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Published: 2005/05/09
by Andy Tennille

Used with Charlie Musselwhite

A walk through the used record bins of some of San Francisco’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

In the early 1970s, a young Dan Aykroyd, then an undergraduate at Carleton College in Canada, used to hang out at the local clubs in Ottawa to listen to blues musicians that made their way up from the States. A diehard fan of the Chicago blues, Aykroyd was most impressed by a slick-looking young harmonica player named Charlie Musselwhite that dressed in dark suits and wore sunglasses onstage. Years later, when he joined Saturday Night Live for the show’s inaugural season in 1975, Aykroyd remembered Musselwhite when he created a legendary skit idea with fellow comedian John Belushi that launched their careers – The Blues Brothers were born

"I used to go up to Canada to play all the time, and Danny used to come see me at this club I played in," Musselwhite remembers as we walk into The Last Record Store, a great local record shop in Santa Rosa "Back then, I was wearing shades and a black suit. Once we eventually met, he told me that seeing me back then is where he got the idea for the look for the Blues Brothers. Doing the movie (_Blues Brothers 2000_) a few years back was great it’s funny, but I wished they had filmed the band guys when we were all just hanging out talking. There were some great stories and laughs between all those guys – Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Bo Diddley, Billy Preston – it was really something. And man, that band was really amazing. We had a lot of fun playing together."

Born in Mississippi in 1944, Charlie Musselwhite moved to Memphis with his parents at an early age and attended school with Johnny Cash’s brother, Tommy. The Musselwhites lived just down the road from one of Elvis Presley’s rockabilly contemporaries, Johnny Burnette.

"I remember he was the first guy I saw with bloodshot eyes," Musselwhite says. "I went over there but had never seen anyone with bloodshot eyes up until that point. I guess I was around twelve or so. I went home that night and told my mother, Those boys, their eyes are all red.’ She looked at me and said, Well, Charlie, I guess they’ve been doing a little drinkin.’"

Before too long, Musselwhite had taken up playing his father’s harmonicas and hanging out with some of the older musicians in Memphis.

"The old timers, the guys that played the country blues like Furry Lewis and Will Shade, just hung around their homes, sittin around and drinkin. Maybe listen to a ballgame on the radio. People would stop by at all hours, day or night. Just paying their respects or bringing a bottle. Maybe jam a little and move on. I loved hanging out there, just to see who would show up," Musselwhite recalls. "See, young kids at that time black, white or any kids really weren’t into the blues, so for those old guys to see some kid of any color hanging around was really flattering to them. Same thing happened when I went to Chicago in the early 1960s. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, all those guys…they were real flattered that I knew who they were, had their records, knew the names of their tunes or would request certain songs at their shows."

After seeing several friends return home to Memphis from Chicago driving new Oldsmobiles paid for by their high-salaried factory jobs, Musselwhite moved north in search of work.

"My first job when I got up to Chicago was as a driver for an exterminator. I drove this guy all over town," Musselwhite says with a grin. "When I was driving around, I saw all these flyers, posters and hand-painted signs in the windows of bars advertising different musicians and bands playing that night. Guys like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. At night after work, I’d go to these places and have a helluva good time. They were pretty rough places, but they weren’t any tougher than those old hillbilly bars in Memphis."

Those early shows Musselwhite saw during his first years living in the Southside of Chicago in rooms like Pepper’s Lounge, Theresa’s and the J & C Lounge greatly influenced the musician the harmonica player would later become. In fact, on the back cover of the Chess Blues Classics 1957-1967 compilation, there’s a Ray Flerlage black-and-white picture of a young Muddy Waters playing onstage at Pepper’s Lounge. Sitting inconspicuously in the bottom of the picture in the front row of the club is a then-unknown 19-year-old kid from Memphis, Tennessee named Charlie Musselwhite, fresh in town off Highway 51.

