FORT WAYNE – There were those Fort Wayne summer nights, a friend of Rick Curtis recalls, when the late songwriter could be found on his back, playing banjo to the sky.
That was long ago – 30 years or so – when Rick and his brother, Mike, would hit a few select local bars and play their music and drink beer and howl beneath the stars.
But that was back in the mid-’80s, before Rick died from a grand mal seizure in 1995 and Mike slipped away to L.A., where he continued to write songs.
Even though they originated from nearby Goshen, Fort Wayne became a regular haunt for Rick and Mike, who were semiregulars in the joints that offered live music and free drinks from fans. As it turns out, what goes around comes back to town, although the venue has improved. A piece of the Curtis boys returns to Fort Wayne on Wednesday when the legendary group Crosby, Stills & Nash steps onto the Embassy Theatre stage.
In 1982, more than a decade after playing their second gig together at Woodstock and becoming a 1970s monster group, CSN released Daylight Again, an album that included the song Southern Cross. In addition to Stephen Stills being listed as its author, the Curtises are also credited on the label.
Rick and Mike began to hone their writing chops as early as 1965 when, with siblings Tom and Patti, they formed a band called These Vizitors. Although the band split, Rick and Mike Curtis continued to write and record songs as a duo, including a rambling number called Seven League Boots.
They were mythical, magical boots you could put on to cross oceans and mountains to find your true love, Mike Curtis once explained in a video.
Long before she acquired fame as the front vocalist for Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks sang backup as the song was recorded on a demo tape. It would be that recording of Seven League Boots that Stills would hear and revise into Southern Cross.
Local attorney Mark Paul Smith, who was a friend of the Curtises at the time and spoke of Rick playing banjo to the sky, says Southern Cross has the Curtis brothers’ sound.
The term Southern Cross’ never appears in Rick’s song, but what’s unmistakable is the melody, the structure; but most importantly, the hook, or the chorus, Smith says. It is 100 percent, inimitable, Rick Curtis.
In the video of him discussing the beginning of Southern Cross, Mike Curtis talked of how Stills heard Seven League Boots on a cassette tape while traveling in Europe and asked a mutual friend to inquire about it. So since it was kind of a throwaway song for us, we said, Sure,’ We’re not doing anything with it.’ Curtis said.
In the notes within the Crosby, Stills & Nash box set, Stills says, The Curtis Brothers brought a wonderful song called Seven League Boots,’ but it drifted around too much. I rewrote a new set of words and added a different chorus, a story about a long boat trip I took after my divorce. It’s about using the power of the universe to heal your wounds. Once again, I was given somebody’s gem and cut and polished it.
Adds Mike Curtis: (Stills) was all depressed and hanging around L.A. and not being productive. A couple of his buddies came to him and said, You need to get out of town. You need to come sailing with us.’ So they jump on a masted ship of some sort and sailed down into the South Pacific. And when he gets back, he’s got these lyrics that he’s not quite sure what to do with. He puts the two and two together; therefore all the sailing jargon in the song, and pretty much puts the song together.
Southern Cross peaked at No. 18 on the charts in 1982.
Rick Curtis’s daughter, Jennifer Curtis, a musician and artist who lives near Cleveland, still has the gold record displayed above her fireplace mantle.
That song follows me everywhere, and it makes me teary-eyed, Jennifer says. It’s amazing, especially when I hear it on the radio because it makes me feel like (my father) is watching over me. It’s like he’s saying hi’ every time I hear it. I’m very proud of him.