The Mississippi River stretches for more than 2000 miles. It serves as the backdrop, both literally and metaphorically, for the life and times of harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. As a bluesman, Charlie has journeyed long and hard and yet never loses sight of the place that he calls home.
Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1944, Charlie’s family moved north to Memphis at an early age and became immersed in the city’s diverse musical culture. He went to school with Johnny Cash’s brother, Tommy, lived down the road from rockabilly legends Johnny Burnette and Slim Rhodes and went to parties hosted by the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley. Memphis at that time was a musical hotbed, but Charlie was drawn to the blues and it infected him with a lifelong enthusiasm for this particular strain of American music. In his teens, he befriended several of Memphis’ legendary bluesmen, including Furry Lewis, Will Shade and the surviving members of the Texas Jug Band. Soon he was sitting in with his more experienced friends and quickly began to earn a reputation for himself.
That reputation didn’t pay the bills, however, so Charlie decided to pack it up and head north to Chicago in search of a better job. He became a familiar face at blues haunts like Pepper’s, Turners, and Theresa’s, sitting in and sometimes playing alongside harmonica lords, such as Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and even Sonny Boy Williamson. He also worked as a band member with Big Joe Williams, J.B. Hutto, Big Walter Horton, Robert Nighthawk and Floyd Jones. No doubt, Musselwhite absorbed a lot of influences from the Windy City’s finest, but most of all he was inspired by the passion and soul of the Chicago blues masters and it gave him the incentive to find his own sound.
That he did, on his first album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Blues Band, one of the first critically acclaimed white blues album, released by Vanguard in 1967. To their credit, Vanguard noticed the tremendous crossover potential in the high-energy style of blues harp and, along with Paul Butterfield, Musselwhite became an icon to the rock audiences of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He recorded three more albums for Vanguard and toured extensively during that period, performing at many of the period’s biggest blues festivals both here and abroad. As one critic wrote at the time, “Charlie Musselwhite is the natural born heir to carry the torch for the big city blues tradition.”
After Stand Back! became a standard on San Francisco underground radio, Musselwhite played the Fillmore Auditorium and never returned to the Windy City. Soon he was performing with bands that featured great guitarists like Harvey Mandel, Freddie Roulette, Junior Watson and Robben Ford. Musselwhite recorded four albums for Vanguard before signing with Arhoolie. He released two acclaimed albums for the latter, Takin’ My Time (1971) and Goin’ Back Down South (1974) which artfully depict Musselwhite’s by-now beautifully textured harp style.
Charlie performed steadily around the Bay Area and recorded for a number of other labels, including Paramount, Capitol and Kicking Mule. He signed with Alligator in the mid-’80s and started a career resurgence, releasing three critically acclaimed albums and winning W.C. Handy Awards for his blues harmonica playing. He also experimented with Cuban folk music with the release of Continental Drifter (Pointblank) and continues to expand his musical vision with each new project.
Renowned harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite has teamed with Ben Harper to create Get Up! (2013), a piercing song-cycle of struggle and heart, released by Stax Records/Concord Music Group. Recorded in Los Angeles, Get Up! was produced by Harper.
A striking mix of blues, gospel, roots and R&B, Get Up! features ten vivid musical character studies, skillfully rendered in cinematic detail, all written or co-written by Harper.
Charlie Musselwhite’s searing point/counter-point harmonica accentuates Harper’s vocals throughout Get Up!, tying its songs together into a cohesive musical whole. The band, including Jason Mozersky, guitar; Jesse Ingalls, bass; Jordan Richardson, drums; along with Ben Harper on vocals, guitar and slide guitar; plays with economical grit, lending the songs true understanding and authority.