"Riding through this world / all alone,
God takes your soul; / you're on your own
The crow flies straight / a perfect line.
On the Devil's back until you die ...
Gotta look this life / in the eye."
These lyrics set the tone for the critically acclaimed drama Sons of Anarchy on the FX cable channel. With a thread of Hamlet running through it, the series follows a California motorcycle club, with all of the expected players: guns, drugs, warring gang factions, Feds. But the show is ultimately about family and how far the characters will go to protect their own. The violence of the show is shocking, but the biggest surprise came with the discovery that the voice singing the theme song belongs to local jazz/blues musician Curtis Stigers.
After several months on the road playing in Germany, England and France, the theme's first line is particularly prescient in regard to the singer. With a palpable sense of relief, Stigers explained that, other than his Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza, he's home with an open schedule until March 2010. It's a mixed blessing; he'd like to be making more money--and he probably could be--but it would mean more time on the road away from his family. And he's already had enough of that.
"My time will be spent just being a dad," Stigers said. Other than a return home for a week during Halloween--a high holiday in the Stigers household (they were punk-rock zombies this year)--he was on the road touring or working on his new album Lost In Dreams (released in September on Concord) most of 2009. "I just want to hang out with my family," he said.
That dichotomy of roles--international performer and regular guy--is reflected even within the ways Stigers' expresses himself musically.
Stigers grew up in Boise, learning jazz at the knee of legend Gene Harris, and is known by many as a saxophonist. He recently played sax in a concert with Nick Lowe at England's Royal Albert Hall. But ask him to describe himself and he says, "I'm a singer who plays sax and writes songs, in that order." And he has the numbers to back that up: The royalties from Stigers' version of Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" on The Bodyguard soundtrack have made Lowe a very wealthy man.
Fellow jazz musician, pianist Paul Tillotson, said being an instrumentalist is a tougher road to travel. He and Stigers played together in the Curtis Stigers Trio in New York during the late '80s. Tillotson still lives there and is quite successful, playing nearly 300 shows per year. And as the success of the Sons of Anarchy theme song would suggest, Tillotson said Stigers' achievements can be attributed to that choice of being a vocalist first.
"Curtis' success, I think, has a lot to do with that he's a singer," Tillotson said. "That helps a lot."
Another aspect that contributes to Stigers' ability to sing for his supper is his willingness to go where they want to hear him. He has a much higher profile in Europe than in the United States, though even there his popularity isn't always consistent. He took part in this summer's Proms, a hugely popular annual concert series held at Albert Hall and performed during a live BBC Radio 2 tribute to Johnny Mercer at London's Mermaid Theatre, which seats 600. He played a concert of John Lennon songs with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Not every Stigers performance in Europe, however, is witnessed by thousands.
"I play theaters in England and opera houses in Denmark and Germany but, then again, I go to Paris and play a tiny little jazz club," Stigers said, laughing.
But success here in the States isn't completely foreign to Stigers. This year, he was nominated for a Grammy (Note: that should read Emmy) for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music for the SOA theme song, which Stigers recorded here in Boise at Cunningham Studios. To put it in perspective, Stigers and Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane shared a limo to the awards ceremony. Also up for Outstanding Theme was a song that composer John Williams--the Star Wars theme song guy--wrote for a PBS documentary. Williams won.
Although Stigers is sometimes stuck between what he has to do--travel being his biggest hardship--and what he wants to do, he doesn't look back with regret. When he was signed to Arista Records in the early '90s, he and record mogul Clive Davis were at loggerheads over Stigers' music. He wanted to make jazz music and Davis wanted pop.
"But if I hadn't signed with Arista, I wouldn't be playing huge theaters in England," Stigers said. "I would have probably made a small record and disappeared."
As difficult as it may have been for Stigers, Tillotson agreed that Stigers' tutelage under Davis gave him a huge leg up.
"Clive Davis, the hitmaker of all the greatest music in the world, took Curtis under his wing a long time ago ... That started his career in Europe. It was Clive Davis who made that happen," Tillotson said.
Though Stigers reflects on it a little differently, he recognizes Davis' influence on the trajectory his career took. And he understands that both the sacrifices and the rewards have their purpose.
"I went through a lot of agony with Clive Davis over creative control ... but every step in life leads you to some place," Stigers said.
In Stigers' case, every step--even the cross-continental ones--lead back to Boise. He wouldn't mind a little more success, i.e. making more money, but for right now, he's happy to shift his priorities. For the next few months, his steps won't take him much further than local coffeeshops or the racks at Record Exchange or his daughter's school when he drops her off in the mornings.
"Being on stage with my band is heaven, but the rest of it can get annoying ... especially being away from my kid."