Charlie Musselwhite: blues to the bone

    Playing harmonica in a town full of guitar players and playing it for Muddy Waters got the Mississippi migrant his big break in the blues

    Charlie Musselwhite. Photo by Rory Doyle

    Charlie Musselwhite knows all about the blues life. Drink in hand, he dwelt on the dark side of that life for decades. He’s open about it, too. When I spoke to him for this article, I asked if he’d even be here if he hadn’t overcome the excess that bedevilled so many of his profession. “Probably not,” he said. “I was drinking two quarts of liquor a day, and that can’t go on.” Somehow, against the odds, he did overcome the worst aspects of that life and quit drinking.

    Now 78, a sober Charlie Musselwhite continues to travel and to perform, singing soulful songs of love and life, and working magic with his harmonica and guitar, keeping the spirit of authentic blues – conceived in the Mississippi Delta and matured in the bawdy joints and bars of Chicago’s south side – alive.

    Since beginning his career decades ago, sitting in with Muddy Waters, he has known or worked with practically every blues great of the post-war Chicago scene. Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, J.B. Hutto, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton: mention any of these legendary performers and likely as not Charlie has an anecdote. Many were his drinking buddies. Of these larger-than-life blues masters, Charlie Musselwhite is the last man standing, a survivor of the blues life, an authentic voice of a great American musical tradition.

    When I suggested during a telephone interview in March 2022 that many doubtless consider him a living legend, the bluesman responded with characteristic modesty, uttered in his soft southern cadence: “I don’t feel like I’m some big deal. I’m still the kid from the south who learned how to play harmonica.”

    How did a white kid from small-town Mississippi go from sitting in with Muddy Waters to performing for presidents in the White House as a 13-time Grammy nominee, playing music born of the pain and suffering – as well as the joys and longings – of African Americans? The answer to that question lies in the way Charlie has bridged divides in American life, demonstrating that blues music belongs to everyone, regardless of race or nationality.

    The blues: ‘It sounded like how I felt. That music was my comforter. It made me feel like it was all going to be okay, which is really the spirit of blues’

    Born 31 January 1944 in Kosciusco (pronounced kazi-es-ko), Mississippi, Musselwhite moved to Memphis at the age of three. He heard various styles of music as a youngster but the blues held the greatest attraction for him. “It sounded like how I felt,” he told me when I asked why he chose blues rather than rock or jazz. “I was an only child of a single mother and I was left alone a lot. That music was my comforter. It made me feel like it was all going to be okay, which is really the spirit of blues,” he added.

    Young Charlie heard blues on the radio, as well as in the fields around his home where people sang as they worked. “They were singing blues,” recalls Musselwhite. Knowing very little about the performers of this music, the youngster began scouring shops in Memphis, looking for blues 78s. “I bought anything that said ‘blues’ on it,” he told me with a chuckle.

    As might be expected, he had limited formal instruction in music. “The only formal instruction was a few lessons I got from the next-door neighbour on piano. I told her I wanted to learn to play boogie woogie, but she wouldn’t teach me, so I quit taking the lessons.” For the rest of it, he was self-taught: “I taught myself how to read music for the diatonic harmonica, the chromatic harmonica and the guitar.”

    In Memphis, he was able to meet and hang out with some of the old-time blues musicians who were still around then. However, he considered music as a hobby at that point and entertained no notion of pursuing it as a professional. “If I had known that I was going to have a career in music, I would have paid way more attention to those guys,” he admits.

    Along with the blues, Memphis introduced young Charlie to booze. “I had a 1950 Lincoln that had a great big trunk on it, and I could fill it with five gallon cans of moonshine,” he said, drawing out the word, his voice like a soft southern breeze on a languorous day in June. “I would go to this guy’s house out in the country, and I would give ’em my keys, and they would drive off and come back, and my trunk would be loaded. And I would drive from there into Memphis and give these guys my keys, and they would drive off, and bring my car back, and the trunk would be empty. And they would pay me 50 bucks.”

    In 1962, Chicago beckoned with the prospect of more steady work than the occasional whiskey run. Despite the Windy City being a mecca for blues, Charlie had had not gone there to play music. “I didn’t know anything about Chicago,” he recalls. “All I had heard was they had a lot of factory work up there.” He soon discovered that the city supported a wealth of blues talent: “The first job I got was a driver for an exterminator, and I would drive him all over Chicago to spray for roaches, and driving him around, I’d see signs saying ‘Elmore James, Tuesday night’ or ‘Muddy Waters, this weekend’ or ‘Howlin’ Wolf’. I’d write down the addresses, and at night, go back.”

