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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Featured Interview – Charlie Musselwhite

Eleventh time’s the charm!

Charlie Musselwhite has finally taken home a Grammy after a career that spans the early ‘60s. But Charlie is nothing if not a mild-mannered, courteous, friendly and patient man.

“It was 11 nominations,” Musselwhite says with a chuckle, still enjoying the afterglow of winning Blues Album Of The Year honors with Ben Harper for their powerhouse release, “Get Up!”, on the revitalized Stax label. It was the successful pairing of old friends, the seasoned harmonica master and his cohort from the younger generation who’d already won two statuettes in other genres: Best Pop Instrumental Performance and Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.

Although Charlie made an early name for himself in Chicago and has been living in the San Francisco Bay area for decades, his roots are still firmly planted in the Mississippi mud.

Born in Kosciusko, Miss., on Jan. 31, 1944, Musselwhite moved to Memphis when he was three, spending summers back in the Magnolia State with his grandparents and other relatives throughout his youth. Many members of his family still call the Hill Country home. Although not professional musicians, his father played guitar and harmonica and built his own mandolin, and his mother played piano.

“I run across some of the really old harmonica instructions that used to come with the harps he bought,” Charlie says today.

By the time he was a teenager, Musselwhite was already deeply involved in the blues. Memphis proved to be the ultimate melting pot of society, where country, Western swing, jazz, Delta blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll collided and musicians of all color shared lives and tunes.

While Elvis Presley, nine years Charlie’s senior, was across town rerecording hits by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Big Mama Thornton, young Musselwhite was a ditch digger, laying concrete floors in cotton warehouses and doing factory work for a paper manufacturer to make ends meet.

“In the South, when you’re diggin’ dirt, it’s wet and all heavy, and you have to put it in a wheelbarrow and run it up a ramp,” he says. “And the heat and the humidity…and you were only makin’ a dollar an hour. It’s gives you an attitude. Factory work sounded pretty good after that.”

On the side, he also delivered moonshine in a 1950 Lincoln auto and immersed himself into a group of musicians most of us have only read about in history books – a virtual who’s who of folks who worked jug bands and minstrel shows – the black equivalent of the vaudeville circuit, learning more about the harmonica and life with each passing day.

“Playing in Memphis was for my own gratification…there was something in me that needed to be satisfied,” he says. “Those folks were tuned in and sensitive to things that mattered…about how you treat people and the quality of life on the ethereal level.”

Musselwhite spent time in the home of Will Shade, harp player and band leader of the legendary Memphis Jug Band. “I also spend time with Furry Lewis, Memphis Willie B., who played guitar and harp on a rack – Willie Borum was his name, Earl Bell and Abe McNeil, who were guitar players, Ray Robey, who was a fiddle player and guitar player. He was with the Memphis Jug Band, too,” Charlie recalls.

“Gus Cannon (founder of Shade’s chief competition, the Cannon Jug Stompers)…I used to go over to his place, drinkin’ with him. Everybody was drinkin’ then! It’s a bad old Southern tradition. I didn’t know it when I started, but it all had to end eventually.”

The lessons Musselwhite received in the company of those old-timers set him apart stylistically when he moved to Chicago in 1962. Like many of his compatriots, he followed Highway 51 north in search of a job that would pay the princely sum of $3 an hour.

“I’d seen various friends of mine leave and come back to visit,” he recalls. “They’d be drivin’ a brand new car – a red Oldsmobile or somethin’ – talkin’ about how great the jobs were. The pay would be good, the benefits. After a while, it seemed like I had to take that highway up North to take one of those big Yankee jobs. It was really a different world. There was so much work in Chicago, you could walk into a factory and go to work right then.

“People like Muddy and Wolf, they had 45s, and were regular musicians touring all the time. But a lot of the guys didn’t have it that good. They’d get a gig in a club and they’d work there in residency or somethin’. Then there’d be a shooting or somethin’ and they’d close it down. You’d just go to the factory and work until you could land another gig. You could bounce back and forth like that real easy.

“In the summertime, I’d drive around with my windows down. I’d find a band playin’ the blues. Sometimes some trio would come up from Arkansas to visit some relative, pick up a little gig, and then they’d be gone. You’d never see ‘em again.”

The first job Musselwhite landed was as a driver for an exterminator. “It was perfect for me,” he says, “because I learned how to get around the city right away. That’s when I saw posters and signs and things advertising Muddy Waters. I even remember seeing Elmore James’ name up on a place. I wanted to go see him, but he died before I got there.”

Soon, he discovered dozens of blues joints by sight and found others simply by following his ears.

