Interview with legendary bluesman Charlie Musselwhite: The Myth, The Blueman, The Man - a life like a classic blues song

“It’s the same with anything and everything: follow your heart and don’t expect to please anybody but yourself. 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.”

Charlie Musselwhite:

Blues from the Heart with a Feeling

Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite’s life reads like a classic blues song. A groundbreaking recording artist since the 1960s, Musselwhite continues to create trailblazing music while remaining firmly rooted in the blues. Charlie Musselwhite’s journey through the blues was from his birth in Mississippi to Memphis, Chicago and California. Arriving in Chicago in the early sixties, he was just in time for the epochal blues revival. In 1966 at the age of 22 he recorded the landmark Stand Back! to rave reviews. A precipitous relocation to San Francisco in 1967, where his album was being played on underground radio, found him welcomed into the counterculture scene around the Fillmore West as an authentic purveyor of the real deal blues. Charlie Musselwhite is living proof that great music only gets better with age. This man cut his (musical) teeth alongside Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and everyone on the South side of Chicago in the early 1960’s.                                           (Charlie Musselwhite / Photo © by Rory Doyle)

Charlie has been collaborating with the world’s finest Artists for many years, including Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gov’t Mule, and Japan’s Kodo Drummers, George Thorogood, Eliades Ochoa, Cat Stevens and personal friend and best man at his wedding John Lee Hooker. Musselwhite, more than any other harmonica player of his generation, can rightfully lay claim to inheriting the mantle of many of the great harp players that came before him with music as dark as Mississippi mud and as uplifting as the blue skies of California. In an era when the term legendary gets applied to auto-tuned pop stars, this singular blues harp player, singer, songwriter and guitarist has earned and deserves to be honored as a true master of American classic vernacular music.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios       Special Thanks: Henrietta & Charlie Musselwhite

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, who were your first idols and 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.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the old days? What do you miss nowadays from the “OLD DAYS of 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.

What were the reasons that you started the music researches and experiments?

I was born in Mississippi but grew up in Memphis. Johnny and Dorsey Burnette of rockabilly fame lived across the street and James Jones was writing from here to eternity in the trailer court behind me. I loved all kinds of music, but blues sounded like how I felt. I was an only child of a single mom. She worked and I was alone a lot, so blues was like a comforter to me. I never had a dream of being a professional musician, but I loved blues so much I felt like I just had to play for myself if nobody else.

"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. It’s always there for you. It’s your buddy in good times and your comfort or in rough times. Blues is all about life and it’ll walk with you through it all." (Photo: Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite’s life reads like a classic blues song, c.1964)

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I hope I’m always getting better at playing what feel. It’s like language where you learn better ways to express yourself. I listened to a lot of 60s jazz/blues like Big John Patton and Jack McDuff and lots more.

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 honorable 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 and what are some of your favorites?

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’re 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.

"For me, blues is more than just music. It has depth and substance and its always there for you. It’s your buddy in good times and your comforter in hard times. It’s not a fad." (Charlie Musselwhite celebrating his 21st birthday with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield in the audience of an Otis Rush - The Blues show at legendary Pepper's Lounge in Chicago / Photo © by Ray Flerlage)

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 you “studies” with the 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.

What's the balance in music between technical skills and soul/emotions?

Use whatever technique you have to express what’s in your heart.

John Coltrane said, "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

For me, blues is more than just music. It has depth and substance and its always there for you. It’s your buddy in good times and your comforter in hard times. It’s not a fad.

Do you know why the sound of the harp is connected to the blues, and 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.

"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." (Photo: Charlie Musselwhite & Big Joe Williams)

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 a week and often 7 nights a week. That’s all over with 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 economy certainly has had an effect.

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 outrageous solo after another.

I remember Buddy 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 shaking 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 place seems 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.

"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 forgotten about the feeling and the subtleties and just want to be loud and fast as if that meant something. Real blues is a feeling not a technique." (Photo: Charlie Musselwhite & Big Walker Horton)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean 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.

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 (Memphis, TN), 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 could relive.

If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

Find a way that allowed all musicians a chance and not just the ones the corporate world wants you to hear. Blues has spread around the world on a grass roots level all in its own. Most musicians admit they are indebted to blues, but blues musicians are always treated like the low man in the totem pole.

Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

I always listen to old gospel and jazz from the 60s and on back. Old Hillbilly and Bluegrass. Old folk music from around the world and traditional Cuban Son (music), like my friend Eliades Ochoa plays!                          (Photo: Charlie Musselwhite & Eliades Ochoa)

"Find a way that allowed all musicians a chance and not just the ones the corporate world wants you to hear. Blues has spread around the world on a grass roots level all in its own. Most musicians admit they are indebted to blues, but blues musicians are always treated like the low man in the totem pole."

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. It’s always there for you. It’s your buddy in good times and your comfort or in rough times. Blues is all about life and it’ll walk with you through it all.

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. Will Shade (1898-1966), Furry Lewis (c.1893-1981), “Shakey Jake” Harris (1921-1990), Big Joe Williams (1903-1982), John Wrencher (1923-1977, also known as One Arm), John Lee Granderson (Blues singer and guitarist, 1913-1979). That’s some of them.

Where and why would you really want to go a trip with a “Time Machine”?

I’d love to go back to a Saturday night in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and hear Charlie Patton in his prime.

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

That’s another hard to answer question. I feel really 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 (Chicago), Muddy would make a big fuss over Joe, because Big Joe Williams was like blues hero to Muddy.

Muddy would tell the crowd about “the man that wrote, Baby Please Don’t Go”and he get Big Joe and me, 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.

"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." (Photo: Henrietta and Charlie Musselwhite with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker)

How you developed your musical proficiency, over the years?

I don’t practice unless I’m working on something, but sometimes I’ll play along with something, if I like the groove for fun.

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 forgotten about the feeling and the subtleties 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.

Do you think there is an audience for jazz music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Good question. They have to think its hip and interesting. If musicians, they looked up to talked about how they love blues and how it inspires them that might help.

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 yourself. 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.

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(Charlie Musselwhite / Photo © by Rory Doyle)

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