-”The blues overtook me when I was a child, I just followed … and now I´m standing here!” With this Charlie humbly summarizes his lifelong blues commitment, as he stands on the Victoria Theatre stage in Malmö, Sweden, one evening in Februar 2017, looking out on the enthusiastic audience in the sold out salon. Whereafter, of course, he sings his well known tune ”The Blues Overtook Me” (can be heard for example on his record Deluxe Edition from 2005). This amiable gentleman has the audience completely in his hand. A true charming entertainer, as well as a most skillful musician!
Charlie for sure can be called a blues legendar. His career covers more than 50 years; he has played with most of the great names in blues, his record production is impressing and he seems to be almost constantly on tour – one of the most respected and famous, now living blues musicians. He is white, but mediates an attractive ”black” impression in playing and singing.
I saw him live for the first time at The Notodden Blues Festival in Norway, 2004. Again, this year, he is one of the top names there, fronting with Bob Margolin in an act called All Star Chicago Showcase. One can assume that Charlie´s wife since almost 40 years, Henrietta – Henri in short – is with him. She handles administrative things: is his manager and record producer and overall great support. In the break at the Victoria Theatre she sits behind him and deals with the sale of his records and general PR. They seem happy together, and have a child. However, everything hasn´t always been harmonic and well with Charlie Musselwhite. Some periods in the past he struggled with a tough artist life, and was down and low. Luckily conditions changed to the better!
Charlie was born in 1944 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, came to Memphis at the age of three, where he lived until he, aged 18, found his way to Chicago, where he stayed for quite some time. Since I have read that his mother told him that he was of cherokee origin, I ask if this have influenced him.
– I wasn’t raised on a reservation. I was not exposed to any kind of Native American culture. I actually have at least 7 nationalities. So, I’m a mongrel. The first Musselwhite came to the US in 1633 so there’s been a lot of mingling since then. If you know what I mean.
In Memphis he was exposed to lots of music.
– As a child I heard music on the radio and on the 78 rpm record player and street singers in Memphis. Later I had small record player that could play vinyl.
-I don’t remember the first time I heard blues. It just seems to have been part of the environment. I heard blues on the radio. I heard people singing blues working in the fields near my house along Cypress Creek. From as young an age as I can remember I was fascinated with the street singers in Memphis. Most all of them were blues singers. There was one blind white man that I heard singing gospel tunes on the street. Later on when I was a teenager I got to know some of the street singers and later I got to know some of the real old time Memphis blues musicians like Furry Lewis, Will Shade, Gus Cannon, Willie Borum and many more.
The harmonica and the guitar
The harmonica became his first instrument, continueing to be his main instrument throughout the years, and where his stardom mainly comes from.
-Yes, harmonica was first because they were always around. It was a common toy when I was a kid. Seems like most everybody had at least one harmonica around the house. At the age of 13 is when I decided I should start teaching myself how to play blues on it. My dad gave me his guitar at the same age. It was a black Supertone arch top.
-I learned harp and guitar hanging around people like Will Shade and Furry Lewis and many others. A couple of old white men showed me blues they had learned when they were young too.
Since I am curious about the legendary Shade, Lewis, Cannon and Borum, I ask if Charlie could tell me some anecdotes about them. Here it comes:
-I knew this singer named Cat Porter and she took me to meet Furry. Cat was sort of a girlfriend to me and she claimed to be Furry’s daughter, but I don’t think that was true. I spent many a day and night hanging out with Furry. Sometimes we’d just sit around and listen to the ballgame on the radio. Drinking was always involved. Usually Golden Harvest Sherry wine. Furry was sort of like the guru of the neighborhood. People often stopped by to talk the situation over and get advice on matters of love and life and Furry would advise them. When somebody would be upset Furry would play ”Lay My Burden Down” and that would calm people and the situation down. I remember one night Cat came in real upset and crying because a friend of hers got her throat slashed by her boyfriend. I remember Cat upset at all the blood that was all over the place. Furry started playing ”Lay My Burden Down” and everybody quieted down.
-Furry showed me how to tune my guitar to Spanish (open G or A) and Sevastopol (open E or D). He played in natural tuning too. I’d play guitar or harp along with him. Often Cat would sing. One of her best tunes was “Let Me Ride With You Tonight”.
