If you want to interview Curtis Stigers, first you have to track him down (thank you, Twitter) and then you have to meet him on his own terms. He likes his privacy. He doesn't want to meet in a place where others, who might recognize him, might want to eavesdrop on the conversation. That's all understandable — Curtis Stigers, born in California but raised on the Boise Bench — is famous. A world-renowned jazz/pop/blues artist, he is embarking on a months-long tour in April and May that includes New York, England and Denmark.
He's also an enigma. Because despite being a worldwide music phenomenon, Stigers is humble, loyal, a doting father — his daughter, of whom he is suspender-popping proud, is currently attending a college back east — and a champion of what some might call "the underdog," but you'll never hear such an utterance from him. In December, he was the frontman and co-producer for The 13th Annual Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza, a concert benefiting Boise's Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter, which is run by his fiance (and co-producer of the event), Jodi Petersen. And that tour he's gearing up for? It may include exotic locales, but the very first stop is April 10 at The Egyptian in Boise: "An Evening with Curtis Stigers, Solo, Acoustic & Otherwise."
"It's my home," Stigers, 53, said, munching on a slice of toast laden with a thick emerald smear of seasoned avocado. We are at a coffee shop in Boise — one that has some open space away from the hubbub, with clean, modern tables and chairs. It's a fairly quiet area, at least this time of the day, which is around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. I have wrangled Stigers for an interview. Upon his insistence, I am recording it. He bristles at the thought of being misquoted, which he says happens often. We settle in and Stigers says his daughter is the one who "turned me on to this avocado toast — you should try it, it's so good."
In between bites, Stigers gives me "the 3-minute elevator speech version" of his life, which is a joke. There is no such thing. We begin what turned into the 51-minute version, which still was not nearly long enough.
He was born in Hollywood at the Kaiser Hospital on Sunset Boulevard.
"I grew up in southern California until the end of my third-grade year when, this was about a year after the divorce, and my mom decided to pack up my baby brother, who was six years younger, Jake was his name," Stigers says, "and she decided to pack us up and move us back to her hometown, Boise, Idaho. ... I was furious because my grandparents lived down there, and my grandfather took me to Disneyland about once a week ... and other amazing places. My dad wasn't around that much and my grandfather was kind of a surrogate dad for me." Stigers smiles softly. "He was a Greyhound man. I could go on and on about him. He was the manager of the Greyhound depot here, which is still there, and Greyhound moved him down to California and he died a Greyhound man. He was always with Greyhound buses."
His family lived in a house on Bond Street just off of Mountain View. Through grade school and into high school, he was in the school band, first at Koelsch, then Fairmont Junior High before attending high school at Capital. In fifth grade he played clarinet. "And then in sixth grade, I got a small drum set for Christmas and I started playing drums at home," he says. Along the way, he added the saxophone to his repertoire.
"All the while I was playing drums at home, listening to Led Zeppelin records and playing to Led Zeppelin records on my drums. I kind of had a double life as a music student," Stigers says, "playing classical music and jazz music and also playing drums to rock n' roll bands and punk rock bands and things like that."
He was the drum major at Capital High — "that's kind of funny," he says, smiling at the memory. He started singing with the choir when he was at Capital, too — "that's sort of when my singing in public happened," he says. "I always tell the story of the woman who ran the Kiwanis. The director of the Kiwanis boys choir in fourth grade told me I couldn't sing, I should never sing and I should join the band instead, that I just wasn't a singer. So it took me a long time to go back to singing. I didn't really start singing (again) in front of people until I was a sophomore in high school."
Stigers became so enamored of anything music related, he took his prerequisites in summer school so that by the time he was a senior in high school, his class schedule was mostly just music classes — band, jazz band, choir, jazz choir.
"By the end of high school I realized 'oh, I'm a musician. I'd better do something,'" Stigers says.
He got a full-ride scholarship to a "tiny little college in Pasco, Washington," he says, "but I screwed up. I kept going home on the weekends to see a girlfriend in Boise and the professor finally said, 'I'm taking your scholarship back.' And instead of saying, 'oh, please, give me another chance,' which he would have said 'OK,' I said, 'fine. I walked from his office to the student union building and I called my friend Dave (Browne), who was in a band called The Hi-Tops. And I said, 'hey, I just got kicked out of college can I be in your band?' ... So I packed up my stuff, went back to Idaho and learned how to play music the hard way — as a working musician who, you know, loaded big speakers into trucks and out of trucks and onto stages. ...
"But there was also the Gene Harris part."
