If you only know singer/harpist Curtis Salgado from his two R&B-focused albums on Alligator, Soul Shot and The Beautiful Lowdown, his latest release for the label may come as something of a surprise. Rough Cut is a duet album with Portland, Oregon-based guitarist Alan Hager, uncompromising blues with a decidedly stripped-down feel. Salgado and Hager explore classics by Muddy Waters, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Son House alongside a half dozen originals.
Longtime Salgado fans know it isn’t that much of a departure. “I’ve done this before. I’ve been playing like this for a long time. It isn’t something like, ‘I think I’ll try this now,’” says the Portland, Oregon-based Salgado. “I made one in 1997, it was called Hit It ‘n Quit It. I did it with a (guitarist) named Terry Robb, and Butch Cousins, Richard Cousins’ brother, on drums. I was given ten grand to go make a blues record. And I made that record so I could launch myself. So that was an acoustic record.
“It’s been since then—close to 20 years—since I have made a record of solid blues. Only this time, I think it’s better,” he says. “I think we’ve made a pretty good blues record.”
Indeed they have. The combination of Salgado and Hager is heavenly, the two melding musically like they’ve been together forever. In fact, they have been collaborating for quite a while; it was 2003 when Curtis first witnessed the guitarist stretch out. Ironically, Salgado was there to see Portland blues fretsman Lloyd Jones. “Lloyd didn’t show up at the gig. He was sick, or had something else (to do), so he hired Alan Hager,” says Salgado. “His guitar’s laying on his lap, and he’s playing Charley Patton. I know Charley Patton. By God, he’s killing it. He’s really paid attention. And he’s playing it—and this is important—with feeling. And then we start talking about it, and I was just like, ‘If I can come up with a gig, would you play?’
“So we played at this one bar in Vancouver, and we have not stopped playing since. And we’ve never rehearsed,” he says. ”I think one of the first songs we played was, ‘Depot Blues’ by Son House?’ He started playing it, and I started singing it.” “Depot Blues” is on the album, along with Elmore James’ “You Got To Move” and Robert Wilkins’ “Long Train Blues.” But the disc kicks off with four splendid originals; the stark opener “I Will Not Surrender” is influenced by Texas blues guitarist Lil’ Son Jackson.
“I listen to a lot of him,” says Curtis. “That was kind of like the feel to it or something I was hoping to get. I mean, it came out totally us, and it’s going to, because I’m not Lil’ Son Jackson. We put that song together, and we did it in my living room. And I had lyrics, and I wrote down the lyrics, kind of tweaked them a little bit. We didn’t even play it. And then we just ran tape. So that was something. We tried to just run tape and not overthink it and overdo it.
“Actually, it’s a funeral song. It’s not about me. I spent a lot of times in funerals over the past few years, and at that time over the past few months,” he says. “I will not surrender the memory of this person. And that’s what it’s about. I’m at a funeral. So that’s what it is.”
The insistent “So Near To Nowhere,” another Salgado/Hager co-write, sports another intriguing storyline. “Alan had this groove, and he just started playing it one day at the house,” recalls Curtis. “‘Hey, Alan, what are you doing? Can we get together? We’re going to make a record, so we’ve got to come up with material!’ So I had written down these lyrics, and he had this groove. I said, ‘You know what? These lyrics might fit that groove. I’ve just got to figure out a melody.’ It took me a while to turn it around. I had to rewrite. It didn’t take long.”
The harpist reveals a lifelong love for canines on the heartwarming “I Want My Dog To Live Longer (The Greatest Wish).” “When Chester, my dog, passed away, I was 14 years old, and Chester was 14. So when he was a puppy, I was a puppy,” says Salgado. “We took Chester to the vet. He’s foaming at the mouth in the living room. I lived in the same house my whole life, the same neighborhood. The whole process was etched into my brainpan, and that’s when I discovered that dogs don’t live long enough.
“I was at a funeral, and it was the wake of a very popular deejay here in Portland. His name was Les Sarnoff. Les was wonderful, and he always pushed my records. He always had me come in and play on the radio if I had a gig. He was a fan and a dear friend. The wake, a lot of it was about how much he was a dog lover, which I never knew,” he says. “We never talked about dogs. He’d passed away, and I missed him. And dogs don’t live long enough, and I just started writing. And I wrote that song in about 20 minutes.”
For the rumbling “One Night Only,” the pair was joined by pianist Jim Pugh and drummer Jimi Bott. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to try and duplicate the feel of John Lee Williamson,’ which is the phrasing and the cadence,” says Curtis. “So that’s what we were trying to do. And Jimmy Pugh flew in, sat down at the piano. It was a hard one to wrassle the left hand of Jim’s bass, because there is no bass (on Williamson’s original).
“We did that just boom, boom, boom. Stepped into the studio and it was done in an hour or less.
A lot of one-takes, one or two. ‘Surrender’ is a one-take. I think once you’ve got it, you get a sound, you’re going through like a half a song or whatever, and then—so I think it’s two takes of that song. And then we picked between take one and take two.”
