“I didn’t know I was preparing myself for a career,” says Charlie Musselwhite about his youth in Memphis. “I would have paid a lot more attention. I just was having fun. That’s all.”
In a career spanning six decades, Charlie Musselwhite has won 33 Blues Music Awards, has had 13 Grammy nominations with one win and a has been inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. The singer/songwriter, harp player and guitarist at age 75 has rubbed shoulders with giants of many genres.
His credits include work with everyone from Will Shade of the Mississippi Jug Band to Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Gov’t Mule, Mickey Hart, George Thorogood, and INXS. Dan Akroyd’s character Elwood Blues in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers is based on Charlie, and he appeared in the film The Blues Brothers 2000.
He spent his youth in Memphis hanging out with Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and Gus Cannon. In Chicago while still a teenager he lived in the basement of Delmark Records Store and worked with Sonny Boy Williamson I, Little Walter, Shakey Horton, Carey Bell and Big John Wrencher.
As a San Francisco resident he played Bill Graham’s Fillmore West and led bands featuring guitarists Harvey Mandel, Freddie Roulette, Luther Tucker, Louis Myers, Robben Ford, Fenton Robinson, and Junior Watson. He’s recorded more than 40 albums for many labels including Alligator, Vanguard, Bind Pig, and his own label Henrietta named after his wife.
He’s toured with Cyndi Lauper, Hot Tuna, and Ben Harper. This year, “No Mercy In This Land,” the title cut of his second LP with Ben Harper and co-written with Ben Harper, was named Song of the Year at the 40th annual Blues Music Awards.
In numerous interviews from 1992 to the present, Charlie has said he was older than dirt, but in the blues world, he’s just entering his peak.What has he learned and what would he change if he could go back with what he knows now?
“Oh, that’s a long list. I wouldn’t change a thing (said in a sing-songy voice). I have never played it safe. Maybe I should have played it safe a little better, but I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of things I’m not proud of. I’ve changed a lot of things. For one thing I would have quit drinking a whole lot sooner. Alcohol was a lotta fun for a while, but alcohol has a way of twisting your mind, and your thoughts and reality is not really reality. It has a way of twisting your outlook, and it’s not a good thing.”
He stopped drinking in the late 1980s. “I lost count (as to when I quit)” he told me in 1997, “but it’s going on 10 years in October. His wife Henrietta was there for him during the struggle.
“She was a big influence because she didn’t pressure me to stop drinking. It was really my drummer. I think when somebody does have a problem and you pressure ’em like, ‘If you don’t stop, I’m leaving.’ Iit just makes you wanna drink more. We just let each other be who they wanna be. We don’t try to impose on anything or the other person. She was always there for me, and let me know. ‘You’re screwing up,’ but wouldn’t create a pressure on it. Wouldn’t give me an ultimatum or anything. When I wanted help, she was real responsive to helping me.”
Twenty-two years later, he still has a strong marriage.
“Neither one of us wanted to change the other one. A lot of couples get together and for some reason they feel like they have to change the other one. ‘I don’t like that. Don’t do that. Do this! Just be yourself. I love you just the way you are. Don’t change anything. I may secretly wish something was different, but I would never say that. The good parts outweigh any negative so go with it.’ (laugh)
Charlie is an only child raised by a single mom who separated from his father when Charlie was four. He would visit his father in the hospital twice a year.
“My dad had been in the second world war. When I would try and ask him about it, he would get angry. And one time he said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Later, my sister found a lot of stuff he did that was pretty heroic. He was in the Navy. He and some guy would go ashore at night and kill the enemy. They would take out cannon installations that were threatening their ship. And I guess he had some kind of trauma from all of that, and had to go in the hospital. He always called it the loony bin.”
As a child Charlie listened to music on the radio, but he never thought about being a musician. His dad had played guitar and harmonica, and his mom and grandmother had played some piano.
“There were a lot of musicians in the family, but none of them were professional. As far as professionals, my uncle had a one-man band. I asked him, ‘Where did you go, or who did you play for?’ He said, ‘Well, I just followed the harpist when on his payday he’d be right there with his box out there playing for tips.’”
Charlie just kind of fell into music. It was all around him in Memphis, and he loved it.
“These were those guys around there. There was a guitar player named Earl Bell who played kinda like Robert Johnson, sorta. There was Gus Cannon, and the Cannon Jug Stompers and Cory Lewis who was a slide player and a whole bunch of guys, I don’t remember now.
“I met ’em all, but once you meet one of those guys, you meet all the rest of ’em, and they were really supportive of me, and they were players, and I knew who they were and knew their music. I would come to their house and hang out with them and drink with them. They were friends. They would play, and they were happy to show me anything they could.”
