Featured Interview – Albert Castiglia

Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone

imageIt seems almost incongruous to use the word “subtlety” when it comes to Albert Castiglia. After all, there are few blues-rockers who can match his powerful delivery and talent – someone who, on stage, is about as subtle as a tornado – a fury that’s taken even greater dimension through his burgeoning partnership with Mike Zito as one half of Blood Brothers.

But take a close look at Castiglia’s musical output during the past few years and you’ll realize that the occasionally brash, in-your-face attitude he presents to the world on stage. Underneath it all, however, he’s exposed another side of himself as a man with a deep social conscience, something that’s perceptible in both the songs he’s been writing and in his newfound approach to life, too.

It’s a powerful transition – and one, as you’ll learn here, that occurred after a call from a “stranger” out of the blue.

Albert was fresh off the road from a Blood Brothers tour and on the verge of celebrating the holidays with his family when Blues Blast caught up with him a few weeks ago.

The son of a Italian-American father and a Cuban-born mother – strict parents who loved doo-wop and country music, Castiglia was born in New York City on Aug. 12, 1969. Raised in Miami from age five, he grew up in a home instilled with old-school values and the necessity to attend college, find a decent job and stick with it until ready to retire.

Fascinated by the six-string after watching an uncle play, Albert received his first guitar at age 12 and was still in his early teens when he discovered the blues by accident one day after acquiring a copy of Eric Clapton’s Just One Night, a two-disc live set recorded in Japan and released in 1980 that included covers of several azure treasures, including Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further on Up the Road,” Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble,” Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues.”

His interest peaked three years later after listening to a cassette of Muddy Waters’ Hard Again. “I’d never heard anything like it,” Castiglia exclaims. “It was raw, lowdown dirty, primitive, primal!”

Following his parents’ wishes, Albert attended the University of Central Florida, graduated and was hired by the State of Florida as a social worker, spending the next four years in Miami, primarily screening applicants for food stamps, Medicaid and treatment for the various forms of trauma that many of the clients endured before applying for care.

“If we couldn’t help ‘em, we’d refer ‘em to other agencies. It was great fun,” he says sarcastically. “But it gave me a greater appreciation for what I do now.”

It was a task that still haunts him.

“Looking back, it just wasn’t for me, but it was a great life experience,” he admits. “And it didn’t kill me. It made me stronger! At least twice a year, though, I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, still thinkin’ I’m late for work. After a couple of seconds, I’d realize I don’t have that job anymore – and go back to sleep!”

Throughout that period, however, Castiglia was working seriously on his guitar chops in his off hours. He joined his first band, Miami Blues Authority, shortly after graduation, and eventually became such a standout that the Miami New Times weekly anointed him as the best blues guitarist in the city in 1997.

It was the year that Castiglia’s path in life would change for good.

The previous New Year’s Eve, he’d been in attendance at the Back Room, a popular nightspot in Delray Beach about 45 minutes to the north, to catch Junior Wells in action. Early in the night, a chance conversation with Wells’ road manager/nephew, Michael Blakemore led to an invitation to sit in. But it came with a warning that he’d better be good because Junior – who wasn’t shy about berating musicians in public – wouldn’t hold back if he wasn’t.

“I got up with the band to kick of the second set,” Albert remembers. “They played three songs without Junior, and I jammed with them. Then Junior came up, and I did three more.”

It was a brief encounter, but Castiglia made an impression, and Michael exchanged phone numbers with him when the night was done.

A month later, Blakemore – who eventually spent years on the road with Magic Slim – called and asked him if he’d like to fill in on guitar for a week on Junior’s gigs in Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit – a run that proved so successful that Michael called again a few weeks later and asked if he’d like the fulltime gig.

At age 27, Albert accepted on the spot – taking a position formerly occupied by Phil Guy, Sammy Lawhorn, Lefty Dizz, Byther Smith, Louis Myers and John Primer, among others. And – fortunately for him – his parents’ attitude had softened through the years and they gave him their blessing.

