Curtis Salgado: Blues Man, Survivor

It was a steamy Friday night in late July 2012 at Duff’s Garage, a blues club in Southeast Portland. D.K. Stewart’s gig. Curtis Salgado walked in. There were gasps. Nine days earlier he had undergone lung surgery to remove a cancerous mass.

He sang. He played his harmonica. It was miraculous.

At 58, Salgado is truly an icon, a household name in Oregon. For decades he gave every ounce of himself on stage, singing blues, soul and R&B. In 2005, when he needed a liver transplant, Oregonians stepped up and gave tens of thousands of dollars to help fund it. Shortly after that he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a mass removed. In May, he released a new album, Soul Shot, which fans and critics (and fellow musicians) agree is his best work—ever. In early June he learned his cancer had come back after nearly five years of being clean.

How did you take the news that your cancer had returned?

I was pissed off.

Is that a good way to approach it?

I think so. I mean it’s not like crying in my beer. It’s a good thing. I didn’t want to play the cancer management game, and it is cancer management. Of course there’s lots and lots of people… in the millions… who have cancer and are dealing with it. They don’t really have a cure for cancer; they manage it. They keep it away. And the medicine is so much better than when my mother had it. She died when I was 23 years old of lung cancer. That’s when they were just starting to do chemo and stuff. Now the medicine is a lot better and the process is a lot better. Cancer has been around for millions of years. People think it’s just because we have this and that. It’s been around with us a long time. It’s life. Everything is alive on this planet, and cancer is also trying to stay alive.

So yeah, I’m pissed off. It’s a bad time to have it. I’ve got a brand new record out that’s doing well, everybody’s liking it. It’s number one on the blues charts at this moment. And right now is not a good time to have my lung yanked out.

I’m worried if I’m gonna sing the same. Play harmonica the same. Perform the same… but it is what it is and I’m lucky to be alive, and I’m blessed to have so many friends and so much support.

The thing with cancer is… okay, let’s get deep. It’s not dying that scares me. It’s knowing how I’m going to die. That’s what’s heavy about—that’s what’s wrong with cancer.

We’re all going. That’s a fact. I don’t want to know how. To know what you’re gonna go through… how you’re gonna, you know… to battle this kind of a battle. I don’t wanna die from cancer. I wanna go to bed at the age of 85 or so and fall asleep and die.

And that’s what this offers you, is like, you know. It’s probably gonna take me at some point.

Portlanders, and I guess people from all over the world, care about you.

Well man, there’s so much love it’s embarrassing. Keeps you humble. When I was a young man I wanted to conquer the musical world—get out there and sing my butt off. I wanted to fill up coliseums and get everybody rockin’ with the “I love you” sign, you know. And then when this kinda stuff hits you it’s—you got six, seven months to get a liver out of your body or you’re dead.

It was like, you better hurry up and get this impossible thing out of your body. A liver transplant with no health insurance. And some miraculous miracles, no favors, miracles happened. And I ended up getting a liver. They handed me this liver.

They came in three weeks later and said, “We see a microscopic invasion of a small blood vessel.” And I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “Well we still have your old liver that we removed from your body and we’ve been looking it over and there’s a microscopic invasion of a small blood vessel.” I said, “Does that mean cancer gets in the blood vessel and takes the subway system out?” She says, “50/50 chance.” And I said, “Had you known this would you have performed the transplant?” and the surgeon said, “No, we would not have.”

So it was like, okay, I hope this doesn’t come up that it’s metastasized somewhere. Sure enough it did. It was in my lung. The transplant was 2006. The lung removal of the tumor was 2007. Here it is five years. Back. The reason why I’m pissed, or was pissed, is basically because this was my five-year checkup. If you can go five years without cancer coming back, this type of cancer, pretty much the odds have raised that you’ve licked it. Even the doctors where saying, “Things look really good. Come in here in six months. Things look good.” And so I went back six months later, that was three weeks ago, and here it is. Right at the five-year mark.

It’s almost like it was sitting around in a smoking jacket and waiting for me, you know. Everybody was assuming, or you know, pretty much… I beat it for four and a half years. And then the last checkup “Bing!” here it is. And so it backs up more in the category of why I’m pissed—I got a brand new record, I got all this stuff going on and it’s gonna take me out of the mix for four weeks. Four weeks of concerts, canceled. That’s a lot of money… right in the momentum of the record. It’s like “Aw, shoot.”

But the recovery chances are good?

Yeah. You know, but that’s because we’re doing cancer management and you catch it. If you don’t catch cancer soon enough, you’re in trouble. So one thing that is positive out of a bad situation is it’s not an aggressive cancer. It’s a very slow-growing cancer. You know what? They could take this thing out and go, “Whoops, sorry but it’s benign,” or “It’s not cancer at all,” but I’ll still have my lung yanked out.

A lot of people—bless their hearts man—they don’t know when they get cancer. Most people don’t. Most people can’t afford to go to the doctor. A lot of people don’t check. Who wants to go to the doctor? And then they go or something happens and it’s too late. That’s how people die of cancer. Basically they don’t catch it in time. It’s all about management. Cancer management. Oh I know this stuff.