"That waitress in the picture was named Mary," Musselwhite explains as he looks at the picture on the back of the CD. "She and I were…close. (_Laughs_) She’s the one who told Muddy that I played the harmonica, which eventually led to him asking me to sit in. I just loved Muddy’s music. It was party music. You could dance to it. You could drink to it. If you were really talented, you could do both. I especially loved the way Muddy sounded, loved the way it felt. That was a big thing for me. It just felt so good. That’s why I wanted to play the blues. I knew if it felt so good to hear it, must feel real good to play it."

If you can’t remember the name of the obscure blues singer you heard on the radio the other day, the safe bet is on them having a Big, Little, Blind or the name of a state in front of their name. Little Milton, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Little Walter, Mississippi Fred McDowell…and of course, Big Mama Thorton. A gospel turned blues singer, Thorton reportedly dressed like a man and took no shit from anyone.

"Big Mama, oh man, she was tough. She played harp and the drums too," Musselwhite remembers. "I don’t remember the first time we met, but we always seemed to bump into each other around town and became friends. I remember one night hanging out with her and Mississippi Fred McDowell in a hotel room somewhere after doing a gig with them, just playin and drinkin. You didn’t want to mess with Big Mama, I’ll tell you that. Nobody would mess with her, unless they were outta their mind."

In 1966, Musselwhite was approached by Samuel Charters from Vanguard Records to record a solo record, having already launched a career as a sideman playing gigs and recording on albums with Big Walter Horton. The result, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band, is a landmark album in the evolution of the Chicago blues.

"I don’t know what happened to that guy," he jokes as he points at the picture of himself on the album’s cover. "It came out in ’67, but was recorded in 1966. That record put me on the road for the rest of my life. It was kind of a lark, cause I had no expectations going into it. I didn’t have a band or anything, but I knew a lot of guys that I played with and had them meet me in the studio. We recorded the whole thing in three hours in a studio that normally recorded radio jingles. It was a pretty low budget affair. Vanguard never even sent me a copy when it came out. Mike Bloomfield eventually brought over my first copy and we played it."

The emergence of Musselwhite and the generation of young white blues musicians in the late 60s blues scene in Chicago – guys like Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg and Steve Miller provided hope that American blues music would survive after the legends passed on. While the group had some help from across the pond when bands like Cream, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones invaded America and revived interest in the blues, they also got help from emerging blues musicians in New York like John Hammond, the son of a Columbia records executive.

"Me and Bloomfield are on this album," Musselwhite says as he hands me John Hammond’s tremendous 1965 album, So Many Roads. "It’s Hammond, us and The Band. I think Robbie was known as Jamie Robertson then, and I think they were still The Hawks. Mike and I took a Greyhound to New York from Chicago and called John when we got in. He told us to come on down, he was making a record. We knew him from playing in Chicago. We spent a few days playing with all those guys and having a great time"

Probably the most lasting collaboration that Musselwhite has had with a fellow musician was with the late great John Lee Hooker. In addition to featuring Musselwhite’s harp playing on several of his records, John Lee was also best man for Charlie’s wedding. The duo’s friendship lasted until Hooker’s death in 2001.

"Playing with John was a lot of fun. He and I got along great and enjoyed playing music together," he says. "Besides that, he was a good friend to me. A lot of those old guys are gone now, and I miss them all a lot. But John was something special. He was a true bluesman in the sense that he played right up until he passed."

As we head out the door, Musselwhite stops by the front desk to drop some old CDs off and speak with Doug Jayne, the owner of the store. Jayne holds up a recent DVD that the musician guests on and jokes that he’ll be calling him soon for an in-store appearance to sign autographs.

"I haven’t even seen it, so I hope it’s ok," the harp player says as he pulls on his black leather jacket and flips on his dark aviators. "I was real sick when I made that. Takin’ that chemo stuff. I don’t even remember it, but I just don’t want to look at it. I’m ok now – I beat it…hehehehe. Showed it no mercy."

Charlie’s Picks Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was the Night Big Joe Williams and Friends, Going Back to Crawford Otis Spann, Walkin’ The Blues Big Mama Thorton, With the Muddy Waters Blues Band 1966 John Hammond, So Many Roads

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