Ask Bluesman Albert Castiglia (ka-steel-ya) what it takes to become a good Blues player, he’ll likely say you have to go to the college of the Blues, Chicago!
The young, by Blues standards, guitar slinger spent several years in the Windy City honing his craft before returning to his South Florida stomping grounds where today he is an in-demand player who enjoys a large fan base.
“Playing in Chicago is just like going to college,” Albert says. “It’s the equivalent of going to Harvard to study law. For me it was the greatest educational experience I could have. I went and played and saw what the Blues is really all about and was exposed to many different styles.”
But first we need to go back to the beginning and see the where, when, why, and how young Albert got started on his life’s journey.
Albert was born in New York in 1969 (on the same weekend as the historical Woodstock Music Festival) to a Cuban mother and an Italian father. When he was five his parents packed up and moved to Miami where the Castiglia clan still resides. He began taking guitar lessons when he was 12 and decided as a teenager that the Blues were the best way to express what he had to say.
Needless to say, it hasn’t all been champagne and roses.
“I’m 43 and I’ve had my share of kicks in the ass,” he says with a laugh.
In order to keep peace in the family, Albert completed his college education and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work before taking a job in the welfare department for the State of Florida.
“I worked for the state for four years,” Albert recalls. “I started as a case worker and at first I was very idealistic. I thought I could save the world. I found out real quickly that it is a thankless job. It’s very easy to burn out. Social work of any kind is a thankless job. I was involved with food stamps and it was bad enough. Think of the people who had to work in the child welfare department. It was total a bureaucracy. I really thought I was helping people only to find out I wsn’t doing anybody any good.”
Throughout it all, Albert kept plugging away at his music, performing at nights and on weekends in the clubs in and around the Miami area. In 1990 Albert made his professional debut as a member of the Miami Blues Authority. New Times Magazine named him ‘Best Blues Guitarist' in Miami in 1997. He was picking up steam.
Then, overnight, things changed and the path was cleared.
Gloria Pierce, a music promoter and friend landed Albert an audition with the legendary Chicago harmonica master, Junior Wells, who was so impressed with Albert’s playing and vocal style, that he was asked to work in the band as a fill-in lead guitarist for a three-city mini-tour in clubs in Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit. The gigs went so well that he was asked to become a permanent member of the Junior Wells Band. Under Junior’s tutelage, Albert performed in all the major Chicago Blues clubs as well as clubs and Blues festivals all over the US, Canada and Europe including France, Switzerland and Italy. Audiences were thrilled with his playing everywhere they went. Unfortunately, Junior became ill and passed away in 1998.
“It all happened so fast,” Albert says of his time with Wells. “I’m in my office one minute and the next I’m with Junior Wells in the South of France. It took me a long time to get there and then it all happened over night. It was a real mind blower. One minute I’m pedaling food stamps and then I’m playing guitar with one of the most famous Bluesmen in the world.
“Junior Wells was a great guy,” Albert relates. “He was just as ornery as everybody said. It was like having my dad around all the time. I never, ever took it personally when he had to put his foot in my ass. It was all part of my education. A bad day with Junior Wells was still better than a good day at the office.
“One time Junior told me that I played pretty good but I dressed pretty bad,” he says with a laugh. “Junior was always impeccably dressed when he was on stage, or just about anywhere you saw him, for that matter. He took me to a men’s shop and bought me two suits with no lapels. I’d never worn anything like that in my life. He had a really good heart. He was known for his crazy streak when he was younger but he’d slowed down quite a bit toward the end. I still miss him very much.”
When Junior passed Albert was living in Chicago and stayed with Junior’s band for a while as the lead singer and guitar player. The band had changed its name to the Hoodoo Man’s Band and later started touring with Atlanta- based Sandra Hall, nationally known as the "Empress of the Blues." Albert opened the shows for Sandra and the touring continued for the next several years.
