Rock n’ souler, survivor, and pop culture progenitor Curtis Salgado sets ’em up and blasts ’em down on Damage Control, the Oregon bluesman’s 11th album featuring solid tunes and a stellar lineup of players. At 67, Salgado’s pedigree reaches back to the 1970s and the scene in Eugene, Oregon where he ruled the roost with oft-bandmate Robert Cray while honing an act that would thrill and inspire generations. In 1977, John Belushi made Curtis his blues guru, using him as the archetype for Joliet Jake Blues, injecting Salgado’s DNA into film history, and helping introduce a new audience to a pantheon of rhythm & blues greats. He’s been around the block as a songwriter and performer, racking up accolades while managing to beat liver cancer and lung cancer (twice), and if the patina of experience isn’t enough to compel listeners, the nature and authenticity of Salgado’s latest batch of songs certainly will. Damage Control finds Curtis of his era and outside of it, mortally aware of every haymaker life can hurl, tough enough to take it on the chin, and savvy enough to give it right back.
AI- This week* really kinda marks a ragged anniversary for a lot of folks in the music business. I think this week, a year ago is when people really started understanding what was goin’ on and canceling shows and tours and festivals. I was Facebook stalkin’ you gettin’ ready for this interview and it looks like this day in 2020, you were sitting in with Colin James at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Was that the last time that you were on stage or did you have an opportunity after that and before lockdown to play live?
CS- Tell you the truth, it was not. I had accepted a gig in Saipan, the island of Saipan, which is off the coast of Japan. Have you ever heard of Saipan?
A friend called me up, who is a patron of the arts and he has money and he likes my music, said, “Why don’t you come on out here and play?” I accepted the gig and by God, in my apartment on March 11th , my girlfriend was crying and I’m going, “Well, I’m gonna go. I gotta go do this date, you know?” My girlfriend is crying and she’s goin’, “Why are you guys going? Why are you leaving?” And it’s just like it’s pulling us towards it! Everything we were hearing on the phone was that it was gonna be safe to fly. I’m telling you, the internet was telling people, the news was telling you the airport is gonna hold you up for 14 days of quarantine! None of that happened! We went to the airport in Portland and nobody was there. We flew from Portland to Seattle, Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco to Honolulu, Honolulu to Guam. It took 21 hours and nobody was at the airport. San Francisco is a cluster bomb and nobody was there. Seattle? Nobody. Portland? The jets were only like a third full or less.
We flew and that was the last gig I had, to answer your question. March 11th, we flew to Saipan and Guam, did gigs there. On the way back, it was Saipan to Guam, Guam to Tokyo, Tokyo to Frisco, San Francisco to Portland– and nobody was in the airport! I mean, talk about social distancing! It was easy! And in San Francisco, I come up and I’m thinkin’, “They’re gonna quarantine us! They didn’t on the way over, but they will on the way back!” Because each day was getting worse. The guy looks at me, he goes, “You got a fever?” I go, “No.” He goes, “Okay, come on in!”
And you’ve been able to stay healthy? You and those around you?
At that point in time, Damage Control, was that gonna be out sooner than February 26, 2021? There was already a plan in place for that?
Oh, man! I had finished it in February of 2020. Finished! I started writing it in 2017. I could send you tapes of me working on songs in hotel rooms! We started recording it in 2018. How I do it is I go out on the road, you’re making some money, you’re paying the band, and then what I have leftover, I put aside to do a studio session and that’s how it came together. I produced it and paid for it and by about mid-February, it was done, mixed but not mastered. And then Alligator Records, bless their hearts, said, “We’re gonna put this out on June 26th.” Another artist was ahead of me. They have a plan, you know, “We’re gonna stick you out here and put this artist out.”
And then at the end of February, as you know, COVID hit. And I was where it hit! I was in the same town. It’s called Everett, Washington and we were doin’ a concert there. It had crawled up onto the shores in the Northwest, the West coast of America. It crawled up on the shores of Everett. It is a coastal town. It’s a port town in Washington, and it hit a nursing home there. Yeah, Damage Control was done in 2020, in February, and then they kept it for a year and they just released it.
