Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, harmonica stylist Charlie Musselwhite honed his skills under the masters of the post-World War II blues. One of the first white musicians to take up the study of urban folk blues during the blues revival of the 1960s, Musselwhite is a prime exemplar of the art of blues harmonica. After years of personal problems and career setbacks, his current recordings and live performances have brought him both critical acclaim and a new generation of listeners.
The son of a mandolin and guitar maker and the nephew of an itinerant street performer, Charles Douglas Musselwhite was born on January 31, 1944 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. At the age of three, he moved with his family to Memphis—a thriving music center where he heard the sounds of blues, spirituals, and hillbilly bands. As Musselwhite recalled in Blues Review Quarterly, “Near my house there was a creek where I would lay in the shade during hot summer afternoons. I could hear people singing in the fields and man, it just took me away. Their singing was exactly the way I felt.”
Attracted to African American-inspired music, Musselwhite took up the harmonica at age 13 and began playing with a number of traditional Memphis bluesmen, including Willie Borum, Will Shade, and Furry Lewis, all former members of the Memphis Jug Band. These musicians taught him to play the bottleneck slide guitar. Musselwhite furthered his blues education by watching acts in West Memphis roadhouses. “This was my first real exposure to the blues,” commented Musselwhite in Blues Review Quarterly. “I was just hanging out absorbing all this great blues music. I never had any intentions of playing for a living. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I just loved it and wanted to play for myself.”
At the age of 18, Musselwhite moved to Chicago in search of factory work in the industrial North. Unaware of the migration of southern bluesmen to Chicago in the early 1960s, he soon discovered a flourishing blues scene on the city’s South Side. Through connections with Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart, a central hub of the Chicago blues scene, Musselwhite performed with guitarists Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, and John Lee Granderson. In South Side clubs, Musselwhite often sat in with blues legend Muddy Waters’s band—a band that included pianist Otis Spann and harmonica player James Cotton. But it was Waters’s former harmonica sideman, Little Walter Jacobs, who had the
For the Record…
Born Charles Douglas Musselwhite, January 31, 1944, in Kosciusko, MS; raised in Memphis, TN; son of Charles Musselwhite II (a mandolin/guitar maker and musician).
Began studying harmonica at age 13; performed with members of the Memphis Jug Band; moved to Chicago, early 1960s, to work outside music; performed with guitarists Robert Nighthawk, Homesick James, J. B. Hutto, and Johnny Young, early to mid-1960s; appeared on blues anthology Chicago Blues Today!, 1965; recorded first solo album, Stand Back!, 1966; moved to San Francisco in late 1960s and appeared with local blues musicians; performed at blues festivals on the West Coast and in the Midwest throughout the 1970s; toured nationally with various backup bands, 1980s; signed with Alligator Records and released Ace of Harps, 1990; recorded Signature, 1991, and In My Time, 1994.
Awards: W. C. Handy Award for blues instrumentalist of the year, 1990, for Ace of Harps.
Addresses: Record company —Alligator Records, Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660.
most profound impact on Musselwhite’s musical style. “I really wanted to be around Little Walter because of the way he played,” recalled Musselwhite in the liner notes to the album Goin’ Back Down South. “Walter was playing at a place called Hernando’s Hideaway. He would take me down to the bus stop and wait for the bus to come, to see I’d be all right goin’ home.”
Following his introduction to the South Side blues scene, Musselwhite began to perform on the white folk club circuit on the city’s North Side, where he landed a job at the Fickle Pickle with white blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield. At the club, he mingled with pianist Blind John Davis and Tennessee-born acoustic guitarists Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell. Later, Musselwhite and Bloomfield played a year-long engagement at Big John’s, another North Side folk club.
Although Musselwhite was surrounded by fine talent, his early years on the streets of Chicago were rough. In a promotional release for Alligator Records, he described the poverty he experienced during his apprenticeship in the city: “My feet would be wet from walking in the snow. I had great big holes in my shoes.… Once you’ve been there you don’t forget.” During this time, Musselwhite lived in the basements of Koester’s Jazz Record Mart and Old Joe Wells’s Record Store with friend and musical companion Big Joe Williams, the famous nine-string guitar blues great. Among other bluesmen to befriend Musselwhite were Otis Rush, J. B. Hutto, Johnny Shines, John Brim, and harmonica legend Big Walter Horton, who often challenged his young harmonica protégé to on-stage harmonica battles.