Gene Harris was a star jazz pianist who had moved to Boise. He used to play five nights a week at a jazz venue in The Idanha. It was at the Tuesday night jam sessions where then-high schooler Stigers really honed his chops.
"I learned so much from him," Stigers says. When he came back to Boise after leaving college, he returned to those jam sessions and kept learning from Harris, the master. "He became a real mentor and a friend of mine," Stigers says.
From Hi-Tops to New York City
Stigers, who had also been the drummer in a new-wave punk rock band called the B-Sides in high school, ended up playing with The Hi-Tops for a few years, then teamed up with Boise musician Paul Tillotson. Tillotson, who also became a successful jazz musician, passed away in 2016.
"Paul and I were the same age and we formed a band called the Young Jazz Lions," Stigers says. "And that was when I learned how to be a frontman. That was when I learned how to stand up in front of a band and sing."
While his time with the Hi-Tops and the Young Jazz Lions was not very long, Stigers says it was monumental in forming his musical career. "(Those times with those two bands) were really brief periods — about a year and a half each," he says, "but they were huge as far as developing what I knew about being a musician, both on and in back of the stage."
When Stigers turned 20, he left Boise. He looked around and saw that a lot, if not all, of his fellow musicians were "bitter. They weren't where they wanted to be," he says. "They hadn't achieved what they hoped to achieve. And I realized it was because they'd never left." Stigers says it was a time when Boise was still "a very small town and there wasn't anything going on musically besides some clubs. So I realized I needed to get out."
He looked around and settled on New York City. "It was exactly the opposite of Boise, you know. ... When I went to New York, the first night I went out, I went to (watch) a few bands and I thought, 'well, I could play with them,'" Stigers says. "I moved to New York with a suitcase, a saxophone and a couple thousand bucks in my wallet — which went away really fast."
He started going to blues jam sessions and paid his dues as he worked hard and got better and better. "I was hired to play $50 dollar gigs in crappy little smoky clubs and ... I found my way," Stigers says.
It was hard and at times he didn't know if it was going to turn out, but "there was always something every couple of months that gave me hope," he says.
Things gradually started going his way. "I sort of broke into the blues scene," Stigers says, and he started meeting people who wanted to help him out — either writing songs together or getting him some play time for a gig. He started getting a few record deal offers. They didn't pan out at first, but he started writing pop blues songs and studying musicians such as Bonnie Raitt, Al Greene and John Hiatt.
"But I knew I wasn't an authentic blues man, I had other things going on," Stigers says. "So by the time I got that record deal in '91, I had begun to write more to the pop soul songs rather than the blues. And it wasn't about the jazz at that point," he says. "I was still playing jazz gigs, it's just the songs I was writing weren't jazz songs, they were pop songs. So that's where I started as a recording artist."
Stigers was 24 when a record company associate called him over to her table and said "sit down." While her company wasn't the one he eventually signed with, she was serendipitously responsible. Her lawyer was the one who gave him his big break, shopping him around to major record labels, Stigers says.
By the time he got his record deal with Arista, "there were six labels bidding for me," Stigers says. "I went from this kid, you know, who was riding subways and eating pizza to stay alive to being the hot thing in town and it was ... it was heady. ... Suddenly, I had these people wanting to work with me," Stigers says. "It was fun. It was really, really fun."
Skyrocketing to fame on the 10-year track
His eponymous debut album sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide and included the hit singles “I Wonder Why,” “You’re All That Matters to Me,” and “Never Saw a Miracle.”
He remembers the first time he heard "I Wonder Why" on the radio.
"It hadn't been played anywhere on the radio," Stigers says, "and we went to (a radio station in) Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And they invited me in and put me on the air to talk about myself a little bit and they played my song. And on the way out, they played it again," he says. "We were crossing the, I think it's the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and on the radio, the car radio, came that song and it was just, ah, I'll never forget that moment. I still kinda get goosebumps thinking of it," Stigers says. "... And that was August and by November I had a top 10 single and I was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
"So once it got started, my first single was a top 10 hit, and it just took off from there. The valleys came later," Stigers says, laughing. By March 1992, "I had a hit single all over the world," he says. Stigers stops for a moment, visiting a time and place that now rests mostly in memory. It really wasn't something that happened to him, he says. "It wasn't like I just got discovered or I just went on a Gladiator TV singing show and was 16. I really, I knew, I knew my game, I knew my business and I had worked really hard and I had studied music since I was a little kid," he says. "So it was the overnight success that took 10 years to make."
And there were two more really big things that happened in the summer of '92, Stigers says. "The first one, I would say, was I opened for Eric Clapton and Elton John and Bonnie Raitt at Wembley Stadium in London." And the other really big thing? "Getting back to Boise and selling out two nights at The Morrison Center," he says. "To get that kind of a loving, welcoming response back home was really lovely ... it really meant the world to me."