You got three bands and multiple incarnations of musicians to put all this together. You primarily recorded in three different studios and in two different parts of the country… You guys weren’t messin’ around with this! 13 cuts! How did all that start? You said you’ve been writing these songs for several years and gettin’ it all together. Did you just have an opportunity to get in the studio with these guys and work or was Damage Control as an entity, was that always the plan?
Well, you know, the plan is to make records. I’m writing songs now. I’m a songwriter. I’m trying to be a songwriter and I’m a musician that does basically everything that’s underneath the rhythm & blues umbrella, which is funk, soul, rock n’ roll. I like lots of music– but in order for me to eat and pay the bills, you got to put out a product and that’s what it is. So I’m constantly writing. I’m having a writing session here in a couple of days with a friend of mine. You gotta keep the product coming!
The idea was, “Hmm, what do I want to do?” And I thought to myself, “I kinda wanna make a rock n’ roll record! My kind of rock n’ roll!” Even though I love AC/DC. I like Marilyn Manson. Hell, I’ve seen Pantera– and I got it! It’s not in my wheelhouse, but I loved it! I like music, so that’s what you do! I set out to write a rock n’ roll record, and I thought, “These are my friends!” And I’ve known these guys for a long time. Kevin McKendree in Nashville, Kid Anderson and his studio and the musicians. I played with everybody over the years! I’m 67 years old, and I’ve been doin’ this since I was 18 years old. I’ve made some connections! I got a record to make! So you start writin’ songs and you try to put it together.
Damage Control, basically for this, I was goin’, “I wanna write as me as a 60-year-old man in this clown car we’re calling America right now. It’s just crazy! The media, especially the pushing of, “We’re gonna impeach the president! We’re gonna do this and this, this, this, and politically correct Me Too moments and it’s this and this…” And it’s just on and on! It’s just, God, kill your computer! Kill your TV! So I started writing songs based on my age and going, “The longer that I live? You know, what? The older I want to get!”
“Always Say I Love You (At The End Of Your Goodbyes)”? Damage control. You know what happened to me a couple of days ago? I locked myself out of the house! I was getting this, I got this and I was gonna go and I shut the door… And I went, “Ohhhh!” Soon as I shut it, I was like, “I don’t have my car keys! I don’t have my keys! And I just locked myself out!” So I call up a locksmith, “Can you get me into my house?” Charged me 200 bucks! That’s damage control. And then watching Nancy Pelosi or watching Congress and the news? It’s damage control! So I’m just gonna take it easy. And that’s what the song is. If I also may say, that’s what it’s about. It’s like (reciting the lyrics from “Damage Control”), “Another day is just beginning and another day will soon end, and everything that’s in between is what you call this life, my friend. We didn’t ask to be here. We didn’t have a choice. Nobody asked our opinion because we don’t have a voice.”
I mean, basically I didn’t ask to be on planet earth and by God, you didn’t either! And so here we are right in the middle of this stuff– life! “And so I’ll just take it easy, keep my head up, stay down low and deal with the damage control…” When I wrote this song, that’s where I was coming from and when I wrote this record, that’s where I was coming from. Like I said, it’s my kind of rock n’ roll!
I think in the last year, nearly every artist that I’ve spoken to that’s released new music has had at least one song that attempted in some way to address certain issues in America. Now, whether it was written in 2020 or before, that was the track [those songs were] taking. You’ve got “The Fix Is In” on Damage Control. I don’t think it’s political to want answers. As you say, you wanted to make a rock n’ roll record. Neither the blues nor rock n’ roll has ever been typically what you might call “shut up and sing” kind of music.
Right. I don’t know? You know, that’s a very good question and you and I could debate that. It’s one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. I don’t know what you’re tryin’ to get after. There’s an old song called “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” and it’s an old song by the guy that’d write all the songs with Fats Domino. His name is Dave Bartholomew. He’s a legendary New Orleans producer. He did all the Fats Domino stuff, Little Richard, all that stuff. He did a song called “The Monkey Speaks His Mind”, and I thought I’d kinda do something along those lines. Once again, I’m just thinking about, “Man, the fix is in! I mean, I just have no control over!” I try not to get so political. Could you please explain to me where are you coming from with “shut up and sing?”