When Elvis recorded Big Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Now Mama,” Charlie was 11 years old.
“The way Elvis dressed and the way he combed his hair and all that – most of the kids in Memphis went for the same kind of look, and we were looked down on as white trash, but when he became famous, he kind of validated all of us, you know? ‘Yeah, man, he’s cool. He’s one of us.’ Ha, ha, ha. We were cool all along. He just drifted to it. Jimmy Reed was real popular with just about everybody I knew. But I took it a lot further. I went around looking for old 78s. I got to know all that stuff, and apparently Elvis did some of that. He was hangin’ out and sittin’ in, too, I guess and he loved blues.”
When Charlie moved to Chicago, he was looking for work. The thought of making a living as a bluesman never entered his mind.
“I didn’t know anything about Chicago. I didn’t even know there was a blues scene there. I’d once been told that anyone who was an entertainer no matter what it was, he either lived in New York City or Hollywood. And I had all these posters that had Chicago on ’em, but I always just felt that’s where they make the records. I just went up there looking for a factory job because I heard there was a lot of ’em, and they were easy to get, and they paid way better than they did in the south, and it was all true. That’s where I went just like thousands of other people did.”
“The first job I got was a driver for an exterminator. I drove this truck all over Chicago. I learned the whole city, and then I was seeing posters and signs in the windows of bars, and I still remember driving past Pepper’s Lounge on 43td St., and the windows with Muddy Waters and I just thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ This was so exciting. I can’t tell ya. So, at night I would go back to these places and hang out, and since I was from Memphis, I already knew how to drink, so I just fit right in. And I was only 19, but they let me in. I was big for my age. They just figured I was ok. They didn’t card me or nothing.”
In Charlie’s world, music wasn’t separated into blues, rock and other genres. Before he ever left Memphis, he would buy 78 rpm records of every imaginable genre.
“They were only a nickel or a dime usually. So, it as easy to buy these things. Nobody wanted them, and I did. It was interesting. There was like Flamenco music and modern jazz. There was music from around the world that had feeling in it like blues did just singing about the same thing: “My Baby left me.” (Chuckles) It’s just about life. The ups and down of life just like in blues. My baby left me seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. So, I discovered a lot of music I wouldn’t have ordinarily ever even heard by finding these old 78s I was curious about. I took ’em home and listened to ’em and went, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”
When Charlie moved to Chicago at 19 he first lived on the white North Side.
“In some ways the south was less segregated than in the north. When I got up to Chicago, I had the idea that it was completely non-racial, that everybody lived amongst each other and there wasn’t any prejudice, but it was really not that way at all. You had the South Side that was mostly black, and you had the North Side that was white, generally speaking. There were black neighborhoods on the North Side, but it was really segregated, and there was a lot of prejudice.”
For a while Charlie lived a couple of blocks from Jr. Wells on the South Side. He found he fit in better with African Americans there than he did northern whites. “
That’s true. When I first got to Chicago, I didn’t know any North Side, South Side, West Side. The North Side is just where I ended up, but the white people on the North Side couldn’t hardly understand my accent, and I couldn’t hardly understand them.
“There was another kind of prejudice against southern whites. We were called Crackers, and we should go back where we came from. I mean, literally word for word. “Go back from where you came from.” I heard that often, and so when I (learned more) about the city, I just moved to the South Side where I just fit right in. Everybody understood me perfectly. The restaurants were down home, and blues clubs were all over the South Side, so that was the place for me.
“I remember one factory where I worked, and there was a union, and we had a union meeting. It was hot, and we had the door open, and when we came out there was some local white kids wondering what I was doing in there with those black people. I mean, I was saying, ‘What? Screw you!’ It was – I was really surprised at how racial it really was. I thought, ‘Well, the south wasn’t so bad after all compared with what’s going on here.’
“It wasn’t that much different in the south. There was a lot more lynching in the south. You might not go to the same schools. You might not live in the same house, but just down the street was black people you knew, and maybe knew all your life and played with down the creek and out in the woods and had grown up together. That didn’t happen in the north.”
For a while, Charlie lived with Big Joe Williams who had attitude.
“Big Joe Williams went to play this festival, and he drove up in the grass and drove over to where the stage was and parked there. That’s where he was gonna park, and somebody that worked there came over and said, ‘Joe, you can unload your stuff here, but then you’re gonna have to drive way over to the other side of the field where the parking lot is. You can’t leave your car here.’