“There was a club at 39th and Indiana called Rose And Kelly’s that was like a harmonica player’s hangout,” he recalls. “Carey Bell would be there. Good Rockin’ Charles. Shakey Horton. It was across the street from Turner’s Lounge. I’d go back and forth between the two clubs to see what was goin’ on. J.B. Hutto played Turner’s all the time.”

At the time, Chicago was dominated by dazzling group of reed-benders who, like Charlie, had migrated from the South. But Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Mojo Buford, Little Willie Anderson and Junior Wells, among others, had adapted their play to a more urban, electrified sound, allowing Musselwhite’s hip, but more rural offerings to stand out from the crowd.

He took up residence in the basement of the Jazz Record Mart on the corner of State and Grand on Chicago’s North Side. Still in existence today at a different location, it was owned and operated then, as it is now, by Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records. And first generation blues superstar Big Joe Williams was his roommate and, soon, his playing partner.

“I got into a fight with Bob Koester and moved over to the old Wells Record Shop in Old Town. Then Big Joe moved over there with me, too,” Charlie says. “When we were stayin’ there, down the street was a little neighborhood bar called Big John’s that didn’t have music. There was some holiday that came up, the Fourth of July or somethin’, and they thought Big Joe was a folk singer. They didn’t know what they were gettin’ into. They asked him to come down and play, and Joe asked me to come play with him.

“That’s when everything really changed for me,” he says. “We did so well, they said ‘Come back tomorrow.’ They were sellin’ so many drinks, they really liked us. We started packing the place on a regular basis.”

After a while, he moved to an apartment on the South Side near the El tracks at 62st and Dorchester, right around the corner from Junior Wells. It was one of the most dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhoods in the city. Blackstone Street, home to the infamous Blackstone Rangers, dead-ended right at his front door.

“Boy, did it get interesting for me,” he chuckles.

But it also put him in neighborhoods where blues was king, and Musselwhite was a star ascentent.

At the time, Big Joe told an interviewer: “Charlie Musselwhite is one of the greatest living harp players. He’s right up there with Sonny Boy Williamson.” And Big Joe knew first-hand. He and the original Sonny Boy had been playing partners for years until Williamson murder in a robbery in 1948.

The pairing proved to be a blessing for the Chicago blues community in general. It happened by accident, but Charlie and Big Joe were responsible for opening the city’s wealthier North Side to the music and better paying gigs.

Williams couldn’t stay put in one town for very long, Musselwhite recalls. He’d split from time to time, leaving Charlie behind to hold down the Big John’s set, aided by a drummer, bass player and Mike Bloomfield, another future star who’d dropped by one night, sat in on piano and never left.

“It just kept gettin’ better and better,” remembers Charlie who also toured with Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young and Hutto. “We started talkin’ to Big John’s owners about hirin’ other blues bands on the nights we weren’t workin’, and they did. Eventually, they had live blues there every night of the week.”

Previously limited to the rough-and-tumble South and West Sides, where most people of color called home, soon other clubs were emulating Big John’s and the music taking the foothold north of Madison Avenue and eventually giving birth to that clubs like the Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and Rosa’s that rule the scene today.

At the time, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was making major waves in the business. “I didn’t know him at first,” Charlie says. “He was playing sorority parties and things on the South Side and hanging out in some of the clubs. But quite a few times, people would come up to me and say ‘You’re Paul.’ I’d say ‘No, I’m not,’ and they’d say ‘Well, you play harmonica – you’re Paul!’”

Eventually, the two met and became friends.

After Butterfield struck gold on the Elektra label, Vanguard Records signed Musselwhite to a deal. The band proved to be an instant national success with a lineup that included young lions Harvey Mandel and Barry Goldberg on guitar and keyboards along with a pair of veterans for the rhythm second. Bass player Bob Anderson was one of the most popular sidemen in the city, and drummer Fred Below literally invented the Chicago drum sound through his work with the Chess brothers in the ‘50s. Their album, “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” debuted in 1966 to rave reviews, and became a regular part of the rotation on underground radio stations in the San Francisco Bay.

It was during that period that Charlie caught the eye of a young Dan Aykroyd when playing a club near Kingston, Ontario, dressed like he always did at that time with his hair slicked back, donning a black suit, pointy-toed shoes and sunglasses. Years later, Aykroyd styled his character after Musselwhite for his performance in “The Blues Brothers.” It’s well documented that John Belushi, meanwhile, fashioned his half of the duo after Curtis Salgado whom he befriended in Eugene, Ore., when filming “Animal House.”