Salgado moved over to the 88s himself for the droll “Hell In A Handbasket.” “Now that is not a one-take thing. What they did was give me a piece of equipment that I know nothing about. They downloaded it on my MacBook, and they set me up,” he says. “Came over to my apartment. I can’t play piano unless it’s in my apartment, because they all feel different, and they all have different action. ‘Wow, this is fast!’ But I’m used to my piano. I can play a pretty nasty blues in several keys on my piano. So they hooked me up with this equipment, and all I had to do was turn around and push play, or push erase and push play again. So I did about 28 takes over a period of about two weeks.
“Finally one day it was like, boom! Because I’m fooling around the piano and I wrote it, and then I had a mental map of what I wanted to do. And I nailed it, and that was it.”
Rough Cut contrasts with Salgado’s 2012 Alligator debut Soul Shot, a Memphis-influenced R&B set that found him backed splendidly by the Phantom Blues Band, including co-producer Tony Braunagel on drums, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, and organist Mike Finnigan. “I was talking to Tony Braunagel, and I said, ‘I want to make an all-soul record, and I want to pick the stuff. I’ve got a song I’ve always wanted to do, and I know we could tear it up. It’s “Gettin’ To Know You,” by Parliament,’” says Salgado. “Tony sent me ‘What You Gonna Do?’ by Bobby Womack.” Otis Redding’s pulsating “Love Man” and the Detroit Emeralds’ “Baby, Let Me Take You In My Arms” received spirited reprises, as did O.V. Wright’s surging “Nobody But You.” Salgado is a fervent Wright fan.
“I said, ‘I like this. This would be perfect!’ And I’d been listening to it for years. So we get in the studio, I think we killed that,” he says. “Of course, you don’t want to copy it straight off the thing, so we added a small little piano break in it. That was Jimmy Pugh’s idea. He does this gospel church run. One take, boom! You don’t want to work it to death, so you rehearse a little bit. You rehearse, then you go in the studio, and then you try to do it in three takes, three or four. And if it doesn’t happen, you do it again tomorrow.”
Much the same backing cast reconvened for 2016’s The Beautiful Lowdown, an exquisitely crafted contemporary set with only one cover, Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Hook Me Up” (Watson is another Salgado favorite). Curtis wrote prolifically with David Duncan, Kevin McKendree, Finnigan, bassist Larry Fulcher, guitarist Vyasa Dodson, and several more, the Phantom Blues Band providing crisp support while a full complement of backing vocalists added robust harmonies. “You have to write the background vocals as a call-and-response. You have to decide what kind of ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs,’ or if they’re going to come in,” says Curtis. “So it is a production process. I went over to Margaret Linn’s house. She’s a wonderful vocal teacher and sings background with me whenever you hear backgrounds.”
Born in Everett, Washington and raised in Eugene, Oregon, Salgado was surrounded by music in his own home as a youth. “My parents were into jazz. They had all the swing catalog. One of the first records that blew my mind was ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall,” he says. “I was a complete blues nerd. I got into Count Basie at a very early age, and I got into Fletcher Henderson. My father was a piano lover. That’s how I grew up. My father was like, ‘Listen to this!’” Curtis’ brother and sister were blues fans too, bringing home the latest records by harpist Paul Butterfield.
Then Curtis’ sister introduced him to Chicago’s greatest harmonica ace of all. “She brought home Hate to See You Go by Little Walter,” he remembers. “And I’m a harmonica player, and I already have Stand Back!, with Charley Musselwhite. I don’t have (Muddy Waters’) Sail On yet, but I will soon have it. But that Little Walter record was just like—you know what? I listened to it every (day). I still listen to it.” Salgado keeps his own harmonica passages concise and to the point. “I still think that harmonica is an annoying instrument. I can only take it from particular people for a short period of time. Those that can play it, I can hear all day,” he says. “I can hear Little Walter all day, but I can’t hear x, x, and x all day. So I don’t play a lot of harp.”
Eugene boasted two promising young bands back in 1977 that mixed blues and soul with daring aplomb: the Nighthawks, with Salgado fronting, and the Robert Cray Band. Salgado and Cray’s bassist, Richard Cousins, were roommates when Animal House was being filmed there. The two bands were co-starring one weekend at the Eugene Hotel when Salgado first made contact with the film’s rambunctious star. “I’m up onstage singing. And this guy comes up and yanks on my pantleg. He goes, ‘Hey, Belushi wants to meet you!’” says Curtis. “Richard and I don’t own a television. I didn’t know who John Belushi was, nor did I care. I’ve never seen Saturday Night Live, for the simple reason that we work on Saturday night.”
But the comic came up and introduced himself during the set break, and once Salgado learned that Ray Charles was slated to guest on the next episode of Saturday Night Live, his interest was piqued. The two soon became friends. “We exchanged phone numbers, and three or four days later, in the middle of the week, he calls me up and wants me to come over and bring my records,” says Salgado. “I brought him a large stack of records: ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ ‘Groove Me’ by King Floyd, ‘Soul Man.’ He saw us do ‘Soul Man’ night after night. He would come in and see the Nighthawks. We were doing ‘Soul Man’ before he met Steve Cropper. ‘Hey Bartender,’ ‘Groove Me,’ ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ ‘Soul Man,’ and ‘I Don’t Know’ all come from me. ‘I Don’t Know,’ Willie Mabon did it. But I had black comedy records. And there was a routine on a record that I infused into my version of ‘I Don’t Know.’”
