It was in 1955, and it was real cold, like nothing I’d ever experienced. I came up with Frank Motley for a gig at the old Holiday Tavern on the corner of Queen and Bathurst, across the street from the Paddock. We were booked for two weeks and we wound up staying six months. Toronto took a little getting used to, but after touring through different places in Canada, I came to realize this is where I shoulda been all my life. I loved the people in Toronto. I felt like I belonged here, and everyone treated me like I did.
-Curley Bridges, on his first time playing in Toronto
In the month of July, we try to feature local or Canadian artists. Though born in America, Curley Bridges choose to make his home in the Toronto-area for the latter part of his life. When we stumbled across Curley playing in the Distillery District and we stopped dead in our tracks, immediately mesmerized by his inventive piano-playing and jubilant personality. We were lucky to be able to catch him live at a number of additional gigs. It’s a shame that an artist as influential and well-respected as Curley Bridges isn’t more widely known. We are honoured to introduce him to you.
Curley Bridges – Reconsider Baby (80th Birthday Celebration, 2014)
(Note Bridge’s ‘mouth trumpet’ starting around 4:44)
It wasn’t until his conscription into the U.S. Army at the age of 19 that Curley Wilson Bridges (February 7, 1934 – November 27, 2014) became enamoured with the piano. However, he wasn’t without earlier musical influences, many of them country blues. He was born in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina to musical parents – his mother was a church organist and his father, who worked as a part-time musician and farmer, also happened to be a friend of the great pianist Fats Waller. Showing no early interest in a musical instrument himself, Bridges was honing his voice singing with church choirs. Every time his musical idols Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan would perform in nearby Raleigh, Bridges would sneak into their shows and then use what he had heard as inspiration. But it was the boogie woogie piano sounds of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Piano Red that finally captured Bridges attention and he resolved to master the piano just as they had.
Everybody was my influence: Fats Domino, Count Basie, Duke Ellington – everybody. But the guys that really inspired me were [boogie-woogie pianists] Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. The things they were doing with their left hands!
Bridges settled in Washington, following a medical discharge from the army. While supporting himself as a cook and scrubbing floors, Bridges was getting a musical education from the vibrant scene and the visiting artists, including the exceptional Lady Day, Billie Holiday.
When I moved to Washington, DC, in 1951, I used to go to the Howard Theatre and hang out at the back with the entertainers, and Billie Holiday happened to be there one night. I was much younger than her, but for some reason she took a shine to me. We’d meet in a bar or club and talk, but we never dated.
In 1953, Bridges hooked up with Frank Motley Jr., a ‘dual-trumpeter’ who was blowing crowds away with his ability to perform on two trumpets simultaneously. With Bridges, Motley formed “The Motley Crew” (not to be confused with Mötley Crüe) which would perform together for 13 years. Bridges acted as lead vocalist and pianist, but he was known to occasionally add in some trombone or drums. The Crew recorded for a number of American and Canadian labels while maintaining regular gigs in the northeastern States (Washington, Boston, Philadelphia) and Canada (Toronto and Montreal), but Bridges left the group with when the band relocated to Toronto. He formed a trio which primarily toured northern Ontario, trying out a more experimental style. He did reunite with Motley in 1972 to record the funky, jazz-tingled album ‘Chip Dip’.
After years of living the Toronto life, Bridges moved north to Barrie, Ontario in 1981. He continued to play, though he focused primarily on solo gigs. Even so, he never failed to capture his audiences and hold them spellbound.
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.
Blues Beat magazine, a publication of the Blues Society of Western New York, 1997
In terms of name recognition, perhaps the most notable artist Bridges worked with was Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet, Bridges made a huge, yet almost unknown contribution to the music world. Many blues fans will be well aware that “Hound Dog”, originally a Southern blues tale of a woman throwing a selfish, exploitative man out of her house and her life, was first recorded (and according to its writers, best-performed) by Big Mama Thornton in 1952.
Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog (1952)
Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” was released just a few years later and it became an almost instant sensation, only helped along by the controversy created by a live television performance viewed by 40 million people who saw Presley, appearing for the first time without his guitar, energetically gyrating into homes across America.
Elvis – Hound Dog (Milton Berle Show – June 5, 1956)
And in between these two giants is the lesser known “New Hound Dog” performed by The Motley Crew and arranged by Curly Bridges. This version makes a noted departure from the song’s Rhythm-and-Blues roots, venturing into the new sounds of Rock’n’Roll. This obvious influence of this up-beat version can be heard in Elvis Presley’s later adaptation.
Frank Motley & His Motley Crew – New Hound Dog (1954), arranged by Curley Bridges
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.
-Curley Bridges, 1999
Though he had sworn off recording for 26 years, thankfully Bridges was convinced to begin again in 1999. And what a return!
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.
Sandra B. Tooze
Bridges was able to record 4 albums before passing away from cancer at the age of 80. Giving until the end, his remains were donated to the University of Toronto for medical research.
Here is a performance of a song from each of his final albums. In addition to his piano and vocals, be sure to keep an ear out for the frequent appearances of his ‘mouth trumpet’!
Curley Bridges – Since I Met You Baby (80th Birthday Celebration, 2014)
Originally recorded for Keys to the Blues (1999)
Curley Bridges – Rock ‘N’ Soul (2001)
Bridge’s re-write of a Fat’s Domino tune from Mr Rock ‘N’ Soul (2001)
Curley Bridges – Honey Hush (75th Birthday Celebration, 2009)
Recorded live for Curley Bridges Live at the Silver Dollar Room
Curley Bridges with Julian Fauth – The Blues Ain’t Nothing (2010)
Recorded live for Blues Piano-Rama
Curley Bridges is a true Blues star – a rompin’, stompin’ blues shoutin’ pianist with loads of good-time spirit and a great big voice that’s one of a kind.”
Real Blues Magazine
Munson, Bill. 1997. “Curley Bridges”. Toronto Blues Society. http://torontobluessociety.com/curley-bridges/
Perlich, Tim. 2009. “Q&A: Curley Bridges”. NOW Magazine. https://nowtoronto.com/music/q-and-a-curley-bridges/
Tooze, Sandra B. 1999. “Curley Bridges Bio”. Electrofi.com. http://www.electrofi.com/curleybio.htm