I just feel like everybody has had an opportunity to add their voice to the larger cacophony that’s been going on, especially over this last year, even though it’s not really this last year that’s done it. And you have added to that with “The Fix Is In”.
Yes, but I wrote it before COVID, so that kinda takes COVID off the thing. To me, if we weren’t having COVID right now and I was on the road, I’d still have that in my head. But you’re absolutely right. I did throw that in. To me though, it just seems like the fix is in, you know?
You bring up Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, who I absolutely love. On this album, as I mentioned, 13 tracks, you’ve got one cover. You got Larry Williams “Slow Down”. I love that old Specialty label, and Williams is one of those guys whose fingerprints are just all over rock n’ roll. How’d you land on that cut?
I’m so glad you said that! You know your stuff, obviously! Nobody knows Specialty Records, you know? So to me, you just went up 20 points. Good for you!
How’d you decide to do that particular song?
Because we do the hell out of it! It’s that simple! Because it’s my rock n’ roll, man! I know the Beatles did it and there was a few other songs I wanted to do. They covered three of the best ones, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy and “Bad Boy”, you know? “Junior’s head is hard as rock! This rock n’ roll has got to stop!” ‘Cause I do it in my show and I said to the band members, the Nashville boys– George Marinelli from Bonnie Raitt’s band and Jack Bruno who’s with Delbert McClinton but for years he was with, from the very start of her new career, Tina Turner. I mean, Jack Bruno’s bad! But they just nailed it! We only did like half a take. And then we said, “Okay, we kinda got this, let’s just play!” Boom! There it is!. Then I threw my guitar player on top of it. His name is Alan Hager. He’s doin’ a wonderful solo on it! But it’s just ferocious! I wasn’t gonna put it on because I have 12 original songs. So here’s an all-original record, something to talk about, you know? But my manager goes, “This is crushin’!” I go, “I know, can we leave it on?” He goes, “Hell yes, man! Let’s leave it on!”
Oh (laughs)! So I’m on the Delbert McClinton cruise called Sandy Beach Cruises– and if cruise ships come back, I hope, this is somethin’ everybody’s got to see, you’ve got to go! Hopefully, it’ll come back! I’m on the blues cruise, Sandy Beaches, Delbert McClinton, and I saw Wayne Toups. I’m a big Zydeco fan! In the 1970s, the University of Oregon was sponsoring Clifton Chenier for a couple of gigs to come into Eugene, Oregon. And Clifton stayed at my apartment for five days. Clifton Chenier was at my apartment for five days! It was like they landed from another planet– which they had! His cook, Davis Petrie, and him totally stayed at my apartment and they used it to feed the band. ‘Cause you didn’t give out per diems, he took care of the band. Stanley Dural– Buckwheat Zydeco– was in the band! He was on tour with him! Every day I was having crawfish etouffee! They made red beans and rice and gumbo and that was my introduction! Now I had Zydeco records– Arhoolie and a couple of 45’s, kinda rare, of Clifton Chenier. But those records don’t do a live Zydeco band justice. I mean, literally the G-forces seeing this guy! And the college, kids went ape! They just went crazy! And they never took a break! It was like, “Who are these people?” I really dug into it!
So to go forward, I’m on the blues cruise and Wayne Toups is on there– and he’s ferocious! And he sings great! I sat in with a band and sang a couple of tunes and he walked up. He goes, “Hey man, who are you? Wow! I really like your singing!” I think everybody’s great, you know? And I’m like, “Oh man!” And then a couple of days later, I built up the courage to go, “Would you record with me?” (Laughs) He goes, “Sure man! Get ahold of me!” Now he is, again, from another planet! They do things differently in Louisiana! So I’d send him the record– and I never heard back from him! And then out of the blue, about two months later, he goes, “Hey man, we still on with this thing?” Yeah! We’re still on!
