An Interview with the legendary Charlie Musselwhite: Blues just made sense to me. When I heard blues it was like I recognized it.

Charlie Musselwhite

Music from the Heart with Feeling

Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite’s life reads like a classic blues song: born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis and schooled on the South Side of Chicago. A groundbreaking recording artist since the 1960s, Musselwhite continues to create trailblazing music while remaining firmly rooted in the blues. His worldly-wise vocals, rich, melodic harmonica playing and deep country blues guitar work flawlessly accompany his often autobiographical and always memorable original songs.


Born into a blue collar family in Kosciusko, Mississippi on January 31, 1944 and raised by a single mother, Musselwhite grew up surrounded by blues, hillbilly and gospel music on the radio and outside his front door. His family moved to Memphis, where, as a teenager, he worked as a ditch digger, concrete layer and moonshine runner. Fascinated by the blues, Musselwhite began playing guitar and harmonica. Following the path of so many, Musselwhite moved to Chicago looking for better paying work. While driving an exterminator truck as a day job, Charlie lived on the South Side and hung out in blues clubs at night, developing close friendships with blues icons Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Before long, he was sitting in at clubs with Muddy and others, building an impressive word-of-mouth reputation.
His first recording, under the name Memphis Charlie, was with Big Walter Horton on the famous Vanguard Records series, Chicago/The Blues/Today!. After the release of his first full-length LP — Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band — he was embraced by the growing youth counter-culture and the newly emerging progressive rock FM radio stations, especially on the West Coast. His iconic status established, he relocated to San Francisco, often playing the famed Fillmore Auditorium. Over the years, he has released albums on a variety of labels, ranging from straight blues to music mixing elements of jazz, gospel, Tex-Mex, Cuban and other world music, winning new fans at every turn. He has been touring nationally and internationally for four decades and is among the best-known and best-loved blues musicians in the world.
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall Of Fame in 2010, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards and has won 24 Blues Music Awards. Charlie Musselwhite today is as vital and creative as at any point in his long career.


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, who wereyour first idols & what does Blues offered?
IF YOU MEAN INVOLVED AS FAR AS BEING IN THE BUSINESS OF PLAYING BLUES THAT HAPPENED IN CHICAGO WHEN I REALIZED THAT A GUY LIKE ME COULD ACTUALLY MAKE MONEY PLAYING. THAT GOT ME FOCUSED.
IT’S HARD TO SAY WHO MY FIRST IDOLS WERE BECAUSE I WAS JUST CRAZY ABOUT BLUES AND I REVERED ALL THE GUYS THAT PLAYED IT. EACH ONE HAD SOMETHING TO OFFER THAT WAS UNIQUE TO HIM AND SO EACH ONE WAS SPECIAL.  


What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the bluesmean to you? Give one wish for the BLUES
I DON’T KNOW WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF FROM BLUES. BLUES JUST MADE SENSE TO ME. WHEN I HEARD BLUES IT WAS LIKE I RECOGNIZED IT. IT SOUNDED RIGHT. IT SOUNDED LIKE HOW I FELT.  MY WISH FOR THE BLUES IS THAT MORE PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD IT AND LOVED IT THE SAME WAY I DO….EVERYWHERE.


Is there any similarity between the blues today and the old days? What is the “think” you miss from the “OLD BLUES”?
THE BLUES TODAY SEEMS TO RESEMBLE ROCK & ROLL MORE THAN REAL BLUES. THE OLD BLUES HAD SUBTLETIES. TODAY THEY JUST WANT TO BEAT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH VOLUME AND TECHNIQUE. AS IF BEING ABLE TO PLAY FAST HAD MEANING. IT HAS NO MEANING IF YOU’RE NOT SAYING SOMETHING AND TODAY IT SEEMS LIKE MOST PEOPLE DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THE FEELING OF BLUES SO THEY HAVE NOTHING TO SAY AND THERE SURE AIN’T NO FEELING LIKE IT USED TO BE.



Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER ALL THE BEST MOMENTS. BUT SOME THAT STAND OUT WAS THE FIRST TIME MUDDY CALLED ME UP TO SIT IN WITH HIM AT PEPPER’S LOUNGE. ANOTHER WAS MEETING JOHN LEE HOOKER IN CHICAGO AND BECOMING INSTANT FRIENDS FOR LIFE. HANGING OUT WITH LITTLE WALTER. HANGING OUT AND WALKING THE STREETS WITH SHAKEY WALTER. SPENDING DAYS IN THE HOMES OF FURRY LEWIS AND WILL SHADE. PLAYING ON MAXWELL STREET. THAT’S A FEW MEMORIES. I COULD PROBABLY FILL THIS PAGE MANY TIMES OVER WITH SPECIAL MOMENTS LIKE THESE.  THE WORST TIMES WERE THINGS LIKE FUNERALS AND BURIALS. BEING AT OTIS SPANN’S BURIAL. BEING A PALLBEARER FOR WILLIAM CLARKE. THOSE ARE NOT NECESSARILY BAD THINGS. JUST SAD BUT HONORALBE TOO.  ONE THING YOU COULD SAY WAS IN THE CATEGORY OF WORST WOULD BE HAVING THE CHANCE TO MEET AND HEAR ELMORE JAMES BUT PUTTING IT OFF UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE AND HE WAS GONE.


Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I LIKE THE DEEP PLAYERS LIKE OTIS SPANN, SKIP JAMES, CHARLIE PATTON. BUT,  JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY HAD SOMETHING TO OFFER THAT MOVED ME.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
IF I COULD GO BACK IN TIME I’D LOVE TO REVISIT MEMPHIS AND CHICAGO WHEN I KNEW ALL THOSE MEN THAT PLAYED BLUES. BACK THEN I DIDN’T HAVE THE FAINTEST IDEA THAT I WAS HEADING FOR A CAREER IN MUSIC. HAD I KNOWN WHERE I WAS GOING TO BE TODAY I SURE WOULD’VE PAID MORE ATTENTION BACK THEN. THERE’S SO MANY QUESTIONS I WOULD LIKE TO ASK. A TEENAGER DOESN’T HAVE THE SAME VIEW OF THE WORLD THAT AN ADULT HAS. I WISH I HAD THE CHANCE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN KNOWING WHAT I KNOW NOW.



What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
I DON’T THINK IT’S EXPERIENCES SO MUCH AS HAVING THE COMPASSION AND FEELING FOR BLUES. OF COURSE,  HAVING EXPERIENCED HARD TIMES CAN REALLY PUT SOME FEELING IN YOU RIGHT DOWN TO YOUR BONES.


What's been their experience from “studies” with OLD BLUES CATS?
I THINK THAT YOU LEARN THE SUBTLETIES FROM THE OLD GUYS AND THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT. THE SUBTLETIES SOMETIMES FEEL LIKE THE HOLD THE KEY.


Do you know why the sound of the harp is connected to the blues & what characterize the sound of harp?
THE HARP IS VERY VOICE LIKE.  AND BENDING THE NOTES ARE VERY HUMAN SOUNDING. TO ME IT FEELS LIKE SINGING WITHOUT WORDS.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
THAT’S VERY HARD TO SAY. I THINK I LEARNED SOMETHING FROM JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY I EVER ENCOUNTERED THAT PLAYED THE BLUES. BUT I WOULD SAY THAT PROBABLY THE MOST INFLUENTIAL WERE WILL SHADE, FURRY LEWIS, BIG JOE WILLIAMS AND WALTER HORTON. I KNOW I’M PROBABLY FORGETTING SOME PEOPLE.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
THAT’S WHAT I ALWAYS SAY: BLUES IS NOT A FAD. BLUES IS MUCH MORE THAN MUSIC. IT’S AN ATTITUDE AND A PHILOSOPHY THAT’LL HELP YOU THROUGH EVERYTHING IN LIFE. ITS ALWAYS THERE FOR YOU. IT’S YOUR BUDDY IN GOOD TIMES AND YOUR COMFORTOR IN ROUGH TIMES. BLUES IS ALL ABOUT LIFE AND IT’LL WALK WITH YOU THROUGH IT ALL.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
USED TO BE YOU COULD PLAY EVERY NIGHT OF THE WEEK. I REMEMBER PLAYING FROM 9PM TO 4AM OR 5AM DEPENDING. THEN DOING BLUE MONDAY BREAKFAST SHOWS FROM 8AM TO NOON.
I USED TO TOUR ACROSS THE US AND BE ABLE TO WORK AT LEAST 5 NIGHTS AWEEK AND OFTEN 7 NIGHTS A WEEK.
THAT’S ALL OVERWITH NOW.  INSTEAD OF DRIVING AROUND THE COUNTRY LIKE I USED TO I NOW MORE OFTEN FLY OUT TO DO A SHOW – MAYBE A FEW IN ONE AREA – AND THEN FLY BACK HOME. OF COURSE THE PRESENT ECONONMY CERTAINLY HAS HAD AN EFFECT.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
IT’S THE SAME WITH ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING: FOLLOW YOUR HEART AND DON’T EXPECT TO PLEASE ANYBODY BUT YOUR SELF. THEY SAY IF YOU DO WHAT YOU LOVE THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW. IT WORKED FOR ME. I’M NOT RICH BY ANY MEANS BUT I HAVE A GOOD LIFE ALL CONSIDERED.