Castiglia relocated to Chicago, but his stay got off to a rocky start. He spent the first night at the loft of a cousin who’d just gotten married but was asked to leave because the newlyweds couldn’t endure his snoring. Junior’s other guitarist, Stevie Lizard, took him in for a couple of nights before he settled into a fleabag hotel on the North Side for $20 a night.

image“It was somethin’ right out of Blues Brothers,” he remembers, “a transient hotel with hobos, crack whores, pimps and johns – and there was a chalk line in my room. It was really classy! (chuckles). I stayed there for a couple of weeks ’til another cousin let me stay at his place and I got settled in.”

It was a struggle, but Albert believed it was the greatest time in his life – and a quality learning experience, too – especially where music was concerned.

“Before I met Junior, I thought it just was all about playin’…you took your guitar, put your head down and played and sang,” he says, an attitude that changed dramatically after watching Wells in action. “I came to realize that there’s much more to it than just that…you have to engage the audience, make them feel part of the show – and you have to be vulnerable. And Junior was a master of opening himself up and makin’ em feel like…aw…they matter.”

Wells’ stage mastery was a lesson in and of itself, but he also passed along sage advice verbally, too, Castiglia says, recounting one incident that occurred when they were spending a week, playing aboard the Ultimate Blues Cruise, a precursor to the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.

“We did two sets on the main stage…played one and had a break,” Albert recalls, “and Michael asked me to keep an eye on Junior while he took care of some business.

“So Junior and I sat at the bar, had a drink, and he told me stories about growin’ up with Earl Hooker and doin’ a lot of gigs together before he hooked up with Buddy Guy…how they used to play for change on trolley cars in Chicago when they were kids. And then the topic became me. He asked me what I wanted to do with my career, and I said: ‘Well, I just wanna stay with you. I wanna hang with you ’til the end.’

“And then – in his own way — he said: ‘Well, I appreciate that. But I don’t expect you to be in this band for the rest of your life. You’re gonna have your own band someday, and the reason I’m tellin’ you this is I want you to learn from this experience because one day it’s gonna be up to you to keep the blues alive.’

“It was time for us to go back and play, and between the bar and the auditorium was this casino full of lovely ladies who had their eyes fixated on Junior because he was always so impeccably dressed. He kept stopping to talk and flirt with ‘em…‘Hey, pretty mama! You see Junior Wells and a bulldog in a fight…who are you gonna help?’ It was a line he used often with women.

“He kept draggin’ ass gettin’ to the auditorium, and Marty Saltzman (his personal manager) was pullin’ his hair out: ‘What’s goin’ on, Albert? You’re supposed to be back on stage!’

“I said: ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t tell Junior…’

“We get near the outside of the auditorium and I hear applause. I peek through the door and the whole band’s onstage…and start playin’…without me. So I run up the aisle, get up onstage, and the whole band’s eyeballin’ me. But we kept on playin’.

“A few months later, I was hangin’ with my roommate, Van Samuels, who was the bass player, and he says: ‘Remember that night when you were late…’

“I said: ‘I wasn’t late. Junior made me late…I was just lookin’ after him, doin’ what I was told…’

“He says: ‘I know…but we had a meeting that night without you and Junior…and everybody in the band wanted you fined $50.’”

And there was a reason. Every time someone in the band received and paid a fine, the money went into a kitty, Albert says. And when it grew big enough, everyone in the band would get a satin Junior Wells tour jacket, which was a prize beyond compare.

Confronted with their decision, however, Wells shouldered all of the blame. “He paid the fine for me,” Albert says, “and swore everybody to secrecy. He didn’t want me to know!

“Junior could be very cantankerous and tough…really tough…he could do some hardcore shit. He could cuss you out on stage. But my dad did it all the time, so it didn’t bother me. But he was good-hearted to a fault. He loved his fans, and he loved people. And he was extremely charitable, too. Someone told me that after Louis Myers passed away, he actually paid for the headstone.”