Okay, now let’s go towards the studio. I’ve already laid down the band playing the music. So I’m gonna add him on top of it. But you know, he knows these guys, it’s the same guys that are on the blues cruise. Everybody knows everybody. So I say, “We’re gonna make a video of this. I wanna make a video to take every media opportunity you can these days.” And he goes, “Yeah, that’s great, man. No problem!” He was so easy and he’s so much fun– but he showed up with flip-flops, shorts, and a red shirt! And I’m dressed in black with slacks! I think, “It’s a video! You gotta look good!” He just showed up! “Let’s do this!” (Laughs) And by the way, they’re having martinis here at five o’clock! We knocked it out! But he’s one of the nicest people and he’s a super-talented person. I love the South, man! I just love the history of it. It’s got a bad cut because of the Civil War and everything involved in politics and stuff, but I think things are kind of somewhat blown outta proportion. Some things, you know? But I love the South!
You’re a harp player, a harmonica player– but you’re particular about it. Not only about other harmonica players, but your own as well. I think the quote that I read was, “I still think the harmonica is an annoying instrument.” From you! Yet you’re this master at it!
Yeah, in the wrong hands, it’s very annoying. It has ruined many a record! I’ll buy a blues record by… Albert Washington is the first one that pops in mind. Somebody’s playin’ harmonica on there. I’ve got a Jimmy Smith record, the great Hammond B3 player, and somebody, one of his horn players plays some. But if it’s not like Little Walter, James Cotten or Sonny Boy or Walter Horton or Toots Thielemans or Stevie Wonder or something like that? Because it’s a beautiful instrument! And it’s about tone! If Little Walter played with Bob Dylan, it wouldn’t fit. So I understand that it’s a flavor or seasoning. Bruce Springsteen puts it on a rack, and they just kinda breathe in and out because in a particular key, if the band’s in one key and the harmonica’s a fourth above it, you could pretty much just breathe in and out and it’s in pitch. Does that make sense?
Well, I also happen to be a harmonica player.
Oh yeah? So you know what I’m talkin’ about! You can also turn around and play Charlie Parker on it! It’s a reed instrument and it’s three octaves of the piano. So play it! That’s what I mean. Sometimes it’s like, “You might as well be playin’ triangle!” Or more cowbell, please! I never got Bob Dylan. If you can’t sing like Sam Cooke and play like Little Walter, I’m not interested. I want the bar up there– and that’s what I’m shooting for! But then one day I had that BING, the light went on! Of course, he’s a fantastic writer, and I get it now. I went out and bought a couple of his CDs the other day, couple of the old ones. We’ll get off of Dylan, he’s probably tired of bein’ talked about (laughs)! This is my spotlight (laughs)! But yeah, I got where he was coming from.
I’m sure every interview you have ever done wraps back around to this particular subject and there’s nothing that I’m going to be able to ask you about John Belushi and the Blues Brothers that you haven’t already been asked. But I gotta tell you that as far back as I can remember, the Blues Brothers and that album Briefcase Full of Blues has been a constant in my life. Since I was a little kid! That whole thing? Without you, it doesn’t exist! The amazing thing to me when I consider that story is you and Belushi just sittin’ around and listening to records. Was that like an education for him? Or was he like, “Oh, I love this one! What about this one? Do you know this one?”
You know, Aaron, you are spot on. I love the way you introduced it because everybody talks about it. But I ain’t tired of talkin’ about it! And I’ve been talkin’ about it since I met him in 1977! So let me answer that, hopefully, this way.
I met him when Universal Studios had set him up in a house in Eugene, Oregon. I didn’t know who he was, and I hadn’t seen Saturday Night Live. First time I saw it, he had already finished the movie. The first time I saw it was almost a year later on television. We took a break at a bar and everybody gathered around one of these old, large screen televisions, but it was like a box with lights. You ever see those old, like three or four lights in a large box? That’s what I saw Saturday Night Live on. Moving back, [Belushi says], “Curtis come over and bring your records.” I went over there and I came in and Judy Jacklin, his wife, was cooking dinner. He goes, “Hey man, come on in!” My records are already there. This is like visit number three. He’s making [Animal House] in Eugene, and I’m going over there to hang out and have dinner with him and Judy Jacklin and play records.
