Smiths Falls Blues Festival, Smiths Falls, Ontario. August 2005.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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