-Furry and Will Shade were not the best of friends. If he suspected I was going to see Will he’d say, “You better stay right here. You’ll get in trouble over there.” OF course, Will said the exact same thing about Furry. From what Cat told me it seems that Furry and Will were both after Jenny Mae Clayton way back in the day. Will won Jenny Mae’s heart and Furry never got over it. One day I was at Will’s and Furry came over and they got in a brawl. The image of these great bluesmen rolling around the floor trying to hurt each other is vivid in my memory. They were both too old and drunk to hurt each other but it was embarrassing. Heck, everybody was drunk.
-Will lived with Jenny Mae Clayton on the top floor of a ramshackle apartment building which didn’t face any street. It was in the middle of a block with Beale to the north, 4th St to the east, Hernando to the west and Linden (now M.L.K. Jr.) on the south. There were alleys that ran thru the block and there were apartment buildings crammed in there. The buildings that faced the streets were usually businesses like pawn shops and cafes, etc. Bo Carter lived in another building very close to Will’s. And for a while Furry lived inside this block too. It was not unusual for hear guys playing guitars and singing the blues in those alleys. Many I didn’t even get to know because there were so many. I met Earl Bell there at Will’s. I also met blind Son Smith, Red Robey, Laura “Little Bit” Dukes, Willie Borum, Johnny Moment, Coy Love, blind Abe McNeil and more at Will’s. All the blues folks around Memphis looked up to Will since he had been so famous with his Memphis Jug Band. Musicians were always stopping by to pay their respects and everybody would always bring a bottle so it was often a party going on at Will’s. He liked to sit in a chair by the window so he could see everybody that passed by in the alley below. He’d often yell down comments and jokes or invite folks up. Sometimes it’d just be Jenny Mae and Will and I sitting around talking and jamming. I remember Will once cooked us hamburgers on a pot belly stove and to this day I swear that was the best hamburger I ever had for flavor. I wish I’d written down all the stories Will told of his life. He taught me guitar and harmonica. He told me his mother taught him harmonica and that she’d been born in slavery times. I don’t remember Will ever using any open tunings or slide.
-The last time I saw Will I was living in Chicago by then and came to Memphis when I could to visit my mom and also all the musicians I knew around Beale St. This last time was really sad. Jenny Mae had died. Will always told me that after she died he’d be ready to go too. He had moved to a little back room on 4th Street with a lady we all called “Yaller” – meaning Yellow because she was very light skinned or “high yellow” some might say. She was a sweet lady and was taking care of Will. Yaller had always been a close friend to Jenny Mae and Will and would do things like shop for them and be a help to them. So, this was winter time and Will had a gas stove in his little room. Will had fallen and ended up next to the stove. He was too weak to push or pull his self away and his arm, being next to the metal stove, burned very bad. Finally Yaller discovered him on the floor against the stove and pulled him away. We had a nice long visit and talked over our good times. I gave him some money and wished I had more to give him. Before I left he asked me to lift his feet up to the bed because he was too weak to raise his feet hisself. It was heartbreaking to see him like that, but he seemed to be at peace with his life.
-Occasionally I would drive Furry and myself to visit Gus. If I remember right he lived in a part of Memphis called Orange Mound, but I may have that wrong. Anyhow, I do remember that his house was near some railroad tracks and Gus kept a chair by the tracks. He said he liked to sit there and watch the traffic and the trains. He referred to it as “old man’s corner”. There was a little market by the tracks too and that’s where Gus and Furry and I would get a bottle and pass it around in the yard next to the store. We’d get pretty tore up and be laughing and talking out there.
-The last time I saw Gus was in Chicago in a part of town called Old Town. He was playing in a little folk club and we visited for a bit.