I come in and he’s sitting on a couch and he’s watching Gunsmoke on television. He goes, “Here, man, sit here.” So I sit down next to him. “What are you doin’?” He goes, “I’m watchin’ Gunsmoke!” Then he proceeded to just look at the television! “Oh, look at this actor!” He could name who they were, and he goes, “This is a great character actor!” And then he’d mimic it! So then a guy comes on and goes like, “Mail call for Mr. Dillon! Miss Kitty, is Mr. Dillon around?” And he’d copy it and go, “Mail call for Mr. Dillon! Kitty, where’s Mr. Dillon?” He’d copy it! He’d name off these character actors that of course are in a string of westerns on television. He was riffing! I’m sitting there goin’, “He’s riffing off the stuff!” He’s like practicing in front of me and talking about the actors. I will never forget that! And we’d listened to records! I said, “Man, this is Magic Sam. This is Little Walter. This is Amos Milburn.”[I was] in a band called the Nighthawks, not to be confused with the Washington DC boys. They pretty much took the thunder away. They got their name patented, so that was the end of our Nighthawks. So we had a band called the Nighthawks and that’s who Belushi was interested in. He saw me with the Nighthawks. We did R&B and blues. R&B bein’ like Smokey Robinson songs, James Brown tunes, and then a Little Walter song. We’d do Joe Tex Songs, Johnny Taylor songs, and we’d do Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. So we kinda covered everything underneath the rhythm & blues umbrella. That’s what I’ve always done. So that said, we also had a side gig and we called ourselves the Crayhawks. This was a gig on Monday night where it’s not the Robert Cray Band or the Nighthawks. It’s both! Two members, Robert and Richard, the bass player, who I lived with, and the drummer from the Nighthawks, David Olson, and myself, and we called ourselves the Crayhawks. We played on Monday night. We were pretty popular in Eugene and people knew who the Crayhawks was. They’re making the movie Animal House in Eugene and that place would fill up! This was a lounge called the King Cole room at the Eugene Hotel.
Belushi is coming in every Monday to see the Crayhawks– and he would also come to see the Nighthawks. He must’ve seen as six or seven times, him and Judy Jacklin. The word was out that the Eugene Hotel on Monday night was packed! And to me, I’d never seen Belushi! So I say like, “You know, there’s kind of a lot of people here?” And the bartender’s like, “That’s because there’s a movie in town. Everybody’s here ’cause Belushi and the boys are in town and they’re coming to the bar.” So we start playing and when I jump off the stage, [Belushi] comes up and he goes, “I want to sit in and play with you guys.” This was at the end of the night. I go, “You wanna jam?” He goes, “Yeah, I wanna jam with you guys.” I go, “What do you wanna jam?” He says, “Jailhouse Rock.” And I just said, “No, man, that is too corny. I’m not going to do ‘Jailhouse Rock'” And then he says, “How ’bout ‘Johnny B. Goode’?” I mean, I love “Johnny B. Goode” but no, I don’t wanna do “Johnny B. Goode”! It’s overdone. I said, “I’ll bring you a song.” And so I brought him “Hey Bartender”. Now, I played with the guy who wrote “Hey Bartender”. His name was Floyd Dixon. He lived down in Oakland, California, which is about eight hours south of Eugene, Oregon. So I go, “I got a song for you. It’s perfect.” I brought it to him and he learned it.
The following Monday, he goes, “Hey, man, I’ve learned the song! I know it!” I said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. We’re gonna play our first set and at the end of the set, I will call you up as the last song in the set.” I’ve never seen him, Aaron. Ever. I don’t know really what he’s about. All I know is he’s interested in me and my music and he’s in a movie.