“That didn’t sit well with Joe. This was where he was gonna stay. He’s got a long way to go, and he’s got a bad leg. ‘I’m not gonna park anywhere else, and this is fine. I’m not hurtin’ nuthin’.’ And the guy says, ‘Well, Joe, the big man from the festival is gonna be angry about anybody parking here,’ and joe says, ‘The big man, huh? Well, maybe the Big Man would like to come and do Big Joe’s show. I can see it now in the newspaper tomorrow. It’s gonna be headlines. The Big Man Does Big Joe’s show.’ And he just refused to move his car. When it came time to play, he played and got his money, and he was gone. That was it.”
Charlie was one of the musicians who played Big John’s, a North Side club credited with precipitating the white audience’s acceptance of blues in the mid-60s. It did not surprise him how quickly the sound caught on with the young University of Chicago audience at Big Johns’.
“No, this music is so great. Why wouldn’t anybody like it? So, once they’re properly exposed to it, they kinda like it. A lot of people never heard blues, but they felt blues was something like “Birth of The Blues” or “Rhapsody in Blue.” They thought that was blues, but when (they’re exposed) to the real deal, and partying to it, dancing to it, and drinking to it, you just couldn’t deny it.”
One of Charlie’s best friends was John Lee Hooker who was best man at his wedding when he married Henrietta. One of the biggest characters in blues, John Lee would often commit to projects without ever expecting to follow through.
“He didn’t like to say no in any way, and so somebody would want him on their album, and John Lee would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ But then when it came time to do it, John kept putting hm off. ‘Yeah, I can’t do it today.’ One reason after another. He wouldn’t go into it.
“John kept putting (this one artist) off. He wouldn’t go into the studio. Finally, the guy said, ‘Ok, I’ll bring a tape recorder,’ and back then it was a big box with two reels on it. ‘I’ll bring it over to your house.’ And John couldn’t say no. So, the guy knocks on the door, and somebody answers and says, ‘Well, John’s down the hall in his bedroom watching TV.’ So, he carries it down the hall into the bedroom, and there’s John lying in bed with his shades on watching the ball game. This guy sets the machine up and puts the headphones on John Lee’s head and holds the microphone to his mouth, and he overdubs his parts of this track. He got his recording, but John never, never raised up, never got up.” John just stayed watching the game the whole time.”
It was through Hooker that Charlie first met three-time Grammy winner Ben Harper.
“Working with Charlie is like having a freakin’ blues superpower,” Harper told Rolling Stone in 2018.
Ben and Charlie first recorded Get Up! in 2013. It won a Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2014. In 2018 they recorded No Mercy in This Land with 10 songs that recount personal stories. The title track is about the murder of Charlie’s mother with the lyric “Father left us down here all alone/My poor mother lies under a stone/With an aching heart and trembling hands/Is there no mercy in this land?”
“When I first met Ben, he opened for John Lee Hooker in ’93, and John asked me to come and play with him that night. I wasn’t doing anything else. John Lee Hooker could call me up and say (mimicking his stutter) ‘C-c-c-come on and help this ole boy out.’ (Chuckle) So, I would always go. It was like getting a call from the White House. You just go.
“So, that’s where we met, and not long after that, John Lee Hooker did an album. I think it was called Friends where each track was with a different friend of his, and I backed up John on a track called “Burn in Hell.” That’s when Ben and I really locked in in the studio and (someone) said, ‘Man, your two sound so good together, you ought to record more together.’ We kept talking about that. We were both so busy we didn’t find the time it seemed like until finally we did, and Ben had the idea of doing a blues album. I had the time off, and we did it. It won a Grammy, so we made something of it, and we’d been on the road together for like three years and were ready to get into the studio again for No Mercy in This Land which was way different than going in the first time real cold, and we timed that really, really well, too.”
Due out in a few months is Charlie’s next CD called Mississippi Son.
“I’m playing guitar on all the tracks. I might have played overdubbed harmonica in the rack. I’m not sure. I can’t remember right now. I recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and I overdubbed harmonica on many of the tunes I wrote, and on some of the tunes I have a drummer called Quicksand and some of ’em I have an acoustic bass player, too, and it was all recorded about three blocks from my home here.”
Charlie Musselwhite is loved and accepted in many different musical worlds. Call him a survivor.
“I never carried a gun. I had a pistol, but I couldn’t go anywhere without getting stopped by the police. I remember when I would just carry a hammer. When you’re walking down the street with a hammer in your hand, it’s really interesting how people get out of your way. People will just not mess with a guy that’s carrying a hammer.”
Visit Charlie’s website at www.charliemusselwhite.com.