It was 40 years ago that John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd first debuted what would become the Blues Brothers on the SNL stage. Billed as ‘Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band,’ they were lacking the trademark black suits, fedoras, and sunglasses, instead wearing some familiar looking bee costumes. Their outfits aside, the sketch featured Aykroyd on harmonica and Belushi on lead vocals, belting out a rendition of Slim Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee,” which helped lay the groundwork for what would become two of the most popular characters in the show’s history.
Around the time of that initial performance, cast members were known to hang out at Aykroyd’s Holland Tunnel Blues Bar after hours, a place with a stocked jukebox and a handful of instruments Belushi kept down there for impromptu jam sessions. It was here that Aykroyd started developing the story that would turn into The Blues Brothers movie, as well as introduced Belushi to the blues for the first time.
In October of 1977, more than a year-and-a-half later, Belushi was in Bend, Ore., filming National Lampoon’s Animal House. Growing restless on set, he started checking out watering holes around town in search of some entertainment. It was during a visit to The Eugene Hotel when he first heard Curtis Salgado, who was playing as part of a weekly residency that was known as Blue Monday. Belushi told the Eugene Register-Guard in 1979 that the then-25-year-old had “a lot of appeal in terms of star power and charisma on stage. He had that ‘special thing,’ you know. That’s rare in performers.”
Belushi was immediately captivated by Salgado, though he had no idea who Belushi was. He didn’t own a TV, and as Salgado’s then-bandmate Robert Cray explained to Pacific Northwest Magazine, “for as long as we could remember, we’d always had to work on Saturday nights.” Regardless, Salgado introduced himself to Belushi during a set break, and the two hit it off right away.
Drawn to Salgado’s musical knowledge, Belushi invited him over to his house, asking that he bring some records along with him, considering himself to be in a musical rut at the time. “I was kind of sick of rock and roll and I hated disco, so I needed a place to go. I hadn’t heard much blues before, it felt good,” said Belushi to the Register-Guard.
When Salgado arrived at Belushi’s house, he brought LPs by Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown, and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson with him. “He was from Chicago, so he must have known something about blues, but he didn’t know who the people were,” Salgado recalled. So, as he turned Belushi onto the blues, Salgado would become Belushi’s mentor .
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.
Salgado expanded on this in a 2013 PBS interview, Salgado explained that “as an actor, you need someone to build a character on. And he liked the music. He championed me.”
The two stayed in touch once filming on Animal House wrapped, and after Belushi returned to New York, he started to re-work the Blues Brothers act with Aykroyd. It was at this point that the black suits, dark sunglasses, and small patch of hair under the lower lip started being worked in — all of which were lifted directly from Salgado’s stage show. Belushi told the Register-Guard that he “tried to represent him in the most respectful way possible. Being from TV and known for comedy, it was hard to sell musically. That was real difficult to do, but I promised I wouldn’t mess with it.”