His career was cemented by his next recording, a Nick Lowe cover, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," for the soundtrack to the 1992 movie "The Bodyguard," which sold over 40 million copies worldwide.
That was then, this is now
From then to now, Stigers has remained a successful musician for more than two decades. He has been back to The Tonight Show a number of times and has also been on David Letterman, The Today Show and other international TV shows. He's recorded with Elton John, Eric Clapton, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, The Allman Brothers Band and Joe Cocker, to name a few. His records — he's sold millions — have racked up awards and accolades including the 2003 U.K. Jazz Album of the Year and the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Jazz Artist of the Year. He was named International Male Jazz Singer of the Year at the Jazz Echo Awards in 2010 and 2013 by the Deutsche Phono-Akademie. In 2009, he was nominated for an Emmy for co-writing and singing the "Sons of Anarchy" theme song, "This Life," and recorded a song with Seth MacFarlane and even made a cameo appearance in the movie "Ted."
These days, Stigers says he spends most of his time touring across the pond. "That's where I make my living — England, Germany and Scandinavia, Holland and Luxembourg," he says. "Northern Europe has been my bread and butter. It's a lot easier to tour there ... and my fan base is bigger per capita. In England, my first album was triple platinum, same with Germany; in America, it was barely gold." And while he may not have hit singles on today's charts, he still has a high profile over there. "They know who I am and they're willing to come and hear me play," Stigers says. "And sometimes buy my records."
If he's playing in Boise, most likely it is a fundraiser, Stigers says, from a political cause, to the Interfaith Sanctuary Homeless Shelter, to his alma mater, Capital High. He played there on Feb. 19 on a double bill with the Capital High School Music Department. The jazz band and Stigers alternated sets. Parents were thrilled that their kids got to share a stage with Stigers, but the real draw of the night was Stigers himself.
"The first time I (did a concert there) I was terrified," Stigers says. "I still had all those butterflies in my stomach about being in that school — with all these kids! But those kids are so inspiring. They loved it. ... I don't know of any musicians that are that excited to play with me." And the fan club works both ways, Stigers says. "I like the idea of somehow being a little inspiring back to them." The bonus is that over the years, Stigers' high school concert has raised "tens of thousands of dollars for the music department, which allows them to buy equipment they really need."
His daughter, Ruby, just turned 19 and attends "a fancy liberal arts college" outside of New York City. On advice from his friend, writer Tony Doerr, he told his daughter "to learn as much as you can about as many things as you can." She's always been a dancer, like her mom (Amy O'Brien), "and she's a great student," Stigers says. She recently told her dad she was maybe interested in economics. "I said, who are you and what have you done with my daughter," he says, laughing. Stigers and Petersen bought a house together last summer, but as of yet, have not set a wedding date. "It's nice to have someplace to go."
In his spare time, he spends a lot of time on his bicycle. "I've been a mountain biker since I was a teenager. I like to think that I was one of the pioneers of mountain biking in Boise," Stigers says, "I was on the first Idaho touring mountain bike team.' He also road cycles and skis, both downhill and cross-country. "But I must say as I get older, that cross-country seems to work better for me. It works like cycling does and keeps me from turning into a fat beer belly," Stigers says. He says he practically lives at the Record Exchange when he's in Boise and lists watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," "Better Call Saul" and "Brooklyn 99" as guilty pleasures. He and Ruby have a pact and they can't watch Brooklyn 99 "unless we're together," Stigers says.
Somethings you may not know about Stigers: In junior high and high school, he used to be a skateboarder and played Ultimate Frisbee and disc golf. "I once took second in the state disc golf championships — but there were only 10 people," he said, laughing. "It wasn't that hard to be second."
"I grew up loving all kinds of music. I listened to pop and soul and rock, I listened to Stevie Wonder and Elton John and Led Zeppelin, The Clash and Elvis Costello, and more and more and more and more. But I also listened to jazz music," Stigers says. Ray Charles and B.B. King were huge influences. "I wouldn't be who I am as a musician without B.B. King," he says. The bottom line? "I like songs. Even though I'm a jazz musician, I'm always listening to pop songs and country songs and folk songs, singer-songwriter songs, thinking, I wonder if I could turn that into a jazz song? ... I've recorded a Willie Nelson song as a jazz tune, I've recorded a Merle Haggard song, a Steve Earle song.
"I'm always listening for songs; that's first. ... I don't fit into a box; my box is more of a deep, wide trough."