By Todd Beebe
In the world of blues harmonica players one name rightfully finds its way to the top of any list:
Charles Douglas Musselwhite was born on January 31, 1944 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Musselwhite came from a musical family. His mother played piano and his father played guitar. When Charlie was very young his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis, at that time, was a breeding ground for music and for someone like Charlie who had a ear for music and was curious to learn, Memphis was the place to be. Rockabilly and early Rock and Roll were being born in Sun Studios and the blues rang loud and proud on Beale Street.
Charlie worked several blue collar jobs, including digging ditches and laying concrete. Many before him had moved north in search of a better job and Charlie soon followed. Upon his arrival in Chicago he submerged himself in the blues. On any given night Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy Guy and Sonny Boy Williamson were all just waiting to be seen and heard. Charlie quickly made a name for himself on the South Side and also became close friends with other budding blues musicians that were of similar age and background. Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites and Harvey Mandel all played the same scene as Charlie. He soon became friends with Delmark Records/Jazz Record Mart owner Bob Koester and even lived in the basement of the Record Mart for a short time.
Charlie is a blues icon in every sense of the word.
In 1966 the classic Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s Southside Band was released on the Vanguard label with Barry Goldberg on organ/piano, Mandel on guitar and Fred Below on drums. The album was an instant classic. One of Charlie’s best known songs “Christo Redemptor” is on the LP and it features everything we’ve come to know and love about Charlie Musselwhite. It is constantly referenced as a definite point where blues and rock crossover began. The album sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did when it was released in 1966. More classic albums were released on the Vanguard label including Tennessee Woman and Stone Blues.
Charlie played it smart through the years and brought his blues wherever they were welcome. Many artists sought him out for his authentic South Side harmonica sound, learned first hand from the masters themselves. It was this open mindedness that carried his career through not so popular times for the blues, such as the late 70’s and early 80’s.
In 1990 Musselwhite joined the Alligator label and released Ace Of Harps and then In My Time. Through the years Charlie has reconnected with his South side friends Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenites. I have been lucky enough to witness several shows over the years with some of these players and they’re always top notch performances. Charlie constantly pushes himself to stay fresh, playing different musical styles and genres. Check out Tom Waits excellent 1999 album “Mule Variations” which features Charlie’s playing. Great, great stuff!
In 2010 Charlie was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. For a short time he played with the band Hot Tuna for a 2011 reunion.
In 2013 the fantastic “Get Up!” album with Ben Harper was released. The album went on to win a Grammy award for Best Blues Album.
His latest CD I Ain’t Lyin’ was just released in May of 2015. The album shows Charlie in top form and sounding better than ever. Tunes like “Good Blues Tonight,” “Long Lean Lanky Mama,” and “300 Miles To Go” are some of Charlie’s finest work.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Charlie several times over the years and he’s a gentleman in every sense of the word and a class act all around. He never stops seeking ways to fit his playing into any genre of music, and therefore his music will always sound fresh and timeless. I’d like to close with this great quote from Charlie explaining what the blues mean to him: “I often tell people that the blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in bad times. It empowers you to keep going.” Thanks for the music Charlie!
Catch Charlie Musselwhite’s performance at Buddy Guy’s Legends August 22nd at 10:30pm or online at ww.buddyguy.tv
Catch Todd playing at Buddy Guy’s Legends October 9th 2015 at 5:30pm or watch him live from home at www.buddyguy.tv