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Curtis Blake at Triangle May 2004
Curtis Blake at Triangle
Photo by Mindy

Featured Musician — Curtis Wayne Blake

Born February 23, 1958 in Princeton, Minnesota.

Harmonica & Vocals - Traditional Blues Music

Interview prepared by Fred Conti, Jr. and Judy Cedar. 2004

All photos provided by Curtis Blake unless otherwise noted.

 

 

Plays on Releases:

Also Appears on:

Known for his mastery of the diatonic and chromatic harmonica instruments, Curtis also plays melodica and bass kalimba. Presently, he is teaching himself to play piano and is learning Cuban music. And,sometimes he ponders, what could be if Cuban music embraced the harmonica. He asks, "What if Arturo Sandoval played the chromatic harmonica?!?!"

Curtis is the youngest of four siblings. Neither his two brothers nor his sister play music instruments but his mother, Noella, did have a piano in their home. Curtis was exposed to the blues sound early on by listening to record albums that belonged to his brothers and sister.

Page from Blues Life Journal
Page from
Blues Life Journal

Curtis gives credit to a complete stranger, an older man, for sparking his passion for blues harp. Curtis and his family moved from Princeton and lived in Minneapolis when he was age six. But in 1971, he spent the summer with his brother in Raleigh, North Carolina. One day, Curtis was outside his brother's house in the front yard playing his newly found guitar that he had retrieved from the junk heap! [Curtis had started guitar lessons at age 11.] An older man was walking by and asked Curtis if he might play along. "Then, when he started blowing impressively on a blues harp", in Blake's words, "that is when, at age 13, the blues blew me over and I walked what seemed like 10 miles to the nearest music store to buy my first harp." Curtis has purchased plenty of Hohners since, but this "chance encounter" with this man in Raleigh is what provided Curtis with the realization that he wanted to be a blues harp musician. Curtis never learned this gentleman's name. Listening to Paul Butterfield's music cemented that desire. And, according to two of Curtis' childhood friends, Curtis' musical talent was apparent right from the beginning. As Doyle explains it, "You knew Curtis was good because no one ever told him to put the harp down, including his mother (a harp can be very annoying at times)." Today, more than 30 years later, Curtis is considered by many (if not all) of his peers as the best blues harp man in this state. More than ten years ago, Curtis Blake was featured in the international blues publication Blues Life Journal, NR 68 "I'm Ready, Ready As Anybody I Meet" by Mick Rainsford.

When asked what bands/artists he's played with, Curtis mentioned several: Brothers Curtis, Greazy Gravy, Out All Night, Citizens, Lady Blue, Mojo Buford Band, Sonny Rodgers Band, Texas Red, the Rough Cuts, Dirty White Boyz, Sail Cats, Markiss, Percy Strothers, Barbara LaShore, Jimmy Johnson, Charlie Love, Reverend Raven, and Mike Wilson. The list doesn't include the artists Curtis has jammed with; including The Hummingbird's (Negril, Jamacia), Lurrie Bell and Carey Bell on Maxwell Street and Corey Harris with the Big Mess Band in New Orleans. Curtis got his start playing with Lazy Bill Lucas (the man with the news about the blues) at the U of M and the Blue Sundays Series at Sebastian's Night Club.

from left: New Orleans w/Corey Harris; Chicago Blues Festival;Lurrie Bell Band; Maxwell Street under tree; and Jamaica
from left: New Orleans w/Corey Harris; Chicago Blues Festival;
Lurrie Bell Band; Maxwell Street under tree;
and Jamaica

By age 18, Curtis was playing in his first band called the Citizens (1976-1979) consisting of Scott Johnson (guitar), Tom Wigrin (guitar), Steve Kern (bass), Kevin Carsons (drums), Jeff Hauss (keys) and Curtis Blake (harp). Then, in the 80s, he had a band for a short time called Out All Night that included musicians Curtis Blake (vocals & harmonica), Paul Soikennen (guitar), Dean Davich (drum) and Jon Ott (bass). Photos: New Orleans w/Corey Harris (left top) Chicago Blues Festival (left bottom) Lurrie Bell Band (center top) Maxwell Street under tree (bottom center) and Jamacia (right).

Brad Moe, Curtis Blake, John Wickstrom (back row) Pat Dawson and Sonny Rodgers (front row)
Brad Moe, Curtis Blake, John Wickstrom (back row)
Pat Dawson and Sonny Rodgers (front row)

Curtis Blake is a member of the Sonny Rodgers Band who became a 1990 W.C. Handy Award Winner for Best Single Record. As fate would have it, Sonny Rodgers died in 1990 before knowing he had won a Handy Award with his single "Big Leg Woman / Cadillac Baby. The award was given, posthumously, and Curtis was in Memphis to receive the award on behalf of Sonny's family. During this particular Handy Ceremony, there was a bomb scare and the building had to be evacuated which resulted in Curtis accepting the award after-the-fact and backstage from Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records. One of the things Bruce and Curtis spoke of was the symbolism and irony of the award and Sonny's death in that Sonny's Handy Award had a trumpet with a missing bell - just as Sonny himself was missing from the ceremony. Photo: Brad Moe, Curtis Blake, John Wickstrom (back row) Pat Dawson and Sonny Rodgers (front row)

When asked about mentoring other musicians, Curtis nodded affirmatively that mentoring is important. He considers Lazy Bill Lucas, Jo Jo Williams, and Mojo Buford some of his early mentors. They offered opportunities for Blake to jam with and learn from other musicians.