It’s the last tune of the set and I introduce him– and the audience goes completely nuts! And I’m kinda gettin’ uptight (laughs)! The place is packed! This movie has shook up, Eugene, Oregon. There’s a hundred thousand people or less, or a little more– University of Oregon, right? Place is packed! “Let’s get John Belushi up here!” (Mimics crowd screaming) “Oh my God!” He gets up there and it’s like “What is this guy?” And so he gets up and we count off the tune, which goes, (sings intro to “Hey Bartender) “I went ballin’ the other night, got drunk and got real tight,” and the audience is freaking out! His arms are all crooked and he’s goin’ like he’s got little dinosaur arms and he’s goin’ like he’s havin’ a spasm attack! And I’m goin’, “What the hell?” I’m lookin’ at him and he’s singin’– and he sounds like Joe Cocker! I swear, I wish there was a camera or a picture of it! I bet you, my eyes were as big as saucers ’cause I’m goin’, “What the hell is goin’ on?” The audience is freaking out! And I think it stinks!
I didn’t know he did Joe Cocker! And he does a hell of a version of him! I’m goin’, “What is this?” I’m a blues nerd! So we get off the stage, the audience goes nuts, and I just start walkin’. He comes up behind me, “Hey! Hey, Curt! What’d you think?” And I turned around and said, “Dude, was that… Was that Joe Cocker?” He goes, “Yeah! Yeah, I do that in that show I was telling you about.” A variety show is what he called it. I’d never seen Saturday Night Live, I’ll interject here, Aaron, because we worked Saturday nights and I didn’t own a TV! Richard and I lived together and we owned a stereo! He goes, “Yeah, yeah, we do that on a Saturday Night Live.”
This is really the only thing I told him, besides playing records and telling him the history of these guys, I said, “So let me get this straight. You’re John Belushi. You’re doin’ a song by Floyd Dixon and you’re singin’ it like Joe Cocker. You’re doing that?” He just looked at me. I touched his chest and his heart and I go, “You need to come from here, man. You need to sing this. You gotta be yourself. If you’re going to do this, you gotta do your interpretation and yourself. And this what he said. He went, “Yeah, you’re right.” That’s it! Just, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Years later, I saw the Blues Brothers, full-on band. I saw ’em at the Concord Pavilion two or three years later. The Blues Brothers [film] was out and by God, he can’t sing that hot, and Dan Aykroyd ain’t a great harmonica player, but they were two very strong frontmen! They fronted that band! Incredible! I mean, it was a show, and I ain’t gonna take that away from ’em. [Belushi] came out and did a ballad, spotlight on him… I don’t know what song it was, but it was quite moving. He was good.
They put this song, “Hey Bartender” on Briefcase Full of Blues. They dedicated the record to me, and they called Cab Calloway, in the movie, Curtis. [I’m at that show] and Aykroyd says, “Floyd Dixon wants to say hi to you.” What! I didn’t even know he was there! So I go and I meet him backstage, and he goes, “Curtis, if it wasn’t for you! I got the biggest royalty check in my entire career!” Aaron, man, this guy’s been playin’ music and making 78s back in the 1940s after World War II! He started in Texas. He influenced Ray Charles and Charles Brown. He’s in that circle of Amos Milburn, Charles Brown. Floyd Dixon! And he was eccentric, but he was a brilliant keyboard player. He could play anything! Bebop? Anything! He was somethin’ else. He goes, “If it wasn’t for you,” and I got choked up! He goes, “I made the biggest royalty check I’ve ever had in my entire career!” That was one of the greatest compliments and validation I’ve ever gotten. I said, “Really? If you don’t mind me askin’, how much did you make?” And he goes, “My first royalty check was for $78,000.” And I immediately thought, “Oh man!” ‘Cause this guy’s office is a bar in Oakland, California! In the hood! I’ve been there! You know, “Hey, come to my office!” Turns out it’s a bar, and he’s got a little box of 45s all sitting on the bar and a payphone! That’s his office!
I’m goin’, Wow, that’s fantastic! If you don’t mind me askin’, what’d you do with the money? And he literally looks off into the heavens, I’ll never forget this, he takes off his shades and he goes, “Oh man! I spent it all on the horses! Oh, I had a wonderful time!” I bought a cottage on the beach? I bought a nice little home? No! “I spent it all on the horses! I had a wonderful time!” That is the blues! That’s a bluesman! That’s the real deal, genius, piano playin’ bluesman right there!