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.”
For their second appearance, The Blues Brothers were billed as SNL‘s musical guest in April of 1978. By then, they had developed the Blues Brothers into fully-formed characters, complete with backstories. Belushi taking the name ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues, named after Joliet Prison in Illinois, and Aykroyd as his brother, Elwood Blues, lifted from the Elwood Ordnance Plant. Their performance was introduced by Paul Schaefer, playing music producer and ‘man with the golden ear’ Don Kirschner, who said that the Blues Brothers were “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.”
Their third and final SNL appearance would come in November of 1978, just 10 days before they’d released their first LP, A Briefcase Full of Blues, which featured five songs that Salgado played regularly at the time, including “Hey, Bartender.” As a gesture of gratitude, the album was dedicated to Salgado upon its release. Incidentally, Salgado told the Houston Press in 2012 that Floyd Dixon, the writer of “Hey, Bartender,” had thanked him, as Dixon had earned $78,000 in royalties off the song thanks to the Blues Brothers album, only to blow it all betting horses.
In 1980, The Blues Brothers hit the big screen as the first movie based on an SNL character, and with an all-star cast of both comedians and musicians, it was a runaway success. One of the musicians featured, Cab Calloway, played the janitor of the catholic boarding school who taught Jake and Elwood everything they knew about the blues. Appropriately, they named the character Curtis Salgado.
After bringing blues to the mainstream thanks to a hit movie and one of the best-selling blues albums of all time, Belushi tragically died of a drug overdose in 1982. Various iterations of the Blues Brothers have continued, including a world tour in 1988, and the movie sequel Blues Brothers 2000 in 1998. Fulfilling the prophecy of Paul Schaefer’s words from 1978, the Blues Brothers have become a ‘viable commercial product,’ with various iterations of the band, some including Belushi’s younger brother, James, still putting on concerts regularly.
Looking back in the late ’70s, as the Blues Brothers were still a burgeoning phenomenon, Salgado proclaimed in interviews that he was “blown away” by it all, but years later he’d come to admit that he had mixed feelings about how his influence played out. “Sure, I was bitter. It’s like they say: an amateur imitates, a professional steals. Belushi was a pro,” Salgado told Pacific Northwest Magazine. Though Salgado, who still tours today, has since been able to look at the bigger picture, as he explained to Monterey County Weekly in 2008, he was happy to be such an important “piece of that puzzle that rejuvenated the blues in the ’80s.”