For Albert and the band, the future truly looked bright that fall. Not only had Wells received a Grammy for traditional-blues album-of-the-year nomination for Come on in This House the previous year, he’d followed it up with another for Live at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Riding the crest of that success he and the band were working so steadily, he was planning to put everyone on salary and major shows, including a tour of South Africa, were looming just over the horizon.

Unfortunately, however, Junior’s health was in rapid decline. After suffering a heart attack and being diagnosed with cancer, he passed away at age 63 on Jan. 15, 1998, just eight months after Castiglia had been brought on board full time.

But the lessons Wells imparted are still bearing fruit today.

“It was a really important part of my life,” Castiglia insists. “And him bequeathing the responsibility to keep the blues alive has been my mission ever since.”

In the years that followed, Albert worked briefly with several other top bluesmen, including Phil Guy, Linsey Alexander and Charlie Love – all of whom were stars in the Windy City but deserved bigger names elsewhere — before a stint backing Sandra Hall, the reigning Empress of the Blues in Atlanta, appearing on her 2001 CD, Miss Red Riding Hood. Produced by Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, it included contributions from fellow Chicagoans Tom Holland, Allen Batts and Brian “B.J.” Jones.

“I’d met Sandra on that blues cruise, and she and Michael Blakemore were really tight,” he says. “After Junior died, he reached out to her and said the band needed work. She hired me and Junior’s rhythm. I went all over the country with her for three-and-a-half years. I was the only member of her touring band who made it onto that record, which meant a lot to me.

image“It was a great experience. She was – and is — very charismatic…a blues shouter in the Koko Taylor type of vein. I often wonder why she’s never gotten as big as she deserves. She’s as good a performer as anybody.”

As much as Castiglia loved the Windy City, however, he returned to South Florida after coming to terms with the fact that Chicago had become unaffordable. Not only had the price of everything risen exponentially since he’d arrived, but quality gigs were also hard to come by because of large roster of quality guitarists competing for a limited number of decent-paying positions.

“I moved back, and I felt like I was a failure,” he says. “But it turned out the best thing for me.”

A stint in the Alligator Alley Allstars – a regional supergroup that included fellow fret master David Shelley, a native Californian who previously worked with Cher – followed before Albert formed his own band and released his debut CD, Burn, in 2004. The disc featured several tunes by Graham Wood Drout, a legendary figure in the Miami blues scene as leader of the band Iko Iko.

They’ve been frequent songwriting partners since Castiglia’s Miami Blues Authority days, a relationship that continues whenever possible today, Albert notes, adding: “I just recently grabbed a song from his older catalog, ‘Bag Me, Tag Me, Take Me Away,’ for the Blood Brothers record that’s comin’ up.”

The duo actually shared credits on Castiglia’s second CD, a live set entitled The Bittersweet Sessions.

Albert’s continued to pay tribute to Junior throughout his career. He covered three Wells tunes — “Hoodoo Man Blues” and two other songs from his setlist – on his 2006 disc, A Stone’s Throw, and then penned a song in his honor, “Godfather of the Blues,” for These Are the Days two years later. Another song from that session, “Bad Year Blues,” went on to receive a BMA song-of-the-year nomination.

Castiglia’s career ascended steadily throughout the 2010s. Both Keepin’ On and Living the Dream, which were released by New Jersey’s Blue Leaf Records, captured album-of-the-year honors from Roots Record Report before he moved on to the German Ruf imprint – a relationship that was initiated thanks to a helping hand from Zito and which produced four more blues-rock pleasers, Solid Ground, Blues Caravan 2014 (co-headlined with British blues-rocker Laurence Jones and Norwegian guitarist Christina Skjolberg), Big Dog and Up All Night.

