Charlie Musselwhite - Biography

BY J Poet


Charlie Musselwhite is one of the best white blues musicians to come of age during the 60s folk and blues revivals. He learned how to blow blues harmonica at 13 and accompanied greats like Memphis Jug Band vets Willie Borum, Will Shade, and Furry Lewis. When he moved to Chicago in the early 60s, he played alongside James Cotton and Little Walter Jacobs at late night jam sessions and was a regular at folk clubs too. After cutting one of the most important white blues albums of the 60s, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band (1967 Vanguard). He moved to San Francisco and toured regularly, although a drinking problem kept him for realizing his full potential. In 1987 he cleaned up and began exploring new ways of expressing himself with both harmonica and guitar.


Musselwhite was one of the first white players to join the ranks of he blues revival of the 60s. He was born in Mississippi, but raised in Memphis, where he listened to blues, Gospel and what was then called hillbilly music. His dad, Charlie Musselwhite II, was a mandolin and guitar maker and amateur street musician. He started playing harp at 13 and hung out with Memphis Jug Band vets Willie Borum, Will Shade, and Furry Lewis. They taught him slide guitar and invited him to sit in at roadhouse gigs. He also worked as a driver, delivering moonshine in his 1950 Lincoln. At 18, moved to Chicago and hung out at Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart where he met other blues fans. He played with Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, and John Lee Hooker and was good enough to sit in with the Muddy Waters Band and trade licks with James Cotton. He also met Little Walter Jacobs who gave him lessons and instructed him in the ways of the blues life.


At Chicago’s folk club the Fickle Pickle he met guitarist Michael Bloomfield. The duo got regular gigs backing up Blind John Davis, Sleepy John Estes and blue mandolin great Yank Rachell. Musselwhite and Bloomfield soon landed a yearlong gig as part of the house band at Big John’s, a North Side blues bar. Between gigs, Musselwhite was barely surviving. He lived in the basements of the Jazz Record Mart and Old Joe Wells’s Record Store with Big Joe Williams, the nine-string guitar player and crashed with Otis Rush, J. B. Hutto, Johnny Shines, John Brim, and Big Walter Horton, who often invited Musselwhite to join him in harmonica face offs.


In 1965 Musselwhite played on the Vanguard Records release Chicago Blues Today! (1965 Vanguard). The label signed him and he cut Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's South Side Band (1966 Vanguard) with a band that included guitarist Harvey Mandel. He followed it up with Stone Blues (1968 Vanguard) and Tennessee Woman (1969 Vanguard) before moving out to San Francisco.


In the bay Area he put together a band with guitar player Robben Ford and cut two excellent albums Takin' My Time (1974 Arhoolie) and Goin' Back Down South (1975 Arhoolie.) which featured Musselwhite’s first recordings on slide guitar. Musselwhite toured and recorded sporadically for the next decade, struggling with a major drinking problem. He cut Leave the Blues to Us (1975 Capitol) a good, but not great session, Times Gettin' Tougher Than Tough (1978 Crystal Clear) a live in the studio session with big R&B horn section, Harmonica According to Charlie (1979 Kicking Mule, 2008 Blind Pig), Tell Me Where Have All the Good Times Gone? (1984 Blue Rock'it) an outstanding effort with drummer Pat Ford and piano man Clay Cotton, and Mellow-Dee (1986 Crosscut Germany) which included four acoustic country blues tunes.


In 1990, clean and sober, he signed with Alligator Records and started getting some of the recognition he deserved. Ace of Harps (1990 Alligator), is solid, Signature (1991 Alligator) even better with two jazzy instrumental cuts “Catwalk” and “What’s New?” that show off Musselwhite’s stunning chops and the eclectic masterpiece In My Time (1993 Alligator) which includes gospel tunes with the Blind Boys of Alabama, a couple of delta blues with Musselwhite playing acoustic guitar, a jazzy instrumental or two and some hard core Chicago style rockers. In 1997 he was on a major label again with Rough News (1997 Point Blank) and Continental Drifter (1999 Point Blank) with Cuba’s Quarteto Patria adding their Latin and Tex-Mex flavored licks to the arrangements.


More recent outings from Musselwhite include Up & Down the Highway Live: 1986 (2000 Indigo UK), acoustic selections from his 1986 tour of Europe; One Night In America (2002 Telarc) a diverse set that combines simmering swamp rock, blues, country, and Memphis R&B and shows Musselwhite’s vocals achieving the timeless, weary presence of his idols, Sanctuary (2004 Real World) another classic with a dark brooding feel, and Delta Hardware (2006 Real World) one of his most powerful outings since Stand Back!, with his road band laying down a gritty, nasty groove and Musselwhite singing and blowing his heart out. In 2010 Musselwhite issue The Well, followed by Juke Joint Chapel in 2012. In 2013 he teamed up with Ben Harper to make Get Up!


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