Well we’re all behind ya man. 

Well I appreciate that a lot. You know, the other really positive thing that has happened on this little journey with my health is so much love has been poured my way. You know, I wanted to rock the world and all this. It’s not important anymore. I feel like I’ve already won 20 Grammies. All the awards that I got was all the love that I got, and people pulling for me… and I didn’t even realize people cared.

And I’m always willing to give a hand up. I’ve been doing benefits for a long time, but you know this is probably one of the best life experiences I’ve had—the love of Portland, Oregon and the love of the people that backed me up. And I don’t know how I’m gonna pay ‘em back, but I’m gonna try. I owe the universe. Curtis Salgado owes the universe one.

I realize this is a question everybody asks, but I’ve never heard the answer. Who was your first musical hero?

Count Basie.

Is that right?

Yeah, and Fats Waller. My father was into piano players. My dad had a lot of Fats Waller. There was this other guy named Jimmy Rushing.

Mr. Five by Five.

Mr. Five by Five. He used to sing this song called “Money Honey.” (sings) “Where could my honey be? If I had my money my honey would be here with me.” I grew up on that stuff. It’s funny that the first record I bought was not a jazz record or whatever. It was Ray Stevens.

“Ahab the Arab?”

“Ahab the Arab.” That was the first thing I saved my money for. But there was already jazz in the house, and I mean a lot of it, but that was my own first record. There was Count Basie, Woody Herman, Anita O’Day… Jimmie Lunsford. My father had great New Orleans stuff—Fletcher Henderson, Bunk Johnson, Wingy Manone, Henry “Red” Allen—a lot of them were 78s.

So those are my heroes, and the reason is that back then I respected my father and my big brother and they taught me, you know? Look, it doesn’t even matter if they liked it or not. You either are into it or you’re not and you listen to music and it hits you, and this stuff fascinated me.

It just hits you. You know, that stuff is groovin’. You know, swing is swingin’. And I didn’t know it back then, but it’s just, “wow,” and then to see your dad really liking it. My dad would reach out and grab my arm and go, “Shush. Listen. Listen.” And you know, I mean, I’m a little kid, see.

He’s like, “Listen. Listen to how he utilizes space.” I’ll never forget that. And Count Basie would do a line on the piano, you know, “Da do uh do da do,” and then, “Bo de dah, tee,” or “diddle ee.” You know what I mean, those little open spaces and stuff—my dad would stop me and point that out. So those where my heroes.

My older brother and sister were into the next generation of stuff. My brother brought home… now this makes it sound like I was born in the 40s. I wasn’t, but the Salgado family was interested in history and interested in music. My brother got into Charlie Parker. He brought home the record Jazz at Massey Hall. It’s still swingin’ and boppin’, still groovin’. I didn’t know who Charlie Parker was or what he meant at the time, but I sure was loving the music.

Was it a singing family? 

My father sang. He sang classical music, and he sang along to Ray Charles records, and he sang along to Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. He had a brother who lived in Seattle, and he turned my father on to Ray Charles. Of course, Ray Charles found his way into millions of white American homes. He was like one of the first crossover artists. You can’t beat Ray Charles, man. I don’t care what color, or what planet you’re from. You’re gonna fall into that.

The same thing with Fats Waller because he was humorous. And that was great piano work. As you can see, (points to an old upright) I have a piano. He sang this, (sings) “Way up in Harlem at a table for two. There was four of us: me, your big feet and you. From those ankles up you’re mighty sweet. But from there on down, you got too much feet. Your feets too big. I don’t want you ‘cause your feets too big. I’m mad at you ‘cause your feets too big. I really hate ya ‘cause your feets too big.”

You ever hear that record man? Yeah, I love that song. Or “The Joint is Jumpin’”? (sings) “Come in cats. Shake your hats. I mean the joint is jumpin’.” At the very end he goes, “Don’t give ‘em your right name, no no no.” Yeah, so I mean, I was a little kid. That was so cool. You know it was just so cool. And it’s also ‘cause my father thought it was so cool, and my brother too.

Did you sing along with your father?

No. In kindergarten I got a note pinned on my chest. Took it home, and then my mother took the note off my chest and she said, “Mrs.—” we’ll make up a name here, “Mrs. Crabtree says that you have a great singing voice, says you can sing.” I was supposed to learn tunes and it was, “Jesus Loves You, Yes I Know,” and “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” and “The Angels Roll the Stone Away.” I just did what I was told.

Turns out, the songs were for a family assembly, you know, where all the families go on the weekend and they see their kids. And I stepped up on stage and sang a solo. When I sang the solo I had a singing partner with me. You know, we were both gonna sing and he froze completely—I sang and he’s frozen. I’m singing away and I’m elbowing this guy, and he just stood there. I mean, he was taller than me and I’m all, come on, sing man. And the audience thought it was adorable. I got a big applause. And he cried. And from that point on it was the roar of the crowd, the smell of the grease paint.

About The Author: Tom D'Antoni