“Chicago was an amazing experience,” Albert says. “The stories I heard. The people I met and played with. It was all part of the education. I’m proud of the fact that I stuck with it as long as I did. Some people dream about reaching something they never get without being willing to pay their dues and put in the work. I made up my mind to not change paths for anything. I always had hope. I was never going to give up playing. I’ll always play guitar but it was a killer with a day job. I got to find out what was out there. I got to meet all kinds of famous people and I stole their licks. The whole (Chicago) experience really humbled me. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned from Junior.”
The Chicago stint gave Albert a new found maturity he says he didn’t have before.
“Before, I just kind of wrote stuff without really living it,” he says. “I found out you have to write about things that are going on in the world or people are not going to believe you. Junior used to say ‘You can’t live it if you don’t give it.’ Now I know what that means.
“I write about things that affect my life,” he says. “I write about the experiences of others, too. That’s how I’ve improved. I come from a long line of cynics in my family. It’s in my genes. I used to watch the news and my songs would be so angry. Even my love songs were angry. Now I think using a little humor in the lyrics is very important. Humor is cathartic for me.”
Albert says after four years paying his dues he made the gut-wrenching decision to return to Florida and try his hand at making a name for himself on his own merits.
“It was great playing with all of the people I met,” he says. “But there are a lot of good players in Chicago and it was hard to pay the bills. I felt really bad because I couldn’t make it up there. I felt like I’d failed. There were times I wasn’t able to make the rent and had to ask my parents for a couple of hundred to cover it that month. They always came through and I appreciate them very much. They weren’t exactly supportive of my career choice but they never abandoned me. They thought it was just a phase that I would grow out of. Turns out, moving back to Florida was the best move I ever made.
“My folks are very traditional and old-school in their values and believe you need a steady job with a regular check on Friday to be successful,” Albert says. “The’ve always believed in me but there were times when their faith was tested. Since I’ve been back in Florida and have established a nice fan base they’ve been to my shows. It took them a while but now my mom has become a Blues fan.
“My mom wanted me to introduce her to two people. One is Marcia Ball, who I really don’t know and don’t have contact with,” Albert says. “The other is Watermelon Slim, who I do know and introduced her to and they chatted for about 10 minutes. He was very nice to her and she was thrilled.”
By 2002, Albert thought the time was right to go it alone and released his debut album, “Burn” followed by the 2006 offering “A Stone’s Throw” on the Blues Leaf Records label. Both albums met with critical acclaim and most recently Albert released his latest disc, “Living The Dream.”
“We’re going back into the studio at the end of August to finish our new album,” Albert says. “It’s about half done and I’ve got a lot of cramming to do before then. I’m excited about the new stuff.”
Aside from Sandra Hall and Junior Wells, Albert has shared the stage and jammed with Chicago luminaries Aron Burton, the late Pinetop Perkins, Melvin Taylor, Sugar Blue, the late Phil Guy, Ronnie Earl, Billy Boy Arnold, Ronnie Baker Brooks, John Primer, Lurrie Bell, Jerry Portnoy, Larry McCray, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater and Otis Clay. So his time in Chicago did provide him with valued connections and plenty of classroom time.
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Albert says about his time in Chicago. “My playing has improved. I still feel like my guitar is my strongest instrument. My voice is OK, but I ain’t no Odis Redding. It serves its purpose. I don’t sing out of key. That says a lot. (Laughs)”
Along the way, Albert can name the usual suspects as his influences. He cites Eric Clapton for having the most profound effect on his music.
“Eric Clapton led me to Mike Bloomfield and to Stevie Ray (Vaughan),” he says. “Without Clapton I would have never discovered people like Muddy, Bobby Bland, Junior (Wells) or Otis Rush. These guys all made a definite impact on my playing.
“I love Freddie King’s voice and guitar work,” Albert says. “I tried, but it’s real hard to emulate him. Buddy Guy is my favorite guitar player today. He knows when to bring it and he knows when to lay back. There’s also a trend for Blues purists to want to dump on the English Blues guys for not being original but you can’t discount their influences either. Everybody contributes to the cause.
“The music is not going to go anywhere,” Albert declares. “Who’s going to fill the legends’ shoes? There’s a bunch of us who are going to, that’s who. There’s a bunch of us working and working steady. I loved working with Junior. If you can handle touring with a hard core guy like that, you can handle anything.”