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Frank Salamone: GR Blues guitar legend

Frank Salamone

Frank Salamone’s considerable musical legacy in Grand Rapids lives on.

When the much-beloved, one-time acoustic blues guitar phenom died in late April after a long and painful battle with multiple sclerosis – a disease that for two dozen years robbed him of his ability to play the music that defined him – his latest project had just taken off.

With help from devoted friends, musicians and recording experts, a classic 1976 Indiana folk/bluegrass festival performance by Suitcase (the duo of Salamone and Jim Steigmeyer, now better known as Jimmie Stagger) was lovingly restored and released, just days before Salamone passed away.

Indeed, three CDs featuring Salamone’s guitar- and banjo-playing and singing from the ‘70s and ‘80s – performances that influenced a generation of West Michigan musicians – have been released over the past decade or so with the meticulous assistance of pals after Salamone was stricken with the disease that prevented him from playing his precious Gibson guitar.

Pals like guitarist and friend Jim Leitch, who’s listed as a co-producer on the new “Suitcase: Live in ’76 at Battle Ground 4th Annual Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering” album, and who took the cover photograph taken at the festival and wrote the liner notes for the 18-track CD.

Pals like Stagger, who’ll emcee, perform and has helped organize Saturday’s “Friends of Frank” tribute to Salamone at The Intersection, with a host of local musicians joining Stagger on stage, a poetry reading by Dave Cope, raffles, CD sales and the official release of that 1976 live recording, which originally was taped and aired by National Public Radio.

Jimmie Stagger and “friends of Frank” pay tribute to Salamone on Saturday.

As Stagger puts it, Salamone “was the guy” in the 1970s – and that meant plenty of West Michigan musicians looked up to him as the fingerstyle acoustic blues guitar hero who had studied the technique in New York City and returned to Grand Rapids and his Flaming Rat Records store with a wealth of guitar know-how.

His store also was one of the few to carry vintage acoustic blues recordings by artists such as Bert Jansch, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Mose Allison, Blind Willie McTell and other influential musicians embraced by Salamone, who played their music as well as his own in concert.

“He was the top dog as far as acoustic finger-picking guitar players are concerned,” says Stagger, who credits Salamone and the Suitcase duo for putting him “on the road” to a full-fledged career as a musician.

“I have many fond memories of that experience with Frank. He showed me anything I wanted to know if I asked him. Frank was just very welcoming. He stopped playing mandolin when I played with him and he gave me a gorgeous 1928 A-model Gibson. He said, ‘I’m not playing this anymore, this is yours.’ That could be my fondest memory of him.”

Beyond playing area coffeehouses and clubs, Salamone’s prodigious talent had him opening for British blues legend John Mayall at Fountain Street Church and sharing stages with the likes of Otis Rush, Bukka White and John Prine.

I recall interviewing Salamone about a decade ago after MS had already taken its toll and was immediately struck by how much passion he still had for this seminal, American roots music he cherished … and how much he wished he could still pick up that guitar and play.

“I miss it so much,” he told me, “I can’t put it into words.”

Well, on Saturday, “friends of Frank” will do it for him, not only paying tribute to many of those legendary bluesmen of yore, but paying homage to Salamone’s own legacy as a West Michigan icon.

Doors at the nightclub open at 6 p.m., with music beginning at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for Heartland Hospice of Grand Rapids, and proceeds from raffles and CD sales will help support the cause.

Stagger gave Local Spins Live listeners a sneak preview into this concert on Wednesday, when he stopped by the studios of News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW) to talk about the benefit show and play one of Salamone’s songs, “Wayward Kid.”


You can listen to the entire podcast here, and watch a video of that exclusive, in-studio performance below.

Stagger concedes he’s had to go back to research Salamone’s extensive song catalog for the weekend show.

“It’s surreal,” he says. “I’m fairly well far removed from it, though I have some of Frank’s stuff in my repertoire. For some of the stuff, I did have to go back and relearn it and revise it. My musical knowledge has progressed in the
last 40 years, so it’s so more fitting the way I work it now.”

Stagger calls Saturday’s event “a very down-home type thing” with professional and non-professional musicians taking the stage, performing and mingling. (You can get more details about the show at the Intersection website and more information about Salamone at the website that Leitch maintains here.)

“It’s just a get-together with the idea of people who knew Frank or want to get to know him to come down and we’ll have a nice time and play some music and raise some money for Frank’s final expenses and stuff and go from there.”

Interestingly enough, the Grand Rapids concert and official CD-release show falls on the same weekend as the 40th annual Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering in Battle Ground, Ind., where the Suitcase CD also will be made available for sale to fans – 36 years after it was first recorded there.

It’s a treasure of a CD, brimming with rootsy authenticity and plenty of live-on-stage charm.

“Frank made it till three days after the CD came out,” Stagger says. “I think he was waiting. I honestly think he was waiting because he had so much input into it and he had so much spiritual and emotional energy invested in it to make sure it was right.”


Email: jsinkevics@gmail.com

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