Despite his steady output, Albert admits, writing tunes on his own has often been a struggle. But that began to change one traumatic, emotional day in 2018, when he received a call from a young lady named Rayne who informed him that he was the father she’d been searching for her entire life – something that had been revealed by a DNA search that lead her to one of his cousins and, eventually, him.

It was a life-changing moment. Not only did Castiglia – then in his late 40s – learn that he was a father, but he was also on the verge of becoming the proud “Pop Pop” to a granddaughter and grandson, too.

The news couldn’t have come at a better time because Albert’s grandmother had passed earlier that day. “I was on tour,” he remembers, and couldn’t make the funeral. But I think my daughter was a gift from her as she left the earth – the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

“I have no doubt that my grandmother was a conduit for that whole thing. When I saw her picture for the first time, she looked just like my grandmother – the same hair and same nose!”

It was love at first sight, something that’s grown even stronger because, quickly became to understand, “she grew up to be a wonderful person, great wife and mother even though I wasn’t around to help.”

Even better, he says, “she’s got a lot of my traits. She never sang in public before she met me. But she’s taken an interest in singing and just sat in with me recently at a jazz club near her home! She’s a folk singer…that’s what’s in her wheelhouse…but she’s takin’ chances now, doin’ (the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic) ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ and did a great job with it!”

It’s truly influenced his songwriting, Castiglia says, noting: “When I was in my 20s, I couldn’t convey what I was feeling when I was goin’ through things back then. I wasn’t very good at expressing myself musically. With age, I’ve gotten better at writing. But my daughter finding me opened up a creative wellspring for me.”

In fact, it’s given him a completely different perspective.

Previously, he says, “I was a married man with no children who was touring the world. My subject matter was limited to stuff that affected me and my wife and the road – and, all of a sudden, I get a whole new family and the scope of my world view becomes a little wider.”

Castiglia was already undergoing somewhat of a metamorphosis thanks to another tragic event: the slaughter of 17 students and teachers and injuring of 17 others by a gunman who’d opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a city just 15 miles to the north of his home.

“It devastated my community,” he says, “and it devastated me to the extent that I even sent a letter to my local Congressman asking him to do something about gun violence.

“Then, a couple of months after that, I discover I’ve got a child and two grandchildren. Now, I’m really thinkin’ about what kind of world we’re gonna leave for these kids. It’s personal now.

“It really hit home – and a slew of songs came out from that…from the shooting to discovering I had kids…to my daughter tellin’ me that every time she drops the kids off at school, she fears for their lives.”

The emotions he experienced surfaced in his powerhouse Masterpiece CD, which was honored as the 2020 BMA blues-rock album of the year. The disc’s title tune is an easy-breezy love song directed at his newfound family and states that his greatest accomplishment in life came “before my prime in 1989,” when Rayne was born. But it’s accompanied by deeply thought-out social commentary in “Love Will Win the War” and “Thoughts and Prayers.”

A major departure from Castiglia’s previous work, the album was recorded in a duo setting with Zito at Mike’s studio in Nederland, Texas, with both me contributing guitar and bass and Zito adding keyboards and percussion – a concept that came about after Albert had sent him demos of some of the material. Mike suggested they team up and “give the band a break,” but Castiglia was initially skeptical. He eventually jumped at the concept after hearing tracks that Zito had previously recorded in a similar format.

Still signed to Ruf, Albert sent the finished product to Germany, but met with resistance. Label owner Thomas Ruf wanted to make changes, feeling it was “a bit too heavy and a bit too raw.” But Castiglia had so much invested in it, he says, he was unwilling to compromise.

What could have been a major problem came to a speedy, positive conclusion. Thomas Ruf, the label owner, graciously worked out a deal to free him from his contract, and Albert immediately signed with Zito’s Gulf Coast Records, a label he co-owns with Guy Hale. It’s been Castiglia’s home ever since.

“I think I was Gulf Coast’s second artist,” Albert says. “And Mike had no intention of signing national acts. He wanted to give the spotlight to friends he grew up with who he felt deserved the recognition” – a decision that subsequently changed. It really turned out to be a good thing, and it’s paid off with two Blues Music Awards.