“That album put me on the road and gave me a career,” Musselwhite says. The band was so well received on the West Coast that he decided to pull up roots and relocate in 1967. “Blues was exotic back then…hippies didn’t know what blues was,” he remembers. “To their credit, though, they were real open to everything. So they were playin’ me on the radio and comin’ to my gigs. I remember walkin’ down Haight Street, and these hippies would know me by name.

“Here I am, comin’ out from Chicago and playin’ at the Fillmore, and there’s all this music around and all these clubs that nobody seems to know about. There was a real disconnection between them and their surroundings.”

Lowell Fulson, Little Joe Blue and several other artists already were established in the area, playing in small venues, playing to people of color. Only after Musselwhite came West, however, did they start attracting a younger, more affluent crowd of all skin tones.

Another thing that helped was the arrival of Detroit transplant John Lee Hooker. The first time Musselwhite met the boogie king at one of his gigs, they became fast friends even though Hooker was just passing through Chicago. Once Charlie relocated, it didn’t take John Lee long to see the virtues offered by California a few years later. The two men became neighbors of sorts, with the harp player in Berkeley and the guitarist in Oakland, and remained close. John Lee served as best man when Musselwhite married wife Henrietta in 1981.

Despite recording steadily through the ‘70s and early ‘80s for labels that included Cherry Red, Arhoolie, MCA, Capitol, Crystal Clear, Blue Rock’It, CrossCut and Kicking Mule and touring regularly, Charlie didn’t truly ascend into international prominence until kicking a lifelong drinking problem and signing with Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator Records in the early ‘90s. That partnership produced the hit disc “Ace Of Harps,” followed by three more solid offerings, including the introspective “The Wall” in 2010. Always in demand, Charlie’s also several recorded several more albums on Virgin, Telarc, Real World, Narada, New West and his own Henrietta label.

He’s never been shy about incorporating other forms of music into his own.

“When I was growin’ up, I would go around to any kind of junk stores, lookin’ for old blues 78s,” Charlie says. “But anything that looked interesting, I’d buy that, too. They were only a nickel or a dime apiece. So I had stacks and stacks of these 78s. Out of curiosity, I’d pick up stuff that just had weird titles or somethin’, and I discovered other kinds of music that had a feeling to it that reminded me of blues, like rebetiko from Greece, flamenco and more.

“It occurred to me that probably every culture has its music of lament, lost love, hard times. Everywhere you go, somebody’s singin’ about ‘my baby left me!’

“In touring, I’d search for the local music, go listen to some guy playin’ on the corner, then get somebody to translate what he’s singin’ about. Even though I couldn’t talk their language, we could play together effortlessly because we were playin’ from the heart instead of the head.

“Fortunately, I learned from those old country blues players in Memphis who didn’t really keep track of how many bars there were before they made a chord change, so it taught me to anticipate…oh-oh, gonna make a turn here.”

That’s pretty much how folks who don’t speak English understand the blues so well, Musselwhite says. “A lot of people hear blues…they don’t know what the words mean. But they can feel it.”

He jokes that he’s only played one song in his entire life, that he changes the key or speed to make it sound different. In truth, though, what he’s really saying is that he’s developed his own unique style.

Charlie’s no stranger to getting into the studio with folks from other musicalities, too. He’s featured Cuban Cuarteto Patria on the “Continental Drifter” CD and has recorded with INXS, Tom Waits and many others. He raves about the talent of Cyndi Lauper, with whom he recorded her “Memphis Blues” album, which remained No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 14 consecutive weeks when released in 2010. They also toured together.

But he does admit that he’d only heard her music previously when his daughter was playing it in her bedroom. It was only after he and Cyndi started rehearsing that he realized she was the person responsible for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”

“She started out wanting to sing blues,” he says. “Once she got popular singin’ rock, she wanted to go back to it. But her manager would tell her ‘Naw, you’re gonna lose your audience.’ She stuck with it for a long time, but finally decided to do what she wanted to do at age 57 or 58, and that was the blues.”

What’s next for Musselwhite? He’s reluctant to say, fearing he’ll jinx his plans. But he does have plenty of irons in the fire, including another solo album, possibly to be recorded in Memphis. And there’ll definitely be another disc with Ben Harper down the road.

The pair met when Ben opened for Hooker in the mid-90s, and they knew immediately that they were plugged in musically. “We knew we liked the same things,” Charlie says. “But the studio really confirmed our suspicions. It’s been quite a trip!”

But the trip ain’t over yet!

Visit Charlie’s website at: www.charliemusselwhite.com
Photo by Daryl Weisser / Bob Kieser.

SEE MORE AT BLUES BLAST MAGAZINE