Submitted by By T.E. Mattox
If there were a set of instructions or qualifications for the term ‘blues journeyman,’ Charlie Musselwhite wrote them. His life ‘on the road’ probably came naturally considering the old Natchez Trace ran right through the Musselwhite family’s Kosciusko, Mississippi home. But young Charlie’s life in the blues took a more circuitous route. You see, he didn’t so much discover the blues as much as the blues discovered him one hot, Southern day as he lay beneath a shade tree on the bank of a small creek. “I remember listening to people singing in the fields as they worked.” he said. “It was the prettiest music I ever heard and it sounded just like I felt. And they were singing the blues.”
Musselwhite’s own blues highway began on the front porches of Memphis legends, Will Shade and Furry Lewis. “I would hang around their houses all the time; listen to the radio, the ballgame or something.” Charlie says, “There would be spontaneous jam sessions and I would be playing right along, you know?
Charlie tunes it up for the microphones
photo: Yachiyo Mattox
American music in the 1950’s was changing and thanks to Sam Phillips and his Sun Record Company, Memphis was ground zero. Charlie remembers, “The Killer was always around. Jerry Lee Lewis. I used to see him tearing up and down the streets. He had this orange and red convertible Lincoln.” Charlie’s smile grew as the memories flooded back, “I used to see Elvis. He would rent the Memphian Theatre after hours and show all the latest movies. And a whole bunch of Road Runner cartoons, because he loved the Road Runner. Sometimes he would rent the whole Memphis fairgrounds, from midnight to eight in the morning. All the rides would be free. He would speak; Say ‘Hi’ although I never talked to him about music or anything. But he recognized me as one of the group that hung around…” Charlie laughs, “Probably wondered how I got in there?”
When friends let Charlie know there were factory jobs in Chicago that paid $3.00 an hour. “WOW, man!” he shouted, “$3 an hour! I’d be a rich man if I could get a job like that. So, I went up there. I’d pass a bar that had a sign on the front saying, ‘Little Walter, Wednesday night.’ Here were these people I’d been listening to and there they were! Man, it was such a thrill to walk in and see Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. The power that he emanated was just awesome, and the band was just…. I was just slack-jawed.”
And much like his youth in Memphis, Charlie stood out in most clubs on Chicago’s Southside. “People would want to know, ‘Hey what are you doing in here?’ I’d just say, “I came to listen, I really love this music. When they found out I played, they’d want me to sit in. After I’d sit in and they really liked it, people started hiring me to play with them.”
In 1966 after the release of his first album, Musselwhite started receiving calls and music inquiries from the West Coast.”I got off the plane in California. It was sunny, people were nice…they were smiling at you, friendly and courteous.” He’s shaking his head, “I didn’t believe such a place existed. The first place I played was the Fillmore and ‘Wow,’ it was like working in an airplane hangar. I’d never seen so many people at one time…throwing flowers at you.”
It was called The Summer of Love and Charlie grins, “Janis Joplin was around. We hit it off great, because she liked to drink like I did. We had some real good times together. Meeting different musicians and playing different kinds of music. It was just great times, you know?”
Charlie’s travels to date have taken him from the Mississippi Delta through the White House and repeatedly around the world. Sharing stages or the studio with everyone from Muddy Waters and Little Walter to Mick Jagger, Eddie Vedder and INXS… the list is endless. The man simply can’t be pigeon-holed. “To me it’s interesting to see how I can put blues into a situation that’s not thought of as blues…and kind of…” he laughs, “make it better!”
T.E. Mattox congratulates Charlie as he displays the American Forces Network coin
received for his continued support of our troops around the world. Photo by: Yachiyo Mattox
Come witness Charlie Musselwhite ‘make it better’ when he headlines the final day of the 2014 W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival Saturday, June 14th. If you need a little something to hold you over, check out the Grammy-winning collaboration with Ben Harper called, ‘Get Up!’ or Blind Pigs ‘Remembering Little Walter’ that features Charlie, Billy Boy Arnold and friends. Both recordings give you insight into the amazing talents of Mr. Charlie Musselwhite. For the complete lineup and more information on the festival go to www.handyblues.org.