“Every record we’ve put out has charted on Billboard. Everything happens for a reason!”

imageThat includes Wild and Free, a live set recorded at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, a passionate, high-energy performance in line with his work in the past. But the follow-up, I Got Love – which hit the Billboard No. 1 spot last spring and has earned him a 2023 BMA nomination for both blues-rock artist and album of the year, gave Albert a platform to bare his emotions like never before as he mined material from both family and the COVID crisis.

“The title song, ‘I Got Love,’ came from the place of havin’ all my work dry up and tryin’ to figure out how to survive during the pandemic…but knowin’ that the love of my family was gonna carry me through. Money’s not as important as a support system,” he insists.

Early on, Castiglia decided to stop performing and give guitar lessons via Zoom during the crisis instead of playing out, something that was still possible because of the lax regulations across Florida that allowed hundreds of venues to remain open. It was a choice he finally had to abandon because his savings were running out.

The decision resulted in major blowback from a portion of his fanbase, which was divided. The inner conflict planted the seeds for several tunes on the second half of the disc, including “Depression Blues,” “Freedomland” and “You Don’t Know Hell.” And the downside resulted in coming down with a bad case of COVID that sidelined him for months during a long period of recovery.

Fortunately, those days are in Castiglia’s rear-view mirror. He’s looking forward to a year that will include heavy touring – both on his own and with Zito, someone he describes as “the brother I never had. He can be a pain in the ass…but that’s good! He’s always lookin’ out for me, and I’m always lookin’ out for him no matter how bitchy we get towards each other.”

Mike’s produced Albert’s five most recent CDs, beginning with Big Dog, but their friendship began in 2008, when Castiglia went to see the St. Louis native play at a club in Boca Raton after both artists had been hearing about each other for years through a mutual friend, Missouri-based promoter Monte Lorts.

“We hung out that night and then started running into each other on the road,” Albert says. “We had a lot in common. We’re about a year of each other in age, had similar paths musically – startin’ off listenin’ to rock-‘n’-roll and then gettin’ bit by the blues bug.

“And we grew up listenin’ to the same stuff, the same records. We’re both big Johnny Winter fans, and our taste in Johnny’s albums are the same…Let Me In and Johnny Winter and…, a live album that Johnny hated. I love that raw shit, man!”

He’s especially excited about their Blood Brothers CD, which was co-produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, recorded at Smith’s Flat V Studio in Southern California and should debut in March.

“It was definitely a bucket-list thing to work with both of them,” he says. “People can say what they want about Joe…that his style is not blues or this and that…but he’s done a lot for the genre. He’s an amazing guitar player, and listenin’ to him on record is great.

“But to witness his greatness in the studio…it takes it to a whole other level. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Josh – who’s a helluva guitar player, too — happier sittin’ in the production chair.”

What can folks expect?

“It’s gonna be very bluesy,” Albert says, “a little Southern rock and elements of jam…it’s probably as close to an Americana album as I’ve ever created. But what is Americana anyway? It’s everything. There’s very much a JJ Cale/John Hiatt/Allman Brothers vibe to it.

“Tinsley Ellis wrote a song for us. And I got asked to write a ballad to balance things out. It’s about unrequited love, which is somethin’ I had to dig outta my past – somethin’ I could never convey before. I’m really curious to find out which song’s gonna get a lot of airplay. I usually bet on it – and I’m usually wrong!

“I very much pushed the envelope on this. They definitely took me out of my comfort zone at times. But it’s a great record, and I can’t stop listenin’ to it.”

No matter what, Castiglia remains appreciative for the fans who’ve kept him out on the blues highway for so long. “Because of you, I’m able to make a decent living and do what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “I’m living my best life because of YOU, and I’m very grateful!”

Check out Albert’s music and where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.albertcastiglia.net

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