The whole thing is, 'Will it come back, will it come back, will it come back?' And that's the game I've been playing," he says, then shrugs. "But you just move on down the line."
- Studio Session: Curtis Salgado OPB Music