Blues Hall Of Famer Charlie Musselwhite
By Phil Reser
By Phil Reser
Photos by Nathan David Kelly
“People hear the blues,” harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite says, “and even if they don’t understand the words, they understand the feeling, and once they’re exposed to it, they gotta have more of it.”
Musselwhite was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2010. He has received 35 blues music awards and 11 Grammy nominations.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he found his musical calling as a young man in Chicago, living in the basement of Delmark Records with legendary bluesman Big Joe Williams. He met and jammed with musicians including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Little and Big Walter.
Along with Paul Butterfield, he was one of the first white harp players on the Chicago blues scene to thrust their adopted music into national prominence.
In 1967, when he was only 23 and already a fixture in the Chicago blues scene, he made his first album, “Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” widely recognized as a classic.
After moving to San Francisco in the late 1960s, he helped spread the blues to the West Coast, where he was adopted by the expanding hippiescene and counterculture in that city.
He has been prolific, releasing more than 30 albums and contributing to countless others, including guesting on Bonnie Raitt's Grammy award-winning “Longing In Their Hearts,” The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Grammy-winning “Spirit of the Century,” Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations” and playing the driving harmonica on INXS’ “Suicide Blonde.”
“I think playing from the heart and listening to who you’re playing with makes for a better overall sound, being an ensemble player,” Musselwhite says. “It seems like some people are only concerned with themselves and attracting attention, as if it’s some kind of race or competition or something. I think real music and real joy in music comes when people can play together and complement each other—complement the overall sound.”
He considers himself a lifelong learner and is constantly perfecting his craft.
Musselwhite is a country blues harmonica player in the tradition of the great early players like Hammie Nixon, DeFord Bailey, Sonny Boy Williamson I and II. This is not because he emulates their style and riffs, but because he doesn’t rely heavily on the sound system and amplification for his tone and style.
“That’s the music that I identify with the most and feel the most connected to,” he says. “That’s my base. That’s my heart. From there, I look ahead and seek new ways to play traditionally. I think the beauty of blues is how it can be applied to other musical forms and create an interesting new sound. Blues is indestructible.”
Though a highly capable guitarist, Musselwhite’s primary instrument in establishing his blues voice has been the harmonica. His tone is sweet, lyrical and often jazz-like in its range and improvisatory reach. That might explain why one of his signature tunes remains the instrumental “Cristo Redentor,” penned by jazz pianist Duke Pearson but transformed into a moody slow blues epic decades ago by Musselwhite.
“I don’t know of another song like it,” Musselwhite says. “For awhile there, I was thinking, ‘People must be getting bored with this. I'm going to quit playing it.’ Then they would come up to me at the end of the night angry and saying, ‘I waited all night to hear Cristo Redentor and you didn't play it.’ So every night I end with Cristo and it always seems different somehow, every time I play it. I can’t explain it. It has its own life. I just start playing the first few notes of it and it’s like the spirit of that song just shows up and takes me where it wants to go.”
His latest album, “I Ain’t Lyin’,” is a live recording in which he wrote most of the material.
“I’ve always said that blues is your comforter when you’re down and it’s your buddy when you’re up,” Musselwhite says. “It’s there for you however you feel. It just accompanies you in life. You can’t say that about all other music. It’s a part of life, it’s a reflection of life. It can be healing. It can be joyful. It can join you in your grief. Blues music is
an extension of life and can be an extension of you, too, if you’re playing it.”
Charlie Musselwhite & The North Mississippi Allstars
Saturday, Feb. 20
Cascade Theatre, Redding