-I met Willie at Will Shades home. He invited me to come visit him. Willie was living in north Memphis just off of Jackson Ave. He played guitar with a harmonica on a rack. His wife didn’t like blues… thought it was the devil’s music so we’d go out in his garage and we’d drink whiskey straight from the bottle and have a little jam session. Willie had a good sense of humor and we did a lot of laughing as he’d tell stories and joke around. When he’d play his version of ”The Dirty Dozens” he could hardly sing and play for laughing at the dirty lyrics he was singing. I think it was a good idea that we’d be out in the garage. He got me interested in playing the harp on a rack which I still do to this day a little bit. I loved the way he’d play in G and I learned a lot of his licks. Willie was always upbeat and in a good mood and I enjoyed knowing him very much. I learned a good deal from him. I wish I had kept a diary that would remind me of all the good times we had.
I ask when Charlie plays the guitar nowadays.
-I play guitar around the house. I sometimes do solo shows where I play guitar and harp. Elvin Bishop and I have been doing a duo show where we play a couple of guitar numbers. Sometimes with my band I’ll play a slide number reminiscent of Robert Nighthawk’s slide style. I’ve also done some recordings with guitar and have one whole guitar CD called In Your Darkest Hour. I have another whole CD “in the can” that I recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi and it’s all guitar too. I don’t know when I’ll release this one. Maybe in about 2 or 3 years.
At the Victoria Theatre his singing was quite good, with a distinguished flavor. He himself, however, has some doubts about his singing skills.
-I never called myself a singer, but a vocalist. I’ve slowly kept getting better by trial and error. Never took any lessons. Maybe I should. I didn’t want to sing, but I got pushed into it and did the best I could. The last couple of years I’ve been getting many compliments on my singing so I guess it’s safe to say I’ve made some improvement.
We return to Charlie´s growing up in Memphis:
-All river towns are kind of on the rough side and Memphis was no piece of cake to grow up in. Of course it depends on who you were in Memphis. If your family was rich with old cotton money you probably had a real nice life. I was raised by a single mom with no brothers or sisters in a house that was close enough to the railroad tracks that the passing trains would make the windows rattle.
Charlie didn´t stay any longer than necessary in Memphis. At the age of 18, as said, he tried his fortune in Chicago as a blues musician. At the beginning all went well.
-At first, when I got to Chicago and people found out I played and started hiring me it was pretty easy to support myself since I had no obligations and I was just a young single man. Later, I’d have factory jobs when things would slow down in music. Back then you could get a factory job any day. You could just walk in to a place and if they didn’t have a job open they’d tell you to just ”grab a broom and start sweeping up until we find something for you to do”.
He joined different bands as a sideman till he could have his own band.
-I don’t remember what my first band was. That was over 50 years ago so my memories are not all in chronological order. One band was Johnny Young and I, and we’d have people working with us like Carey Bell, Floyd Jones, JB Hutto and others. We’d hire whoever was available. There was also the band on my first album which was Fred Below, Little Bob Anderson, Barry Goldberg and Harvey Mandel. That band never existed outside the studio. We cut that album in under 3 hours.
-Then, when I lived in Old Town and worked at Big John’s, at first I was just playing harp for Big Joe Williams. Then Mike Bloomfield started coming by to pound on the old upright piano. When Joe quit and left town, Mike switched to electric guitar and we hired a bass and drummer and we then had the first band – as far as I know – in Big John’s and I believe we played there 4 or 5 nights a week.
– There were other bands too…it’s hard to remember them all. Nick Gravenitis was in one band with Mike and I.
Charlie and his wife Henrietta, at the installation of his Mississippi Blues Trail Marker
Charlies career was steadily growing. He gives a few examples of great moments during his long lasting music life.
-There a tons of highlights. One that changed things and got me going was when a waitress I knew real well told Muddy, “you ought to hear Charlie play harmonica”. I hadn’t been going around asking to sit in. I didn’t even let most people know I could even play. But when Muddy found out I played he insisted on my sitting in with him. When other musicians heard me sitting in with Muddy they started offering me gigs. So, this changed everything for me. Before this, men like Muddy and Wolf just thought I was a fan.
-Then my first album was a milestone as it put me on the road and gave me a career.
The album was released on Vanguard 1967 with the title Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite´s South Side Band. Charlie is happy to tell me that is has never been out of print in over 50 years! So, it´s still available to purchase.
I ask if he could mention any other album that he particulary values.
-Another I’m proud of is Continental Drifter that I did that featured Eliades Ochoa y Cuarteto Patria.