What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
THIS IS ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE QUESTIONS WHERE I PROBABLY DON’T EVEN REMEMBER ALL THE TIMES. MAYBE UNDER HYPNOSIS THEY’D ALL COME OUT. WHO KNOWS. BUT MANY TIMES THERE WERE GREAT JAMS AT PEPPER’S LOUNGE WITH MUDDY’S BAND AND LOTS OF GUYS SITTING IN. ONE VERY MEMORABLE TIME WAS BEING AT AN EARL HOOKER GIG. HE WAS JUST A MONSTER. AS THE NIGHT WENT ALONG HE SEEMED TO HAVE FOUND HIS GROOVE AND JUST KEPT PLAYING ONE OUTRAGEIOUS SOLO AFTER ANOTHER. I REMEMBERBUDDY GUY WAS THERE THAT NIGHT. AND EVENTUALLY BUDDY WAS STANDING IN FRONT OF EARL JUST SCREAMING AT HIM – IT FELT LIKE THE WHOLE CROWD WAS JUST LIFTING OFF THE PLANET AND EVERYBODY WAS SHANKING THEIR HEADS AND YELLING AND EARL HAD US ALL IN THE PALM OF HIS HAND AND TOOK US ON AN UNFORGETTABLE TRIP WITH HIS PLAYING THE BLUES. HE WAS LIKE A PREACHER OR SOMETHING AND THE ENTIRE PLACESEEMED TO HAVE BEEN TAKEN OVER BY THE SPIRIT OF THE BLUES. WE ALL TOGETHER.   ANOTHER SPECIAL MEMORY WAS PLAYING WITH ROBERT NIGHTHAWK ON MAXWELL STREET. WE’D START AROUND 9AM AFTER A VISIT TO THE BOOTLEGGER AND PLAY UNTIL ABOUT 2 OR 3 IN THE AFTERNOON. WHAT A SCENE THAT WAS. IT’S SUCH A SHAME THAT THEY HAD TO TEAR DOWN MAXWELL ST. SO MUCH HISTORY HAPPENED THERE. I MISS BIG JOHN WRENCHER TOO. WE’D TAKE TURNS PLAYING WITH NIGHTHAWK AND PASSING THE CIGAR BOX AROUND FOR TIPS.


Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?
WELL, I WISH I COULD SOMEHOW DOWNLOAD MY MEMORIES AND TAKE YOU WITH ME ON A WALK DOWN BEALE STREET BACK WHEN BEALE STREET WAS STILL BEALE STREET AND  INTRODUCE YOU TO ALL THE CHARACTERS AND BLUES PLAYERS I KNEW. WE COULD BUY A NEW HARP AT SCHWAB’S, GET A BOTTLE OF GOLEN HARVEST SHERRY WINE AND GO OVER TO WILL SHADE’S APARTMENT. THERE WE’D WITNESS A STEADY STREAM OF MUSICIANS STOPPING BY FOR A DRINK, TO JAM SOME AND TALK THE SITUATION OVER. THOSE ARE SOME OF THE DAYS I MISS AND WISH I COULDRELIVE



Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?
THERE IS NO ONE BEST FRIEND. ALL THE PEOPLE I NAMES WERE GOOD AND CLOSE FRIENDS. WLL, FURRY, SHAKEY, BIG JOE, JOHN WRENCHER, JOHN LEE GRANDERSON. THAT’S SOME OF THEM


Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
THAT’S ANOTHER HARD TO ANSWER QUESTION. I FEEL REAL FORTUNATE TO HAVE BEEN SO CLOSE TO BIG JOE. WE ROOMED TOGETHER AND HE’D TAKE ME ALL OVER CHICAGO WITH HIM AND INTRODUCED ME TO LOTS OF PEOPLE. NOT JUST MUSICIANS EITHER. RELATIVES OR FRIENDS HE KNEW FROM DOWN SOUTH. WE’D SIT UP LATE NIGHTS AND HE’D TELL ME ALL KINDS OF STORIES ABOUT HIS LIFE. AND I WAS AWARE THAT HE’D KNOWN CHARLIE PATTON AND ROBERT JOHNSON AND JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY. WHEN WE’D GO IN PEPPERS LOUNGE MUDDY WOULD MAKE A BIG FUSS OVER JOE BECAUSE JOE WAS LIKE BLUES HERO TO MUDDY. MUDDY WOULD TELL THE CROWD ABOUT “THE MAN THAT WROTE BABY PLEASE DON’T GO” AND HE GET JOE AND I A BOOTH AND A SET UP AND A BOTTLE. MUDDY CALLED ME “GOOD TIME CHARLIE” BECAUSE THAT TUNE WAS POPULAR AT THE TIME. MUDDY WAS ALWAYS FUN TO BE AROUND.



How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
TOO MANY PEOPLE CATEGORIZE THEMSELVES AS BLUES PLAYERS TODAY THAT NEVER WOULD’VE HAPPENED BACK IN THE DAY. WHAT THEY’RE PLAYING IS REALLY MORE LIKE ROCK THAN BLUES. PEOPLE HAVE FORGOTTON ABOUT THE FEELING AND THE SUBTELTIES AND JUST WANT TO BE LOUD AND FAST AS IF THAT MEANT SOMETHING.  REAL BLUES IS A FEELING NOT A TECHNIQUE.


What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
MUSIC FROM THE HEART WITH FEELING. YOU CAN FIND IT IN MANY CULTURES AROUND THE WORLD, BUT BLUES AND GOSPEL SAY IT BEST FOR ME.  I HOPE I STAY HEALTHY AND CAN STAY AROUND A LONG TIME AND SEE HOW IT TURNS OUT.


Charlie Musselwhite - The Official Website


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