By now, Curtis has become the mentor: Jeannie Verstrate tells a story of how Curtis, early in his career, volunteered his time once a week to bring music to autistic children. In Jeannie's own words: "I watched Curtis come alive and spark an interest in autistic children I've worked with and, most importantly, care enough to follow through." And speaking about Curtis with his peers, Jeannie states "Curtis has gone above and beyond the call of duty to exchange musical concepts -- great harmonica greats to truly pay attention to. And Curtis always comes up with an up-beat attitude towards another harmonica player's licks proving Curtis is always learning. He has been a look-up stand-up take-notice kind of harmonica player who will always encourage, not discourage." Foster Willie, Jr. and Harold Tremblay both credit Curtis for providing them with helpful instructions and/or lessons on the blues harp. But, Curtis considers that more like being a mentor or a coach rather than an instructor. For the past several years, Curtis, together with the Brothers Curtis Band, has been co-host of the Tuesday jams. The jams also give the band opportunities to try-out or rehearse new material.

If Curtis had a word of advice to new, aspiring musicians, he would recommend that they learn to play piano and drums because those are the basis of everything in music. He further elaborated that all musicians can benefit greatly by discovering different types of music and by defining their own expressions rather than relying upon what they hear mainstream or by being unduly influenced by peer pressure. When asked what he liked the most about our local blues scene, Blake said, "Helping each other is what music should be all about and we have that here." He enjoys and appreciates the camaraderie of all the blues musicians at all the various functions around town. Other positives he cites about our local blues community include the networking that extends beyond here to other cities and the local news outlets such as Blues on Stage and Twin Cities Blues News. And, he feels lucky that our area has venues supportive of the blues music. When asked what changes he has seen in the blues community over the years, Blake noted there are a lot more bands and new faces in town. He believes the local scene benefits from an excellent talent base and he notices that more musicians are showing seriousness about their music and choosing to make a career with the music. Curtis also mentioned, as a weakness of our local blues community, the lack of younger players and fans on the scene.

Recording Harpslinger at Brad Moe's Studio
Recording Harpslinger
at Brad Moe's studio

When Curtis isn't involved with his music, he likes to canoe, bike, and hike. He considers himself an aspiring chef. He is interested in making bass kalimbas (rumba boxes) as a craft-hobby. He enjoys listening to ethnic music when he travels (e.g. Jamacian, Cuban, Zydeco). His favorite club outside the metro area is the Kingston Mines in Chicago and he has played there with Jimmy Johnson. When he's not playing or listening to blues, Curtis enjoys a variety of other music genres: zydeco; Cuban music types son, son-montuno, descarga, and bolero; pre-reggae Jamacian folk music called mento; jazz; swing; celtic; rock; and traditional country blues.

Artist Quarter with Bernard Fowler and Bobby Keyes
Artist Quarter with
Bernard Fowler and Bobby Keyes

Currently, Curtis plays regularly in three bands: Greazy Gravy, Brothers Curtis and Texas Red Band. Greazy Gravy has been together since 2002 and includes band members Curtis Blake (vocals & harp), Jerre Maynard (vocals & guitar), John Hack (bass guitar), and Greg Shuck (drums). The Brothers Curtis was formed this year and consists of band members Curtis Blake (vocals & harp), Curtis Marlatt (vocals & guitar), Jerry Francis (bass guitar), and Doug James (vocals & drums). The Texas Red Band has played locally for several years. Dan Schwalbe (guitar), Curtis Blake (vocals & harmonica), Jack Taylor (bass guitar) and Greg Shuck (drums) all back Texas Red (guitar and vocals) when he plays in town.

Curtis Blake plays Hohner Marine Band Harmonicas, Super 64 Chromatic, uses '65 Fender Vibro-Verb amplifier and Shure 520 mics.

Brothers Curtis greazy gravy
Brothers Curtis                          greazy gravy

Curtis @ 2011 HOF
Curtis Blake
2011 Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame
"Blues Sideman"

In 2011 Curtis Blake was inducted into the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame as the 'first-ever' recipient of the "Blues Sideman" award. The ceremony was held at O'Gara's in St Paul on Sunday, November 13. Curtis' band put on a great show including a rendition of Sonny Rodgers' Big Leg Woman, which won in the "Blues Recording" category. A fitting tribute since Curtis played harmonica on the original recording with Sonny in 1989. As mentioned above, that recording went on to win a W.C. Handy Award (now Blues Music Award) in Memphis, TN in 1990.

Curtis Blake
Performing in Mexico
November 12-13, 2015
w/ Mexican jazz great, Patricia Carrión

 

Note - The Society creates Profile Books (with additional photos) for our events. It is our hope to eventually reproduce these documents in a digital form available here on our web site.


 

 

 

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page last updated: Wednesday, December 2, 2015

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