    Blues were everywhere. In addition to those already mentioned, the likes of Otis Rush, Son House, James Cotton, Homesick James, Robert Lockwood Jr., Maxwell Street Jimmy, Little Brother Montgomery, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, John Lee Granderson, John Lee Hooker, Reverend Robert Wilkins, and countless others enlivened a scene of inexhaustible richness and stylistic variety.

    On ‘appropriating’ black music: ‘No, I felt right at home. In Chicago, all those guys were real welcoming. Whenever they would introduce me to somebody, they would say “Now, Charlie, he’s from down home.” That meant something. I wasn’t a local Yankee. I was from down home’

    Content at first just to be a fan, Charlie still had no thought of performing himself, even though he could play guitar and harp. Anonymity did not last long. “A waitress that I got to know told Muddy Waters ‘You should hear Charlie play the harmonica.’ That changed everything, ’cause he insisted that I sit in, and I sat in with Muddy. Other musicians saw me, and they started offering me gigs. They were paying me money; I couldn’t believe it. That was my ticket out of the factory.” His skill on blues harp gave him another advantage. “When I got to Chicago, there were tons of guitar players, but not that many harmonica players, so I became known as a harmonica player.”

    Spending so much time in small bars, Charlie was able to study legendary blues masters at close quarters. I asked him about Howlin’ Wolf, whose home base was a club called Silvio’s. “It was the perfect place to go when the weather was bad – snow and ice and cold – because you could ride the el [elevated] train right out to the stop and walk down the stairs into the club. Wolf was real nice to me. I would sit in sometimes. The show that he put on was not the show most white people saw; it was really risqué. This was strictly for a black adult crowd in a nightclub.”

    Another I asked about was the great Otis Spann. “He was a real good friend of mine. We hung out together a lot. I was still drinking at that time, and we did a lot of drinking together. There was no better piano player than Otis Spann.” Charlie wrote Spann’s epitaph, remembering only the line “He played the deepest blues we ever heard.” He went on to explain what made Spann special: “To me, Otis Spann was the blues personified. I mean the attitude about blues: he was total pure blues.”

    As we went on, it became clear Charlie could attach an anecdote to just about any name that arose.

    Big Joe Williams?

    “He and I were rooming together. I played a lot with him, too . . . [he] played the nine-string guitar and wrote Baby Please Don’t Go. I learned from him and other guitar players just by watching them while I played harmonica.”

    Big Mama Thornton?

    “I knew her real well. We were good friends. She could be real ornery, but she liked me – we got along real well. We had some good times together.”

    Junior Wells?

    “Yeah, Junior lived right around the corner from me. I used to see him all the time. We used to pass each other on our way to and from the liquor store.”

    Michael Bloomfield?

    “We had a band together at one time. It started off with me and Big Joe Williams, playing in a little bar. Mike started coming down and hanging out. It turned out there was an old upright piano there, and he asked Joe if he could sit in on piano, and Joe thought that was okay. After awhile Joe had to leave town, which he always did, and when he left, Mike got a bass player and a drummer, and we had a band. We got better and better and we recorded an album for Columbia. Mike wasn’t cut out to be a bandleader; he didn’t like that responsibility. At one point the band didn’t have any work, and I started working with Johnny Young and J.B. Hutto and Floyd Jones, and that’s when Paul [Butterfield] hired Mike.”

    I wondered if, working in a field dominated by African Americans, he ever felt a need for validation. “No, I felt right at home. In Chicago, all those guys were real welcoming and encouraging to me. They were flattered that I would seek them out in these really rough places that white people didn’t go to, and a lot of black people wouldn’t go to. Whenever they would introduce me to somebody, they would say ‘Now, Charlie, he’s from down home.’ That meant something. I wasn’t a local Yankee. I was from down home.”

    By the mid-60s, he was well established on the local scene: “Whoever got the gig, it was their gig, even though it might be the same band. It might be billed as J.B. Hutto and the Hawks, it would be J.B. Hutto, and me and Johnny Young and a drummer named Wild Bill; or Johnny Young would get a gig and it would be the Johnny Young Blues Band; or Wild Bill would get a gig and it would be the Wild Bill Blues Band . . . the same band. And we never rehearsed, or anything; we just played the blues.”