It was released in 1999, on Pointblank/Virgin. Eliades Ochoa is a world famous cuban guitarist and singer, and the fact that he and his group participated on the record is explained by the fact that Charlie has a great interest in cuban and brazilian music, and likes to mix latino music with blues oriented music. His music taste is broad and not restricted to blues solely.
-I like any music that has feeling in it and seems to come from the heart. I love old hillbilly, bluegrass, black and white gospel and some world music like traditional Cuban son and Brazilian forro and samba. I also like a lot of jazz from the 60s.
He mentions some other highlights in his career:
-Coming to California was another event that made my career better. It’s hard to say after that because there’s sooooo many. Recording and touring with The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Cyndi Lauper and then Ben Harper has been huge. Winning a Grammy with Ben Harper [Get Up! is the title] was really nice. Playing the White House was a really wonderful event because it was a celebration of music from Memphis and it was great to be there with Booker T and Mavis and Steve Cropper and Cyndi and Ben and so many more. Plus I was a fan of and friend of President Obama.
Charlie still lives in California, most of the time.
-I have two homes. One in Sonoma County in Northern California and one in Clarksdale, Mississippi on Sunflower Ave. My main residence is in California, but I plan to be spending more time in Clarksdale in the future as soon as the top floor of our building is finished. Some of my earliest memories are of Clarksdale as I had kind folks there that my mom and I would visit back during the late 40s and 50s. I still have cousins there today.
Speaking of Clarksdale, Charlie recommends a great online-radio station to me: https://www.interntet-radio.com/station/xrds
-All roots music with plenty of blues, no commercials and they even play my radio show which is called Charlie’s Back Room. I´ve had that show for a couple of years.
White and black, USA and Europe
I´m curios of how he looks at being white, playing the blues. What´s the difference today between being a black and a white blues artist?
-I think it depends on the artist. I think for some white artists it’s different and some of them seem to have missed the whole point about the nature and spirit of blues when I hear them going on and on and on endlessly showing off their technique as if music was some kind of sport… like a race or something. Then there’s some other white players that get it and play with feeling. I hope I’m one of them. All I know is that the old time blues men I knew all were very encouraging and helpful.
Also, I ask how it is to perform in USA contra Europe.
-One of the big differences between US and European audiences is that in the US they’re more likely to dance. Which is fine because it is dancing music. I’ve asked Europeans why they don’t dance and they say that if they want to dance they’ll go to the disco and that they love to just listen to blues.
Back at home in the US again, after his long tour in Europe, he tells me that he met lots of appreciation all the time:
-The tour of Europe was great. All great venues with all sold out or close to sold out shows. Great audiences. Lots of fun everywhere we went. I look forward to going back.
I tell him that at the Victoria Theatre he seemed to really like to be on stage, and that he communicated fine with the audience. Is that something that comes naturally to him?
-No, it’s not natural. I never liked being in front of people or being in the spotlight. Over the years I’ve learned to get comfortable with it all but it took a long time. It’s great to see the smiling faces when I’m playing.
How is life outside the stage?
-In my spare time I like reading and walking and relaxing at the ocean and other places.
About reading, I now mention that I´ve heard that he is acquainted with our Swedish blues magazine – Jefferson!
-Oh, yes. I’ve heard of Jefferson Blues Magazine before. I’ve read many of it’s issues. Its been around a long time and the magazine is one of high quality. I believe Scott Baretta used to work for Jefferson and he’s a friend of mine.
I guess that Charlie – besides the occational articles and chronicles in English – perhaps mainly has browsed it through, and looked at the photos. Maybe Scott also has helped him with a translation some time? (I forgot to ask). Anyhow, very nice to hear! Does Charlie also has a positive view of the a future of the blues? Is there one?
-Sure there’s a future for blues. It’s bigger now than it was when I started. It’s huge now compared to the old days. When I started there was very little to read about blues. Some books on jazz might have a short chapter on blues. Now today there are blues magazines, blues DVDs, blues Cds, blues societies, blues festivals around the world and even blues cruises. None of that existed when I started.
Well, I´m inclined to agree, and this forms a most refreshing closure to our conversation.