Albert Castiglia may have been sitting in with Chicago blues master Junior Wells, but he wasn’t about to be intimidated by the prospect.
After all, his day job was that of a Miami social service investigator. Michael Blakemore, Junior Wells’ manager, had given him fair warning: “I heard you play some guitar. We’ll bring you up, but you better be good ’cause if Junior doesn’t think you’re playing very well, he’s gonna ride you pretty hard in front of all these people.”
It was December, 1996. Castiglia had clocked in four and a half years in the welfare office. Musically, he was strictly part time. Sure, he could have been nervous about playing with Junior, but he didn’t blink.
“So, I got up with the band to kick off the second set. Junior wasn’t on stage yet. I played the opening. The band plays the first three songs without Junior. I jammed along with them, and then Junior came up and I did three more songs with the band and Junior, and it was over with.”
As short as that first set with Junior was for Castiglia, it was the best day of his life to that point. He rushed up the street to call his folks on a pay phone. They were happy for him, but that was it.
“Now, get back to your day job, son.” About a month later, he did three fill-in gigs with Junior in Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit. Once again, he felt those were the best days of his life. Then, in April Blakemore called on him yet a third time.
“He says, ‘Hey, man, can you move to Chicago? Can you be in Chicago in three days?’ And I go, ‘For what?’ He goes, ‘to play with Junior, to tour with Junior fulltime!’ And I said, ‘Oh, let me think about it. Yeah, alright. I’m ready to go.’ That’s exactly how I said it. ‘Let-me-think-about-it-yeah-I’m-ready-to-go.’
“I didn’t even think about it, really. I had a gig with a rock band the next day, and two days later I was on a plane to Chicago. I had no plan where I was gonna live. I had a cousin who lived on the North Side who had just gotten married. I showed up, and that lasted a day because he lived in a loft, and him and his wife couldn’t get any sleep that first night ’cause I snored. So, I went up the street to this transient hotel by the red line on Belmont Avenue called the Hotel Belmont. It was like 20 bucks a night, a real shithole, something out of the Blues Brothers. It might have been the exact same hotel, I don’t know. It was nasty. It was ratty. Real weird looking people. I had to share a toilet with the room next door. I had a little black and white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna. Women screaming down the hall. Couples fighting. It was terrible, and I looked out the window. I heard sirens blaring, and I thought to myself again, ‘This is the greatest day of my life.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I had arrived. I said, ‘I’m gonna become a Chicago blues musician.’ It’s everything I wanted to be. It didn’t matter that I was in this $5 a night flophouse. I was so happy. I lived there for a couple of weeks, Then, I crashed at my other cousin’s place for a couple of weeks. That settled it, and yeah, it was awesome.”
Castiglia certainly wasn’t an obvious fit for the Chicago harp legend. He’d grown up in Miami, the son of an Italian school teacher father who listened to doo wop and a Cuban mother who liked country music. They made sure he went to college and got a responsible job in the welfare office. “Yup, no blues in my family. None whatsoever.
“If it wasn’t for Junior Wells, I’d have been there for the rest of my life. I did it four and a half years. My parents are very old school. My father is very old school. He grew up in Queens. My grandfather was a plumber, my grandmother was a nurse, and he’s just very old school. He was like, ‘You gotta get a job and you’ve got to stay with it.’ That’s pretty much what I thought was going to happen if this music thing didn’t pan out. I thought I was gonna be chained to a desk in a cubicle for the rest of my life, and then Junior came and cut that shit short. I was in my mid-20s by the time I met Junior, and my parents had accepted that I was going to play music nights, and they weren’t strict strict. They weren’t gonna write me off.”
Blues wasn’t even in his vocabulary growing up. He calls his first brush with the genre an accident. “I had bought an Eric Clapton album called Just One Night. It was a double live album that he recorded in Japan, and 75% of the material on that record was blues. “Early in the Morning” was the first one I recall on that album. There was “Double Trouble” by Otis Rush, ‘Further On Up The Road” by Bobby Bland. There was “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a Robert Johnson song, and ‘Worried Life Blues.” So, that was my introduction and I was like, ‘Man, this shit is cool. This is cool stuff, but this was all written by other people, so let me check out that stuff.’ So, that’s how it was. I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t the guy who got me into blues. I can’t really sugar coat it. He was. He was my introduction to blues, and he opened the door for me to listen to this stuff. So, that’s how I got into it, totally by accident.”
Castiglia got his first guitar at 12. “My mother’s brother played guitar, and that’s how I got into it.” He was 15 in 1985 when he got bowled over by another record. “I went to a music stores in my neighborhood in Coral Gables, Florida, and I looked for a Muddy Waters album. In high school, the music snobs were citing blues artists, and Muddy was the one they were always talking about. I had been listening to blues, but it was that Muddy Waters album that grabbed my attention.
“I went to this music store where I grew up and looked for a Muddy album, and the only one that was available was the Hard Again cassette, and I bought it. I took it home, put it in my cassette player, and the first thing you hear is Muddy’s booming voice, and it scared the shit out of me. You know the song. (“Mannish Boy”). Then, the band comes in, and I was hooked from then on. That was it. I was I hooked. Fuckin’ band was raw, low-down, dirty, primitive, primal. I’d never heard anything like it, and I had been listening.
