Sunday, November 5, 2017

Blues Muse

Some attribute the revival of the blues in the 80s to The Blues Brothers: two fictional characters popularized by Saturday Night Live (SNL) comics John Belushi (Joliet Jake) and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) on television, in two films and live shows. While that notion may resonate, it’s also true that Curtis Salgado was their muse.

Luckily I caught the blues icon, Eugene’s native son, at the Ax and Fiddle in Cottage Grove recently, thanks to my frequent accomplice Tom "Luis" Maloney. Salgado, a rare talent, is an award-winning soul, blues and R&B vocalist, harp player and songwriter, and the inspiration for The Blues Brothers.

With a career that exceeds four decades, he delivered a typically dynamic, full-throated performance at the small venue, and covered a range of blues standards dating back to the early 20th century.

Salgado, who was accompanied by talented guitarist and longtime collaborator Alan Hager, punctuated each song in the set with congenial, articulate stories describing each artist and tune.

Raised in a home filled with music in the Bethel district of Eugene, his mother, an opera lover, and his father, a career railroad man steeped in the blues, encouraged his musical talents with vocal lessons, which helped Salgado nurture his dynamic voice. By his early 20s, he was making a name locally with his band: “The Nighthawks.”

Salgado was a regular at music venues near the University of Oregon campus as co-leader of The Robert Cray Band, so when Belushi was in town filming “Animal House” in 1977, he caught Salgado’s performance and introduced himself. As Salgado began to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the blues, the two became friends.

The rest, as they say, is history. Salgado gave Belushi an education in the blues, introducing him to Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Albert Collins, Otis Spann, Howlin’ Wolf and many other pioneers of the early blues that first developed in the Mississippi delta country. Belushi was hooked.

Soon, Belushi collaborated with Aykroyd on their Blues Brothers act for Saturday Night Live, using the show’s house band as accompanists. Eventually, the SNL performers attracted their own all-star band featuring Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Tom Scott and others, leading to live shows and two movies: all thanks to Curtis Salgado.

Despite battling liver and lung cancer in the mid-2000s, along with a liver transplant, Salgado was nonetheless in top form. With able accompaniment, Salgado, a vocalist with remarkable range and depth, belted out blues standards punctuated by intimate stories for those lucky enough to attend the performance.