Charlie Musselwhite climbs out of The Well

Ahead of his Tel Aviv concert next week, the legendary blues-harp player and bandleader recalls his decades of musical experience and hard living, and his triumph over adversity.

Charlie Musselwhite 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Charlie Musselwhite 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you need credentials to play the blues, then Charlie Musselwhite has a master’s degree. The 67-year-old American blues-harp maestro and bandleader has seen his share of tough times, dead end jobs, and anonymity shrouded in the balm of alcoholism since growing up dirt poor in a Mississippi town, where as a teen, he worked as a ditch digger, concrete layer and moonshine runner.
That could be why, after an erratic five-decade musical career which has seen him alcohol-free since 1987, his status now – as the beloved elder statesman of the harmonica, in demand by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Tom Waits and the name behind a bona fide hit blues record The Well – is all the more satisfying.
For Musselwhite, one of the few non-black bluesmen who came to prominence in the early 1960s along with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, the blues ironically not only contributed to his downfall but has also been his saving grace.
A week after being named the Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year, and the Best Instrumentalist in the harmonica category at the annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tennessee, (he was also nominated for both Album of the Year and Traditional Blues Album of the Year, for The Well), and appearing at the New Orleans Jazz Festival with Lauper, Musselwhite recently spoke from his home in California’s Sonoma County with warmth, humor and not a trace of bitterness about his roller coaster ride of a career.
“I think I’m the only person who moved to wine country here in Alexander Valley and quit drinking,” he chuckled in his relaxed Southern drawl as he recounted his upbringing in Memphis, where he and his mother moved when he was three.
Despite the hardships of being raised by a single mother and going to work as a teenager, the young Musselwhite fortunately grew up surrounded by music – blues, hillbilly and gospel music on the radio and even more significantly, right outside his front door.
“Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, the rockabilly pioneers, used to live right across the street from me, and I used to see people like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at neighborhood parties,” said Musselwhite, whose father was of Choctaw Indian descent.
“Music was my comforter from the harsh realities of life, and I was fascinated by the street blues singers I would see when I went to downtown Memphis.
I would walk around Beale Street and watch how they played and try to figure out what they were doing – I got to know a lot of those guys, like Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Gus Cannon.”
“They would actually teach me and I’d get informal lessons just hanging out at their homes. We’d sit around, drink some wine and have a jam session. I didn’t know that I was preparing myself for a career, I just loved the music. If I had known that, I’d have paid more attention,” he said with a laugh.
However, it was during those formative years while sitting in with those authentic bluesmen that Musselwhite honed his distinctive harp playing style.
“I always had the feeling that you play your own blues,” said Musselwhite.
“I used to go out in the woods and make up stuff on the harmonica, just to play something. I listened to everybody and sometimes would cop a lick off of a record, but mostly I was trying to play what I felt. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that – there’s no end to learning.”
MUSSELWHITE KEPT his harmonica playing mostly to himself though, even when he left Memphis at age 20 and moved to Chicago, unbeknownst to him, the blues capital of the US.
“I went to Chicago looking for a factory job. I was part of that whole trend in the ’60s of people leaving the South and going North looking for better work. I didn’t even know Chicago had a big blues scene, just that they had a lot of factory jobs that paid well and had benefits,” he said.
But sure enough, Musselwhite began seeing flyers in windows for shows by the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, and became a regular at the bars they performed in.
“I was just hanging out, and they thought of me just as a fan, which I was. I was always requesting tunes which is how they got to know me. I fit in perfectly because I was already good at drinking. I didn’t even tell those guys that I played.”
However, a waitress at the famed Pepper’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side knew Musselwhite’s secret, and one night during a show by Waters, she raised the issue, much to Musselwhite’s chagrin.
“She said, ‘Muddy, you should hear this guy play the harmonica.’ And he insisted that I sit in,” recalled Musselwhite. “From then on, he would always ask me to sit in whenever I showed up at his gigs.”
Since Pepper’s Lounge was the main hangout for bluesmen in Chicago, the word spread about the talented white harpist from Memphis and job offers began to fly his way.
“That just opened the door for me and there was no turning back. They didn’t let me rest.”
Within a couple years, Musselwhite had formed his own blues band, moved to San Francisco and was signed to Elektra Records where his debut album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band was released in 1966. He quickly became a favorite within the exploding West Coast counter culture rock scene, appealing to hippies and rockers alike with his gritty, authentic music.
Since then Musselwhite has released over 20 albums, won 14 WC Handy Awards for blues performances and been nominated for six Grammys.
And he also almost drank himself to death.
“I had never been onstage sober. All the guys I hung out with all drank, it was just part of the environment I grew up in,” said Musselwhite, who realized in 1987 that his career and his health were suffering due to his addiction.
“I had a moment of clarity that this just wasn’t working out, you’re getting too old for this. So I started cutting down gradually, not having a drink until the afternoon, and I kept cutting down until I didn’t drink until I went to work. Then one day, I was driving and listening to the radio and there was this young girl who had fallen down a well and they were having live reports.
“I was so concerned about her ordeal and so moved by her bravery – she was singing nursery rhymes to herself to keep calm down there in the dark. Suddenly it seemed like my problems didn’t amount to a hill of beans and I thought to myself ‘why couldn’t I be even half as brave as that little girl?’” “As a prayer for her, I made a vow that I wasn’t going to have a drink until they got her out of that well. I didn’t say I was going to quit. But it took them three day to get her out, and after that, I was out of the well too, and I haven’t had a drink since.”
SOBER AND energized, Musselwhite made up for lost time, guesting on albums such as Bonnie Raitt's Longing in Their Hearts and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit of the Century – both winners of Grammy awards – Tom Waits’s Mule Variations and INXS’s Suicide Blonde, as well as jumpstarting his own solo career.
The effort paid off, with this year seeing Musselwhite reaping the rewards of his hard work with his recognition at the Blues Awards, his acclaimed collaboration with Lauper and rave reviews for The Well, whose title song recounts the story behind his musical rebirth.
“It’s real rewarding to have a good solid career – I have all the work I can handle,” said Musselwhite.
So much in fact that he had to pass up attending last month’s award ceremonies because he was performing with Lauper at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. The unlikely pairing of Lauper and Musselwhite, who also appears on Lauper’s latest wellreceived album Memphis Blues, makes more sense onstage than on paper.
“She’s always been a blues fan but had never recorded it – her managers would always say ‘you don’t want to do that.’ Finally, she put her foot down and went down to Memphis and invited me to be on the sessions,” said Musselwhite.
Since then, Musselwhite has frequently joined Lauper on tour, where the two showman play off each other to the crowd’s delight.
“We took some of her well-known hits and have bluesed them up. Now “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” has a harp solo. It’s been a lot of fun working with Cyndi.”
Lauper won’t be accompanying Musselwhite when he makes his debut in Israel on June 13 at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv, but he will be fronting a crack, four-piece band offering authentic American blues.
Musselwhite said that he was particular excited about coming to Tel Aviv after hearing from his friend Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna about their successful show here last winter.
“I did an eight-week tour with Hot Tuna a few months ago, and they couldn’t stop talking about what a great time they had in Israel,” he said.
Musselwhite’s second lease on life has turned out to be the long-term one, and he said that he was intent on enjoying it to its fullest. Those interested in co-signing are welcome to show up in Tel Aviv and toast him with some sparkling water.