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Watch Out For Pandit Charlie Musselwhite

One of the all-time great blues harmonica players, the legendary musician is a must watch at this weekend’s Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai

Marc Pilinski Feb 07, 2019

American blues musician Charlie Musselwhite will perform at Mahindra Blues Festival this weekend in Mumbai. Photo: Danny Clinch

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One of the big attractions for me at the Mahindra Blues Festival this weekend in Mumbai at Mehboob Studio will be the legendary American blues harmonica player and band leader Charlie Musselwhite. From the time that he launched his breakthrough album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band in 1967 he has been a force to reckon with in the world of blues. In a career spanning more than five decades, his collaborative partners have included many of the blues and rock greats including Magic Sam, Tracy Nelson, Harvey Mandel, Barry Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, Lafayette Leake, Robben Ford, Big Joe Williams, Johnny Heartsman, Jack Myers, Freddie Roulette, Skip Rose, Pee Wee Ellis, the Dynatones, Dave Peabody, Bob Hall, Andrew Jones Jr, John Lee Hooker, Doug Mc Leod, Eliades Ochoa, Cuarteto Patria, James Cotton, Billy Branch, Sugar Ray Norcia, G E Smith, J W Jones, Stephen Hodges, Mavis  Staples, Mick Jagger, INXS, Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Kid Andersen, June Core and Randy Bermudes.

Despite his name and fame, Musselwhite, who just turned 75 last month, is criminally underrated by the music industry and not as widely known as he should be. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, he was raised in a musical family. Both his mother and grandmother were pianists, while his father played the harmonica, mandolin and guitar. As with a large number of musicians in the American South in those days, he moved to Chicago at the age of 18 to take up a factory job while working his way through the South Side Chicago blues scene.

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Musselwhite. Photo: Nathan David Kelly

His early training and tutelage were under the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Big Joe Williams. In the Sixties he went on to befriend other up and coming blues stars like Bloomfield, Mandel and Goldberg, many of whom became his collaborators.

In 1967 he recorded Stand Back for the folk label Vanguard which became one of their best known albums, a must in any serious blues collection.  The album came out around the time when segregation was still the norm, and even when the so called progressive intelligentsia were profoundly reactionary in their thinking, especially when it came to blues and jazz. Blues in their thinking had to be folk and acoustic, and most importantly, done only by blacks. Breaking these boundaries was considered to be sacrilegious. Even someone like Bob Dylan was booed at the Newport Festival because he had an electric band featuring Bloomfield on guitar!

Needless to say, though Musselwhite’s album came out to great reviews, because of the prevailing views about white blues musicians it didn’t achieve the kind of success it should have. But he continued touring and recording at a frenetic pace. By the end of the Seventies he had recorded 10 albums.

As the Chicago blues scene waned he moved to San Francisco like a lot of other musicians from that era. The music scene was flourishing here, so was heavy drinking, drugs and extended rock group jams. Musselwhite became very much part of this, deep diving into it before quitting. As he once told an interviewer, “I’m the only blues musician who ever moved to the wine country and quit drinkin…”

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He went on to record more than 30 albums, and continues to tour with the verve and energy of a young man. “It’s hard to put the words to it all. I learned to play how I feel,” he once said. He adds, “That’s the thing about the blues, you want to communicate the feeling. For me, when I’m soloing, there’s always this thing I’m looking for. You’ll be rolling along and suddenly there’ll be this spark. It’s not a conscious thing that you’re doing. Like Charlie Parker said, ‘I just hold it and let it sing.’”

Recommended Listening

  • The three Vanguard albums, especially Tennessee Woman with an astounding long version of “Christo Redemptor.”
  • Where Have All The Good Times Gone? (Blue Rock It Records)
  • Memphis Charlie (Arhoolie Records)
  • The three Alligator albums: Ace of Harps/Signature/The Well
  • Two Real World albums: Sanctuary/Delta Hardware
  • Continental Drifter (Pointblank)
  • Live in America (Telarc)
  • The Harmonica according to Charlie Musselwhite (Blind Pig)
  • Two albums with Ben Harper – A father and son for the 21st century
  • Two collective albums; Superharps (Telarc) with Billy Branch, James Cotton, Sugar Ray Norcia
  • Remembering Little Walter with Billy Boy Arnold, James Harman, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia.

The author is a blues aficionado, who ran a blues radio station in Paris.

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