Fifty years of nonstop touring, performing and recording have reaped huge rewards. 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 – thank your lucky stars he is still with us telling the truth with a voice and harp tone like no other.
Charlie Musselwhite may be the only musician to get a huge ovation just for opening his briefcase. Fans know that’s where he keeps his harmonicas and they’re about to hear one of the true masters work his magic on the humble instrument.
Musselwhite is, and always will be, a bluesman of the highest order. But he’s taken blues harp from the clubs on the Southside of Chicago (where “Memphis Charlie” and Mike Bloomfield backed Big Joe Williams) to places it’s never been before, both musically and physically. He’s soloed to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” with Cyndi Lauper on Good Morning America; wailed on “Echo Bells” with Japan’s Kodo drummers (produced by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart); and mixed blues with Cuban son legend Eliades Ochoa, each playing on the other’s album. He’s jammed on stage with Mick Jagger and recorded with such diverse artists as INXS, Tom Waits, bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, gospel Blind Boys of Alabama, and even Cat Stevens. And shortly before winning the Grammy for Best Blues Album for their collaboration Get Up!, he and Ben Harper played at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady, in a salute to Memphis soul.
Charlie explains, “It’s fun and interesting and challenging to me to get to play in a new setting and do tunes that are different than the usual I-IV-V and 12 bars.”
“Meeting Charlie was huge to me,” said Ben Harper in reference to the GET UP project. “Knowing his music but also his commitment to the blues and everything he brought to that. When you get the call to sit at the table with kings, you better have a well-pressed suit. I knew that time would come, so I kept setting material aside. But Charlie Musselwhite is the north star of this record. We were following him. The songs really came to life around Charlie and his sensibilities. We revolved around him and his harp; you can hear that.”
2016 marked the 50th anniversary of Charlie’s debut album, the classic Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band, which he recorded at age 22. That band featured legendary blues drummer Fred Below (of the Aces and countless sessions with Chicago’s blues giants), along with keyboardist Barry Goldberg and guitarist Harvey Mandel. In addition to guest turns by Marty Stuart, Charlie Sexton, Dave Gonzales, Stefan Grossman, and G.E. Smith, and stints by Chicago greats Luther Tucker, Freddie Roulette, Louis Myers, and Fenton Robinson, his groups have been a virtual finishing school for guitar slingers, such as Robben Ford, Junior Watson, Tim Kaihatsu and Kid Andersen.
But Charlie’s current band ranks with the best he’s ever had. It features drummer June Core, bassist Steve Froberg, and guitarist Matt Stubbs. As for their bandleader, at 71 – Charlie is truly at the top of his game, as evidenced by I Ain’t Lyin’, Henrietta Records’ follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Juke Joint Chapel. This year he won the Blues Music Awards’ Best Instrumentalist – Harmonica for a staggering 25th time, of his 29 wins overall and 2010 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
After Charlie was a member of Hot Tuna’s 2011 “blues tour,” leader/guitarist Jorma Kaukonen hit the nail on the head. “We just had a great time,” he smiled. “I mean, talk about the real shit – then there’s Charlie Musselwhite. When Charlie tells stories about the blues guys it’s because he knew them and played with them. And we know that harp players can be dangerous in the musical sensibility department, but not Charlie. He’s just the best. And he’s such a cool guy. It was one of those things that just felt so perfect.”
As Charlie often says, “The blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in bad times. It empowers you to keep going. It is secular spiritual music, the gospel blues. It’s music from the heart instead of the head.” – Dan Forte, ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award winner for excellence in music journalism