Charlie Musselwhite

United States

The story of the man and his music

Charlie Musselwhite was born in the hill country of Mississippi and landed in Memphis at a time when the city was coming of age right along with him. The Memphis clubs were exploding into the dynamic music scene that blended black and white influences and gave birth to rock and roll and its greatest giants. Teenaged Charlie often saw Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash cruising the hot spots around town. Living across the street from rockabilly legends Johnny Burnette and Slim Rhodes, Charlie was on the invitation list to parties hosted by Elvis, who had suddenly made it cool to be a poor white kid from Mississippi with greased hair and a hunger for music. Charlie lost no time in developing skills for which he himself became legendary - learning to drink deep, comb his hair "right", and to play the hell out of both harp and guitar.

After a rocky adolescence, which included running moonshine in his 1950 Lincoln (Charlie has been a fan of big trunks ever since), Charlie migrated north to Chicago like so many others from the Deep South, hoping to find a factory job and a better life. What he found was Chicago's South Side, with all of its grit, hard times and history-making music. Living in the basement of Delmark records with Big Joe Williams (who instructed Charlie further in the ways of drinking hard and playing deep), he met everybody including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Little and Big Walter. The kings and giants of Chicago blues accepted him into the clubs and even onstage; he became an adopted "son" and his considerable talents were further honed.

Charlie took these influences and ran with them. Forming his own band, he released his 1966 Vanguard debut, Stand Back! Now considered a classic recording, this album achieved immediate underground success and established Charlie as a blues force in his own right. The album's triumph took Charlie out to California, and he stayed for the good times, good weather and the bounty of good paying gigs. Able for the first time to completely devote himself to music, leaving the "day jobs" far behind, he became a regular player in the San Francisco music scene. Charlie was in "the scene", but he also brought the hard edges of Chicago with him, and to the flower children of San Francisco he was an exotic, intoxicating, very sexy phenomenon.

Charlie's talents have been recognized on many fronts. His body of work comprises over 20 albums of his own, and he has contributed to countless others including guesting on Bonnie Raitt's Grammy award-winning Longing In Their Hearts; The Blind Boys of Alabama's Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century; Tom Waits' Mule Variations and even playing the driving harmonica on INXS' Suicide Blonde. He was the longtime compadre and musical partner to his friend John Lee Hooker; in addition to using Charlie's harp playing on several of his albums, John Lee was also best man when Charlie married Henrietta. Their deep and abiding friendship lasted until John Lee's death. His recent tour and recording sessions with Ben Harper have led to live and studio tracks featuring Charlie on the limited edition bonus disc of Ben's soon-to-be released Both Sides of the Gun. Musical institutions have honored Musselwhite, too. With 18 W.C. Handy awards to his credit and 6 Grammy nominations, he is firmly entrenched in musical history. Musselwhite has also been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Monterey Blues Festival and the San Javier Jazz Festival in Spain and the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Perhaps most meaningful to him personally, in 1987, he conquered a long-running battle with alcoholism.

Musselwhite's version of the blues ventures far beyond conventional honky-tonk - though the Harley Davidsons lined up outside Musselwhite's gigs testify that Musselwhite has what it takes to rock the house. Musselwhite himself is simply interested in music with feeling - as he puts it, "music from the heart". "For me, it's about the feeling, and connecting with people. And blues, if it's real blues, is loaded with feeling. And it ain't about technique either, it's about truth, connecting to the truth and communicating with people."

That connection has been particularly strong with his fans from the start. "I've had Vietnam vets tell me that my music was important to them while they were in Vietnam. I've had people who've had problems with alcohol talk to me about quitting, and tell me that I inspired them to quit, I've had couples tell me that they met at one of my shows and got married years after."