    In 1966, he released his first album as a leader, Stand Back!, for Vanguard. The record increased his visibility in a way he had not anticipated: “It was during the hippie time, 1967. They weren’t playing my album on the radio in Chicago, but they sure were on the West Coast. People kept calling me to come out there and play. They offered me a lot of money and I thought I would go out and play, and come back to Chicago. When I got to the West Coast, I saw there was lots of work all up and down the West Coast. The hippies thought of blues as something exotic,” concluded Charlie with a chuckle. Finding himself more financially secure than he had been in Chicago, Musselwhite decided to stay in California.

    Drinking: ‘I was good at it. It was part of the southern culture. It wasn’t looked down on. I used to drink if I was awake; I drank all the time’

    Despite his success, the heavy drinking that had begun in Memphis continued. “I was good at it,” he remembers. “It was part of the southern culture. It wasn’t looked down on. I used to drink if I was awake; I drank all the time.” Drinking became a sort of crutch for when he performed: “I had never been on the stage sober,” he admitted.

    As I learned long after the fact, he had certainly been drinking the night I saw him live at Pete’s Tavern in Bellingham, Washington, in the late 70s. He held his liquor well and did not appear drunk. A friend and I stood at his feet, just below the stage, transfixed as he wailed the blues, bent notes and bared his soul for us, providing a master class with an acoustic harmonica, cupped in his hands atop an electric microphone. He was magnificent, the range of sounds and moods coaxed from his harp nothing short of miraculous. It was almost as if the power of the blues had linked the souls of everyone in the room while Charlie commanded us to feel what he felt. Years later, in 1993, I ran into him by chance in a Kobe shopping arcade, and reminded him of the Bellingham gig. He remembered it. “We were drinking Everclear that night,” he told me. I didn’t ask if he had been drinking it straight.

    The turnaround came in 1987. On his way to work one night in October, he heard on the radio that an 18-month-old toddler named Jessica McClure had got lodged in a well in Texas. “I had already decided to start cutting down; I only drank when I went to play music . . . and they were talking about this little girl at the bottom of a well, and she’s got a broken arm, or something, and she’s being real brave, singing nursery rhymes to herself. And I thought ‘My problem was just a hill of beans compared to [hers]. Why can’t I be as brave as she is, and go get on stage and play like I know perfectly well how to do?’ It was sort of a prayer to her. I didn’t say I was gonna quit drinking, I just decided I wouldn’t drink until they got her out. It took about three days, and when they got her out, I was out, too. I just never drank again.”

    The benefits of a sober life have been many. After his reform and before the pandemic shut down the music business, it had not been uncommon for him to be on the road as many as 300 days out of the year, bringing his message to audiences around the globe. Likewise, his website lists 34 albums he has recorded as a leader, not counting his very latest, Mississippi Son. “It focuses on my guitar playing, though I do play harmonica on it, too.”

    As his star has ascended, he has been afforded opportunities to work with such well-known artists as Cyndi Lauper, Eddie Vedder, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Elvin Bishop, INXS, George Thorogood, Ben Harper and many others. Pairings such as these speak to Charlie’s adaptability, a quality that has served him well throughout his long career. Along with increased visibility have come many awards and honours, including the 2014 Best Blues Album Grammy for Get Up!, a collaboration with Ben Harper.

    He has come home as well, returning, full circle, to Mississippi, where he was born, after having lived for years in northern California. Since 2021, Charlie and his wife Henrietta have resided in Clarksdale, where as a child he spent considerable time with relatives who lived there. Clarksdale, as any real blues fan knows, is the mythical home of the Delta Blues, and site of the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 where – so the myth goes – Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar greatness. Possibly drawing inspiration from the southern air that shrouds these ghosts of the past, Charlie keeps busy working on his memoirs when he is not on the road. He also enjoys reading, visiting friends, walking and exploring Mississippi. His many fans will be pleased to hear he has no plan to retire.

    Looming over his story is a question: must one have lived the blues life in order to sing the blues? In Charlie’s case, it seems reasonable to suggest that whatever he has experienced in his 78 years – whether pain, disappointment, sorrow, loneliness, joy, elation, love, longing or the blues life – is distilled into music and expressed in an idiom as honest and personal as the one he has chosen.

    Further, after 35 years of sobriety, Musselwhite continues to preach the gospel of the blues with authenticity, deep soul, passion and raw emotion, affirming every time he sings, blows his harp or picks his guitar that self-destructive behaviour need not be a requirement for one to own this great music.

    That’s a message to heed going forward. As the title of his 1994 record proclaims, “the blues never die!” Amen to that.