Salgado recoiled when Belushi sat in at the Eugene Hotel and sang Floyd Dixon’s “Hey Bartender” as though he was doing an impression of Joe Cocker. “I reached out and I tapped his heart,” he says. “And I went, ‘You gotta be yourself, and you gotta come from here. That’s what music is about.’ He just kind of had his arms down. And he goes, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’” Curtis’ mini-sermon served Belushi well when he invented his Blues Brothers alter ego of Joliet Jake, and the group made those songs a staple of their act, including the humorous monolog that Salgado always included when he sang “I Don’t Know.”
“Years later, when he invited me, I end up at a Blues Brothers concert,” says Curtis. “I got tickets, got to go backstage. And I saw him play, and he was fantastic. They did this one where he does this ballad, and the spotlight shined on him, and he sang ‘Hey Bartender’ and gave me credit, and Floyd Dixon credit. Those guys were really gracious. He invited me to come see him make the movie 1941, and he put me up in a mansion. We kept in contact with each other until his death.”
The Nighthawks weren’t long for the world. “They didn’t want to go do anything,” says Salgado. “We were just a small town blues band. But we played Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Corvallis, Salem, and Eugene. The other thing that kind of stopped the Nighthawks was there was another Nighthawks. But they’re not from Eugene, Oregon. They’re from Washington, D.C. And they’ve got their street hustle a lot better than ours. They had a whole record out. We had an EP.” Since Curtis was already playing in a “side band” with Cray and Cousins, there was an obvious solution. “Robert and Richard were like, ‘You should join us!’ So I joined them.”
With Cray and Salgado sharing vocal duties and the band serving up a non-stop menu of blues and soul obscurities, the Robert Cray Band was the hottest thing in the Pacific Northwest during the late ‘70s, though Alligator took a pass on signing them. “Bruce Iglauer came to see the Robert Cray Band,” recalls Salgado. “Iglauer didn’t go for it. We were too slick.”
Producer Bruce Bromberg recognized Cray’s potential, bringing the band to Eldorado Studio in Los Angeles for their debut session. “He just wanted Robert. So we went into the studio, and the first song we cut, was ‘Who’s Been Talkin’,’” says Salgado. “We’ve been playing this song for quite some time. Robert picks what Robert knows he can do really well, which is anything. So okay, we play this song, there’s a little pause, and then a voice comes over and goes, ‘Okay, move on to the next one.’”
The four songs cut that day, including a sparkling remake of O.V. Wright’s “I’m Gonna Forget About You” featuring Salgado’s lead vocal, were spotlighted on Cray’s 1980 debut album for Tomato Records, Who’s Been Talkin’. The remainder of its contents were cut with Cray backed by a studio combo hand-picked by Bromberg and co-producer Dennis Walker. Cray would soon embrace blues superstardom, but his relationship with Curtis was coming to a close.
“I’m a front man that plays harmonica. I’ve nothing else to offer, unless background vocals. And I loved playing with Robert,” says Salgado. “Robert’s his own man. He plays guitar great. Robert’s fully realized. He has not changed one iota, except he’s a more adventurous guitar player. The guy has not changed vocally at all. He’s always been that good. I was thinking we were going to be the next salt-and-pepper Sam & Dave. And that is what he doesn’t need. So it was time for me to go.
“I had to start all over again.”
So that’s exactly what Salgado did, fronting Roomful of Blues during the mid-‘80s before launching his solo recording career in 1991. There was a ’95 release, More Than You Can Chew, on the Rhythm Safari logo, and a series of albums for the Shanachie label spanning 1999-2008. Soul Shot, his Alligator debut, won him three Blues Music Awards, including Soul Blues Male Artist and Soul Blues Album of the Year. Otis Clay was one of his fellow nominees that year and was in the audience when Salgado mounted the stage to accept his statues.
“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘There must be a mistake.’ And I really felt this.
‘This is a mistake, because I voted for Otis Clay.’ That’s the first thing I said, and everybody laughed,” he says. “I said, ‘I tell you what—it would be disrespectful if I did not accept this award. But I’ll just cut off the foot, keep that, and give the rest to Otis Clay.’” The Beautiful Lowdown snared three more BMAs.
Clean and sober for nearly three decades, the Portland, Oregon-based Salgado has survived serious health challenges in recent years, triumphing over liver cancer in 2006 and lung cancer in 2008 and 2012 as well as undergoing quadruple bypass surgery last year. Happily, he’s now healthy and back in action. “This is the only thing I know how to do,” he says.
“I don’t think of crying about it or whatever, because I’m blessed,” says Salgado. “It’s my journey. It’s my thing. I’ve been very, very blessed.”
Visit Curtis Salgado’s website at: http://curtissalgado.com
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.