Curtis Salgado has a lot to celebrate. Two years ago he was diagnosed with liver cancer and told he had eight months to live, unless he got a liver transplant which would generate medical bills upwards of half a million dollars. With no health insurance and few funds, the man who is one of America's finest blues/soul singers needed a little help from his friends. When your friends and admirers include the likes of Steve Miller, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal, you've got a fighting chance. Numerous benefits were held in multiple cities including a benefit concert featuring Miller, Cray, Taj Mahal, The Phantom Blues Band, Everclear and Little Charlie & The Nightcats. Through the generosity of Curtis's friends, fellow musicians, the Legendary Blues Cruise and thousands of fans who supported Curtis by attending benefits and auctions or by making private donations, upwards of half a million dollars were raised and Curtis got his transplant, though there were a few twists and turns in the road before that happened. A little less than two years after his initial diagnosis, Curtis was able to record Clean Getaway, an album whose title has an obvious double meaning. With its release on July 8, 2008, Clean Getaway is a triumph in more ways than one, a sublime collaboration with the most respected session players in Los Angeles that goes to the heart of what music--and life--is all about.
"I was told I had eight months to live unless I got a liver transplant," Curtis recalls, "and I'm thinking how in the world am I going to pay for this? Then the benefit happened and the rest came from personal donations from so many people. Bonnie Raitt paid my rent while I was in the hospital. I have known her since 1980 and she's just the best. Two people gave me their life savings, when at the last minute, the hospital said we needed thousands of more dollars then we had or they wouldn't do the operation. This was seven months in and I'd only been given eight months to live. When it didn't look like there would be a donor in time, my girlfriend even offered to donate half her liver; it turned out that we were a match. Five days before the operation I was moved from 11 to 24 on the waiting list...it depended on someone dying in the next five days and donating their liver and then after the liver is harvested you only have eight hours. And fortunately for me, that is what happened."
But a successful transplant was not the end of it. "The cancer metastasized and showed up in my lung," Curtis recounts. "Usually when that happens there are several tumors but I only had one, so I had a successful operation. The doctor said it was a miracle it was only one tumor. 'We accept miracles here,' he told me, 'you're a lucky son of a bitch!' I've had a check-up since then and I'm clean."
After his recovery, Curtis needed to get back to work after a year with no income. "My manager and my producer said 'you got to make a record, you need to generate some money.' I said I wanted to use members of The Phantom Blues Band who I had seen with Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal; they play with everybody. Taj had told Tony Braunagel, the Phantom's drummer, after a jam session we had together on The Blues Cruise 'you should do a record with that guy.' It was the best experience I ever had. We were either laughing or cutting tracks. Everybody was creative. It was very uplifting. Some of the cuts are first takes and it was very inspiring. We did hardly any overdubs."
Clean Getaway, produced by Marlon McClain & Tony Braunagel, is a seamless mix of blues, soul and rock 'n' roll all held together by the organic grooves of world class musicians and Curtis' superlative singing. He has a gift of digging into the essence of a song without histrionics or gratuitous displays of vocal chops--though he certainly has more than enough of those.
Few singers would take on the challenge of doing Al Green's "Let's Get Married," for instance. Curtis put down a totally natural, deeply soulful vocal.
"I was scared to death," he says modestly, "so I just closed my eyes and did it. That's a first take. Everybody said that was special, the singing and the playing. That's me standing next to the musicians singing; I wasn't in a vocal booth, had no headphones. It just happened."
The title track, co-written by Curtis, reflects his love of the late, great Johnny "Guitar" Watson and effectively nails Watson's funkified mid-period Seventies style of such songs as "Ain't That A Bitch" and "A Real Mother For Ya." "Alone" is a percolating slab of Memphis R&B written by the under-rated Tommy Sims. "I Don't Want To Discuss It" is an obscure Little Richard tune, Curtis' favorite by the Georgia Peach; it has also been notably covered by Delaney & Bonnie. Curtis artfully blends the best of both versions. Another original, "20 Years Of BB King," is an impossibly clever song whose lyrics consist entirely of the titles of songs by BB King; instead of sounding like an entertaining gimmick it comes off as completely natural and effective.
Curtis Salgado's musical journey began with his birth in Everett, Washington, in 1954. His family moved to Eugene, Oregon when he was one and he grew up there listening to jazz, and to his father, an aspiring singer of classical music. His ambitions coalesced when, at age 12, he saw Count Basie's band perform in Eugene. Curtis became a part of the burgeoning Northwest blues scene starting in 1972 with a band called Three-Fingered Jack. Eventually he hooked up with up-and-coming guitarist/vocalist Robert Cray, and recorded the album "Who's Been Talking." In six years with Robert, the higher level of visibility enabled Salgado to sit in with the likes of Muddy Waters, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Albert Collins and Bonnie Raitt. Aside from being a tremendous vocalist, Curtis is one of the finest blues harmonica players in the country. In 1979, when John Belushi was in Eugene filming Animal House, he caught Curtis' act and liked what he heard and saw. Curtis took the actor under his wing and schooled him on blues and R & B history, which Belushi soaked up like a sponge, and used a good portion of Curtis' show as the basis for the Blues Brothers act he and Dan Akroyd put together. The first Blues Brothers album was dedicated to Curtis.
He left the Cray band before it broke through nationally and from 1984 - 1986 he fronted Boston's Grammy- Winning Roomful Of Blues before returning to Portland where he formed The Stilettos, who toured nationally with such acts as Steve Miller and The Doobie Brothers. He even did a stint as lead vocalist with Santana in the 1990's. Curtis released three albums (the first with The Stilettos, followed by one with his own band and the third, an acoustic gem, featuring guitarist Terry Robb). After three critically-acclaimed solo albums with Shanachie Entertainment, Clean Getaway may be the breakthrough that Curtis has been working toward. But the experiences of the past two years have given Curtis a new perspective.
"I'm playing music with the most incredible people," he says, " people are supporting me and a record company is supporting me....even in these tough times in the business. So I've got nothing to complain about. To me, I've won the lottery, I've won all the Grammys. I don't need stardom to feel validated. Of course, I'd like to sell a lot of records, as much for the company as for me, but on a personal level, I don't care. I'm alive! People are throwing so much love at me it's embarrassing. It makes me humble. So I'm just trying to stick to my guns, perfect my craft and make great music!"