The Original Blues Brother: Curtis Salgado

If you take out a magnifying glass and peer very carefully at the bottom line on the back of the first Blues Brothers album by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, you will notice, in infinitesimal print, the phrase "Dedicated to Curtis Salgado." It was decent of the Saturday Night Live guys to thank the then-unknown Robert Cray band's singer, harmonica player and co-frontman, considering that, in return for this modest mention, Belushi and Aykroyd got an act that grossed $32 million at the box office and an album that went platinum.

The crucial event was the historic 1977 meeting at the Eugene Hotel of Belushi and Salgado, who played harmonica and sang with Cray. Belushi was in Eugene to film Animal House (in which Cray wound up in a bit part as the bass player in the frat-house band Otis Day and the Knights). Salgado and Cray were there because the Eugene Hotel had a thing called Blue Mondays and it was Monday, and they needed the money.

Cray remembers not recognizing the historic nature of the occasion. "When Curtis came up and told me and Richard [Cousins, Cray's bass player], 'John Belushi is here!' we said, 'Who's John Belushi?' because for as long as we could remember, we'd always had to work on Saturday nights."

Though Salgado downplays the Belushi connection now, he made the most of the meeting: "When I met Belushi he said, 'Oh, I'm going to have Ray Charles on the show.' And I started going into the history: 'Did you know Ray Charles used to play with Guitar Slim?" 'Who's Guitar Slim?' And that led to one thing and another, and pretty soon Belushi said, 'Hey, bring your records over!"'

In 1977, Belushi was under the influence of his own rather oafish taste in music, leaning toward the loud and the boorish. "He was listening to Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult at the time," says Salgado. "He was from Chicago, so he must have known something about blues, but he didn't know who the people were . . . [so] I was the man whose act he took. Five of the songs on their first album were songs that I did. He did the songs just the way I did them. I used to wear dark shades just like the ones he later wore in his act. Of course, mine were prescription glasses. He wore his hair and moustache just like mine. He even did my between-song raps."

Cray confirms Salgado's story. "Curtis and Belushi just had this thing together. They were real tight." Several of Cray's friends from Eugene say that Belushi seemed a little intimidated by Salgado's wit, which could be just as fast and flamboyant as his own. And Belushi definitely needed Salgado's coaching to get the Blues Brothers going. "The main thing I taught him was to sing like John Belushi. The first time he sang with the Nighthawks, he tried to sing like Joe Cocker. Imagine-here was John Belushi imitating Joe Cocker imitating Otis Redding. I told him to sing like himself, which he did. Of course, I-or any number of other singers-could've sung better than he did, but he had the clout as a star. He went back to New York and got some of the best people in the business to play with him, and he ended up with the recognition.

"He called me up one night from the East Coast and said, 'Lorne [Michaels, Saturday Night Live's producer] wants us to do the Blues Brothers live on the show tomorrow night. Would you give me that rap you do, all about how I'd walk a mile for a Camel?"' (Cray says the rap was originallv "Skillet Leroy burlesque stuff: 'Are you gonna be like a Camel and make me walk a mile-or like a Chesterfield and satisfy?' and all these lines about 'Do you want Regular or King Size?"')

"I gave him the rap," continues Salgado, "and he did it word-for-word. He basically lifted my whole act. Later, Belushi sent me a picture of him and Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers that said, 'Without you, we'd still be just TV actors."'

Still one of the most exciting R&B singers on the West Coast, Salgado split with Cray in 1983 (basically because a band can't have two leaders), but he remains friendly with Cray and has publicly congratulated his old partner for hitting it big. "Robert's one of the best musicians-and people-I know. These guys have worked their asses off to get to where they are today. I have the utmost respect for them." Cray and Cousins returned the compliment recently by producing a demo tape for Salgado. And Cray and Salgado still play together occasionally, as they did at the May wedding of one of Cray's friends.

As for Belushi, Salgado admits to mixed emotions. "Sure, I was bitter. It's like they say: an amateur imitates, a professional steals. Belushi was a pro.

"On the other hand, I'm still around making music. And Belushi-where is he?" One is reminded of what Big Mama Thornton once said about Elvis Presley. Big Mama had created the song "Hound Dog" and earned $50, but Elvis got the hit and countless millions. Asked how she felt about that, Big Mama replied, "Honey, I'm still here to spend my fifty dollars!"

- Mark Hoffman ( and Tim Apello

Copyright © Pacific Northwest magazine
Used with permission

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Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle