John Belushi’s Blues Mentor, Curtis Salgado, Releases New Album Today

If you’re wondering where John Belushi developed his blues chops, it was from award-winning vocalist/instrumentalist/songwriter Curtis Salgado who is releasing his 11th album today, Damage Control on Alligator Records.

In 1977, Belushi was filming Animal House in Eugene, Oregon, where Salgado lived and performed. One night Belushi caught Salgado onstage and after the show, introduced himself. The two became fast friends and Salgado spent hours teaching Belushi about the blues and R&B. The best-selling record album Blues Brothers was dedicated to Salgado and in the major motion picture, Cab Calloway’s character was named “Curtis” as an homage.

Damage Control, is Salgado’s first full band album in four years, a danceable street-smart collection of 13 original songs and one cover. Salgado produced the album and recorded the songs in three studios: Nashville, Studio City and San Jose, with three different groups of musicians with some of the best in the industry. Billboard calls the album “hard-nosed blues, phat and funky.” Why the title? “Life is all about damage control,” Salgado says. “It’s about dealing with what gets thrown at you and saying ‘I ain’t finished yet.’”

Salgado has won nine Blues Music Awards including Best Song,  B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year, Best Soul Blues Album and Best Soul Blues Male Artist. He has performed at endless music festivals and has toured around the world. Blues Revue says “his performances start at excellent before segueing into goose bumps, ecstasy, and finally nirvana.”

I caught up with Salgado by Zoom at his home in Portland, Oregon.

When did your first interest in music begin?

My parents and older brother and sister had records from jazz to the hippest stuff around. When I was in kindergarten I was supposed to sing two songs on stage with this other little boy, but he froze when he saw the audience. I sang alone and got a standing ovation. I was hooked.

When you were 13, you saw Count Basie and decided music was your calling. Were you planning to sing?

My father took me to see Basie live and I said, “Man, I want to do this.” And he just laughed and said, “Son, this is music made by men.”

How old were you when you learned an instrument?

My dad got me a Fender Mustang guitar and a little Princeton amplifier and I started taking guitar lessons but the teacher would kick me during lessons. I started dreading going for guitar lessons. I went home and I complained to my parents and quit. The next thing I know, my mother brings me a C harp and harmonica book How to Play Blues Harmonica by Tony “Little Sun” Glover.

How did you happen to become vocalist and harp player for The Nighthawks?

I was in high school and thought I was going to be in a band, but I was too young so I was excluded. That summer I auditioned for a band called Three Finger Jack and got the job. We were doing everything from blues to Frank Zappa.

Three Finger Jack morphed into another band called Harold and the Nighthawks; and when Harold took off, we became The Nighthawks. One night I went to see Robert Cray and his bass player Richard Cousins in Cray’s band, contemporaries of ours. We became friends and I become roommates with Cousins. We created a side band called the Crayhawk and got little side gigs.

How did you happen to meet John Belushi?

One day Cousins says, “Robert’s got a part in a movie being made in town.” “Oh, really?” I said. He goes, “Yeah. I guess I didn’t make it because my skin color’s too light. But they want to know if they can borrow our instruments, because Robert’s going to play the bass guitar in this movie.” We didn’t own a television set and didn’t know anything about Saturday Night Live. I only knew there was a movie being made in town.

Two weeks later, we’re playing this gig and in the middle of a song this coke dealer (also named) Richard comes up and yanks on my pant leg and goes, “Hey, Belushi wants to meet you.” I lean down and I go, “Get out of my face. I’m in the middle of a song.” After the set, the coke dealer grabs me, spins me around and goes, “Belushi.” And there’s this guy, a little shorter than I am, about five-seven, and about five feet wide, a big, stalky dude.

I don’t know who he is but I shake his hand. He goes, “Yeah, man. I like your music. You remind me of my best friend. He plays harmonica, too. His name is Dan Aykroyd.” I’m just looking at him thinking, “Who gives a shit? Every hippie in the world plays harmonica.” And he goes, “I’m with this movie here in town.” I go, “Oh yeah, did you see Robert? Robert’s in this movie.” And he goes, “I saw Robert today. He taught us how to dance in the movie part.” And I thought, yeah because we dance when we play together. We would do kick, turn, turn, turn, kick, and that’s what they do in this movie.

He says, “Well, I’m with this variety show in New York and I’m really looking forward to this weekend because we’re going to have Ray Charles.” And I was like, “What? You’re going to play with Ray Charles? You got to ask Ray Charles about Guitar Slim.” And he goes, “Who’s Guitar Slim?” I’m like, “You don’t know who Guitar Slim is? I just pounced. “Guitar Slim, man. He’s got a song called The Things I Used to Do. He’s the piano player. I go, “Did you know he plays alto saxophone?” He goes, “Let’s smoke a joint.” Four days later, he calls and says, “Curtis, come over and have dinner and bring your records.” What interested me was the fact that he was interested in what I was doing and what this music was. So I started bringing him records. It wasn’t about me. It was about this wonderful music that I’m passionate about.That’s who I am. I’m interested in everything and why it ticks.

He goes, “Dan Aykroyd was trying to get me into this music and I just wasn’t following along.” Dan lived in Toronto, had a band, and knew about the blues. In this band, two members are brothers. He’s trying to get Belushi on board and Belushi’s not getting on board. Belushi tells me he sees me as his muse as an actor and performer, and it’s something he can hang onto.  The Blues Brothers are them. That’s Dan Aykroyd’s idea, and it blew up. I still talk about it. I’m 67 and I’ve been talking about it since I was 22, 23 years old.

in 1982, you and Robert Cray parted. Why?

We got a record deal but they weren’t interested in the band. They were interested in Robert, who was young, black and gifted and represented the continuity of the blues. The guitar doesn’t care what color your fingers are. You either got it or you don’t. But they were interested only in Robert. Who needs a harmonica player? But we’re friends to this day.

In many ways you’ve lived the blues. You had liver cancer in 2006, a liver transplant, two bouts of lung cancer and quadruple bypass surgery. Have these surgeries changed your life?

Not the surgeries. Life is damage control, really. And that is something that I’ve kept in my head for years. The phrase came out in the lexicon of people talking like, “Wow, it’s damage control.” There’s damage control, which is, “I have liver cancer and I have six months to live.” Every day something happens and it’s damage control. That’s what life is.

The songs on Damage Control are so poignant, and real. What’s your favorite song on that album and why?

You’re Going To Miss My Sorry Ass. I watched these two people argue on a Blues Cruise, and the wife walked away, and the husband turned around and said, “Oh, yeah, when I’m dead and gone, you’re going to miss my sorry ass!”  That’s my favorite and also the first one I wrote. But I like them all.

How long did it take you to put this album together?

I started writing it in 2017.

And why are there three different sets of musicians and studios?

Well, they’re all my friends. I just thought I’d do three different rhythm sections to give three different approaches.

What has music done for you?

Music has kept me alive. It’s protected me, it’s my life. It’s a connection and music is the most positive thing that we do as a species on this planet.

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