In 1965 Musselwhite worked on the Vanguard Records release Chicago Blues Today! Recording under the name Memphis Charlie, Musselwhite appeared as a guest performer with Big Walter Horton’s Blues Harp Band and emerged as the only white performer to be featured on the three volume series—a collection intended to introduce the white folk audience to electric Chicago blues. Musselwhite’s first recording as a leader, 1966’s Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band, featured guitarist Harvey Mandel, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, bassist Bob Anderson, and drummer Freddie Below.
After recording three albums for Vanguard, Musselwhite moved to the San Fransico Bay area. His association with West Coast blues guitarist and saxophonist Robben Ford resulted in the 1974 Arhoolie recording Goin’ Back Down South. A balance between progressive musical ideas and traditional blues, the recording also marked Musselwhite’s guitar debut on an acoustic rendition of John Lee Granderson’s “Taylor Arkansas.”
Over the next two decades Musselwhite appeared on several small labels, including Blue Horizon, Crystal Clear, Charlie, and West Germany’s Crosscut. He signed with the Chicago-based Alligator label in 1990 and recorded the album Ace of Harps, which won him the W. C. Handy Award for blues instrumentalist of the year. His 1994 release, In My Time, features his talents on acoustic guitar and includes two numbers backed by the famous gospel singing group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Since the late 1980s, Musselwhite has appeared as a guest artist on numerous recordings such as Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in Their Hearts and John Lee Hooker’s Grammy Award-winning album The Healer.
In the liner notes to the 1966 album Stand Back!, blues writer Pete Welding observed that Musselwhite was “one of the handful of young blues interpreters to have succeeded in penetrating beyond the surface of the music to the development of a thoroughly satisfying, recognizably personal approach to modern blues.” Almost three decades later, Musselwhite continues to reaffirm his role as a world-class talent, making music that reflects years of study and a willingness to explore new musical horizons without abandoning the roots of traditional blues.
Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band, Vanguard, 1966.
Stone Blues, Vanguard, 1968.
Tennessee Woman, Vanguard, 1969.
Louisiana Fog, Cherry Red, 1970.
Memphis, Tennessee, Vanguard, 1970.
Takin’ My Time, Arhoolie, 1971.
Goin’ Back Down South, Arhoolie, 1974.
Leave the Blues to Us, Capitol, 1975.
Times Geetin’ Tougher Than Tough, Crystal Clear, 1978.
Tell Me Where All the Good Times Have Gone, Blue Rock’it, 1984.
Mellow-Dee, Crosscut, 1985.
Cambridge Blues, Blue Horizon, 1986.
Ace of Harps, Alligator, 1990.
Signature, Alligator, 1991.
In My Time, Alligator, 1994.
Chicago Blues Today!, Volume 3, Vanguard, 1965.
Iver Avenue Reunion, RCA.
Chicago Bluestars, Coming Home, Blue Thumb.
William Clarke, Tip of the Top, Satch.
Dynatones, Curtain Call, Red Lightin’.
Barry Goldberg, Barry Goldberg Reunion, Buddah.
Goldberg, Blast from the Past, Buddah.
Goldberg, Blowin’ My Mind, Epic.
Goldberg and Mike Bloomfield, Two Jews Blues, Buddah.
John Hammond, So Many Roads, Vanguard.
John Lee Hooker, The Cream, Tomato.
Hooker, Never Get Out These Blues Alive, ABD/Probe.
Hooker, The Healer, Cameleon.
INXS, X, Atlantic.
Johnny Lewis, Alabama Slide Guitar, Arhoolie.
Harvey Mandel, Christo Redemptor, Phillips.
Tracy Nelson, Deep Are the Roots, Prestige.
Bonnie Raitt, Longing in Their Hearts, Capitol.
L.C. “Good Rockin” Robinson, Ups and Downs, Arhoolie.
Doc and Merle Watson, Red Rockin’ Chair, Flying Fish.
Big Joe Williams, Thinkin’ of What They Did to Me, Arhoolie.
Jimmy Witherspoon, The Blues Singer, Bluesaway.
Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers, edited by Sheldon Harris, Da Capo, 1979.
Blues Review Quarterly, summer 1990.
Down Beat, May 1990.
Guitar Player, April 1987.
Rolling Stone, August 25, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the promotional biography Charlie Musselwhite: In My Time, Alligator Records; from liner notes by Pete Welding to Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band, Vanguard, 1966; and from liner notes by Dan Forte to Goin’ Back Down South, Arhoolie Records, 1974.
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