Settling down at the piano in Toronto's Hallamusic studio, Curley Bridges launched into the first few bars of "Since I Met You, Baby." Everyone stopped and stared, stunned at the magnitude of his voice. Obviously these sessions were going to be momentous.
Recording for the first time in 26 years, this largely overlooked piano and vocal powerhouse astounded those who had gathered to hear him. Now signed to the Electro-Fi label, these sessions were Curley's chance to remind the world that he's a master musician. For Bridges it's a revitalization of his career, act two of an epic that's spanned blues, r&b and the inception of rock 'n' roll.
Curley Wilson Bridges was born on February 7, 1934, in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, just outside Raleigh. His father, who was a friend of Fats Waller, worked as a farmer and musician, and his mother was a church organist.
Bridges couldn't escape the influence of country blues, which permeated black southern rural life. As well, whenever Joe Turner or Louis Jordan was playing in Raleigh, he'd sneak in to catch a glimpse of his musical heroes. Although he showed no interest in playing an instrument as a child, Curley developed his young voice by singing in various gospel choirs.
It wasn't until Bridges was drafted into the army at 19 and was exposed to the boogie-woogie piano styles of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Piano Red, that he resolved to learn to play the piano. After receiving a medical discharge from the military, he settled in Washington, D.C., where he set about absorbing everything he could from the vibrant music scene there while he supported himself scrubbing floors and as a cook.
Curley loved hanging around backstage at the Howard Theatre, befriending the musicians who came through town and expanding his musical education. One artist who made a profound impact on him and who became a good friend was blues diva Billie Holiday.
Beginning in the early 1950s, the jazz and r&b scene in Washington was red hot, and one musician who captured everyone's attention was Frank Motley, Jr., known as the "dual trumpeter" for his crowd-pleasing ability to play two trumpets simultaneously. In 1953 Curley helped him form the Motley Crew and performed with the band for the next 13 years as a lead vocalist, pianist and occasional trombone player and drummer.
One of Bridges' claims to fame is his fervid arrangement of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," which he recorded in 1954, an obvious influence for Elvis Presley's adaptation two years later. Curley's version marked a seminal leap from r&b into the maniacal realm of fledgling rock 'n' roll.
Also with Frank Motley, he cut an impressive roster of songs, ranging from "Are You Satisfied," "Crying All Alone," "Honey Hush," "Everybody Wants A Flattop" to "Rock And Roll Gotta Beat," on a dozen American and Canadian labels.
In addition to regular gigs in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal, the Motley Crew enjoyed a successful run of engagements in Alaska in 1958 and joined a U.S.O. world tour the following year. In 1966 the band moved its home base to Toronto, and later that year Bridges left Motley to claim the spotlight for himself.
Along with Motley Crew alumnus King Herbert and drummer Frank Pelly, Curley formed a trio called the Rounders, which mainly toured northern Ontario playing a funkier style of music than was in Motley's repertoire.
In 1968 Bridges guested on organ for Jackie Shane's album, Jackie Shane Live! Also about that time, he established his own band called Bridge Crossing, which he fronted on vocals and organ. In 1972, Bridge Crossing collaborated with Frank Motley to record a funky, jazz-tinged LP entitled Chip Dip for the Paragon label.
Curley kept busy with a succession of bands then, in 1981, tired of Toronto's big-city hassles, he moved north to the town of Barrie, Ontario. Since then he has concentrated on solo gigs, delighting area audiences with his mix of jump, jive and down-and-dirty blues.
This blues and r&b titan was the hit attraction at Toronto's Harbourfront Soul 'n' Blues Festival in 1997, as noted by a reporter from Blues Beat magazine, a publication of the Blues Society of Western New York: "Every good festival has a pleasant surprise, a revelation who brings down the house and blows you away . . . Curley Bridges, accompanied only by his piano and a skillful drummer, wove a fabulous and entertaining set.
" Forty years after Curley sang those memorable sides with the Motley Crew, fans still love hearing his records. "Well, I'm glad of that," Curley admits, but adds, "All the years recording what I've done—the money that I've put into music—I got a royalty check in 1961 for $62.20," the only royalty payment he's ever received. That's why at first he wasn't interested in recording again. But with the long-overdue release of Keys To The Blues, Curley grins and shyly admits, "Now I'm glad I changed my mind." So are we.
Sandra B. Tooze