“This was the mid-80s, and so there wasn’t a lot of great stuff being put out then on mainstream radio. Springsteen certainly was an exception. There were exceptions, but for the most part, it as real poppy, sugary shit, and when I heard that Muddy Waters album, it was the freshest shit I’d ever heard. I’d never heard anything like it. It was raw. It was powerful, and that was it. That’s when my whole life changed. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I had my whole life mapped out from that point on. That’s what I wanted to do. Of course, my parents had other plans.
“They told me I had to go to college. ‘You wanna play music? Go ahead, but you gotta go to school.” I did what they requested of me and played nights, but when I was 15, and I heard that album, that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. That was it. That was the record that changed my life and then subsequently all these other influences came into my life after that.”
Sure, Castiglia had played gigs as early as 12 years old, and by 1996 he’d played out nights in a band called Miami Blues Authority, but Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man’s Band was a giant leap forward. It was like he was back in college, but this time studying something that was what he wanted, not his parents.
Junior Wells’ most important lesson was to connect with the audience. “No one was better at that than Junior. He had such a wonderful relationship with his audience. Prior to being with him, I just thought it was all about playing. I’d have my head down, and I just played. I just focused on the neck of the guitar, and I didn’t really think much about music in terms of it being performance music as a shared experience. Being with Junior opened my eyes in that sense. He just had an ability to connect with his audiences and make them feel like they were a part of the show.”
One of the gigs he did with Junior was a blues cruise. “We were on break at a show. We sat at the bar and had a drink. It was almost like Junior was Nostradamus. He said, ‘Look, I don’t expect you to be in this band forever, but what I need you to do is just observe everything you see, learn from everything you see in this band, learn from the guys in the band, learn from me. Just absorb everything and learn from it.’ He pretty much said that, and that’s what I did. It was a nine-month crash course. It wasn’t very long. He got sick and he passed away in ’98. But I did exactly what he told me to, and it was one of the greatest learning experiences ever being in that band.”
Castiglia has put out seven albums since leaving Junior’s band. His guitar playing is often fast, but never loose, and his lyrics come from personal experiences. One of my all-time favorite lines is from “Bad Year Blues” on the CD Keepin’ On released in 2010: “It’s been a real bad year, and there’s only 12 months to go.”
“That line came out of strife and pure misery. My wife had just lost her job. The economy had just taken a hit in 2008, and that all happened in the beginning of the year, and it just came out of pure frustration.
“Everybody’s got their own life. As long as you’re living in this world, you’re going to have something to write about. And it doesn’t have to come from somebody else’s experience. I’d be an idiot to write about the black experience or to write about picking cotton or write about being profiled on the street.”
He recorded 10 songs in one day for Up All Night, his most recent LP. “I think it had a lot to do with I had my touring band with me, and we had been playing these songs night in and night out for three or four months. Plus, the guys had been with me a year. It’s a great band. They’re fulltime musicians, and they were happy as hell to be there. They were really excited about being in the studio. I think it was a combination of being prepared and their eagerness of wanting to go in the studio and do a good job. Yeah, a lot of those songs we did in one or two takes. Some of ’em I think we had done once.”
His previous band broke up when his drummer, an attorney, found his career had become more demanding, and his bass player had to move back to Indiana to take care of his parents.
“So, I had to kinda blow up the band. I was lucky I found this guy Jimmy Pritchard. He’s a bass player from Newcastle, Delaware who used to play with Big Jack Johnson, Lonnie Shields and Sonny Rhodes, and he was living up in Delaware. I’ve done some gigs with him when I passed through to Philly and Delaware, and I gave him a call and he moved down to Florida to play with me, and then I got Brian Menendez on drums, and he’s in his mid-30s kinda like a real dynamic player, has a jazz background, but very frenetic style, and it works for me right now.
Graham Drout has been a frequent co-writer for 30 years. Castiglia compares his prowess with a pen to that of Dylan. “He paints beautiful pictures. He’s an incredible lyricist, and that’s where I put him. Just because the vast population of the music buying public doesn’t know who he is doesn’t make it not so. It’s just how I feel. He’s an incredible songwriter. I like collaborating with him because it makes it easy for me. Writing songs is a struggle for me, so when I find myself struggling I’m very fortunate to have friends who can write shit in their sleep. They bounce ideas off ya.”
Mike Zito, a blues artist of similar background, produced Up All Night. Cyril Neville wrote “Unhappy House of Blues,” and Johnny Sansone plays harp on two cuts.
“I’ve gotten to know Cyril through Mike Zito and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, and we’d just run into each other over the years. We have very similar philosophies of life.Cyril’s probably a little more intense in his beliefs, but we hit it off. He was game to write songs with me, and he’s a great lyricist as well, so I said, “Hey, you got anything to send me? I got some music to it.
“The first song we did together was “Somehow” off the Big Dog record. It was a song about society treats certain people, the displaced, the homeless, the indigent, the poor, and how we need to correct that. We need to have a little more empathy and compassion and so when you get lyric from somebody like that. It’s really easy to find music. It’s almost like you know right away wat kind of vibe you want for the song when you read those lyrics.
“Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone is the perfect harp player for what I do. He’s just real gritty and real old school. He played through a nasty little shit box, an old vintage amp. It had to have an eight-inch speaker in it and he just blew the shit out of that. He played on my Big Dog album. He played a couple of tracks on it. I love him. He’s one of my favorite harmonica players around.”
Visit Albert’s website at: http://albertcastiglia.net