Charlie Musselwhite Interview
The Master of Smokestack Lightning
By James Calemine
"I'm ready as anybody could be..."
Mississippi native Charlie Musselwhite has been called “the greatest living harmonica player”. Musselwhite would never say such a thing, but it seems true. Musselwhite grew up in Kosciusko, Mississippi. His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was ten. At an early age, Musselwhite learned to play harmonica and guitar. He kicked around Memphis for years listening to all sorts of blues, country and gospel music.
In the early sixties Musselwhite moved to Chicago where he met and played with blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Robert Nighthawk and many others. Musselwhite played an instrumental role in the Chicago blues scene where he met Mike Bloomfield, Big Joe Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson in local clubs.
In 1967, Musselwhite played his first gig on the West Coast at the veritable San Francisco theatre, The Fillmore. Here Musselwhite learned the blues was a strange animal to California, and that one could make a living playing music up and down the coast of The Golden State. Musselwhite even persuaded the great John Lee Hooker to move to California. Hooker and Musselwhite became friends in Chicago. They recorded on the others’ albums, and John Lee Hooker served as best man at Charlie Musselwhite’s wedding. Musselwhite is a great storyteller. His latest album contains a spoken word ditty called “Black Water” concerning the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Mussewhite will also appear in a film later this year called The Pig Hunt, a modern day horror film. We conducted this interview a few days before he went out on the road. He talked about growing up in Memphis, Memphis radio, hanging out with Elvis, the early days of rockabilly, jamming with Muddy Waters and his entire career up to this point. Charlie Musselwhite is one of the last players linked to those purveying blues masters. He’s also played with Ben Harper, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Luther Dickinson and Tom Waits in recent years as he continues bringing his singular music mojo to many folks. I look forward to catching up with The Master of Smokestack Lightning when he comes to Georgia in the Fall.
You grew up in Kosciusko, Mississippi…
CM: I was born there in 1944. We moved to Memphis in 1947. I moved to Memphis in 1947, but I continued spending many of my summers in Kosciusko and other parts of Mississippi staying with different relatives. So, there’s always that strong connection. I still have relatives there.
You still own property in Mississippi…
CM: I have a building in Clarksdale right on the Sunflower River. Right outside Kosciusko is the old Musselwhite cemetery…back when that was the West.
Indians still owned the land.
CM: See, Kosciusko was right on the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace was really the first highway. It went from Nashville down to Natchez, Mississippi. People would go down that and back up the river. It was an old, old trail. The first settlers learned from the Indians. That’s why Kosciusko is there. It’s right on the Natchez Trace.
Talk about your early musical paths. I know you got your first guitar at 13, but what are some of your earliest musical memories?
CM: Well, there were always harmonicas around. My dad played guitar and mandolin. My mother played piano in church. There was an uncle that had a one man band. There were a lot of people that played music, but not professionally. I run into Musselwhite’s all over the place in Europe, Canada—wherever they settled and most all of them I run into are musical. So, I guess it’s genetic.
Indeed. So, of course instruments are always around and music is being played so it’s natural.
CM: Yes, when I was 13 my dad gave me his guitar. I was already playing the harmonica. I never remember not having a harmonica. They were always around. But anyway, at the beginning I was just a little kid making up kids tunes. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I’d take it out in the woods with me and make up stuff.
What were you hearing at the time? Memphis radio—from what I understand—was a powerful medium.
CM; Memphis radio was great. Still today—it’s the best gospel music you’ll find on the radio. They play church services. Back then—I guess still—tent meetings were held in the summer time. I didn’t go in them, but I liked to hang around outside where you could drink beer and listen to the music. They would roll up the sides of the tent because it was too hot to keep them down. You could watch and listen and you could be part of it without having to actually go inside. Memphis radio was really cool. You had Dewey Phillips, Rufus Thomas…you had black radio, white radio, rockabilly was just getting started around there. Johnny Dorsey Burnett lived across the street from me. There were garage bands all over the place. There was music all around. There were a lot of street singers in Memphis. Downtown you’d see guys playing on the corner for tips—blues singers. There was no end to the music.
You were in a good place to see the Memphis music scene unfold. Sun Records…
CM: Yeah and it was all over the radio. Rockabilly was the deal. You could hear a band playing and just follow the sound. You’d come to some drug store or maybe a used car lot and they’d have a band playing. Often it would be in that style of rockabilly. There was another guy that lived in the neighborhood named Slim Rhodes and he’d set up in his yard and have a barbecue and all the neighbors could come over and eat and listen to him play. And I was aware—I liked everything—of jazz, country, blues, rockabilly music. Today when I hear country music—or what they call country music just sounds like pop music to me. I like the old country and hillbilly stuff. It was some tough music. The rockabilly was really happening which is tome was a mixture of country and blues. All of it was happening at once and I liked it all.
You were right in the middle of it.
CM: Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about being a professional musician or nothing like that. I just liked the music. I liked listening to it. It felt so good to listen to it. I figured it felt even better to play it. Once I decided to play it, it was just for me without any ambition to do anything with it on a professional level. I just loved the music. If nothing ever happened where I had gotten a job playing music and I ended up doing something else I’d still be somewhere playing music even if it wasn’t for anybody except me.
You even ran moonshine back in those days…
CM: Yeah, I did a little bit of that…construction work…factory work…
When did you really start playing with other musicians?
CM: Well, around Memphis there was a lot of jamming going on in people’s homes. We’d get a bunch of beer and get together and just have fun. As soon as I got out of high school I knew…I felt like there wasn’t anything for me to do around Memphis as far as work or trying to make a living. To me it seemed like it was economically depressed. I heard about all these big good paying factory jobs up north. I didn’t know a thing about Chicago except that it was a big city. I went up there to get a job. The first job I got was as a driver. I drove an exterminator all around Chicago, so I got to know the city real fast. I’d see signs and posters on telephone poles and windows of bars advertising the blues. I remember driving by Peppers Lounge—they had a big painting of Muddy Waters. I’d write down the addresses and at night I’d go back and hear these bands playing. I didn’t know all those guys were happening in Chicago. I’d seen Jimmy Reed and Muddy in Memphis. I had their records—I knew the music, I just didn’t know where they were. I didn’t know there was this scene in Chicago with all these blues clubs. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to even wonder about it because I didn’t think myself as having a career in music. I just liked it. I played a little bit and I learned a little bit but it was not a goal in mind to become a professional musician.
So, there I was hanging out in all these little blues clubs. I wasn’t promoting myself, or asking to sit in or anything. I didn’t even tell anybody I played. I was happy to be there hanging out and have some drinks and listen to the music—that was enough for me. It was interesting because at this time blues was just adult music. There was nobody my age hanging around these blues clubs. There wasn’t any young people black or white hanging out in these clubs…sometimes I’d be sitting there and there’d be a bunch of kids from The University of Chicago. They’d park as close as they could to the door and they’d all get out and run in (laughs)!
I’m sure those joints could be mean and dangerous…
CM: ...Oh yeah…I was kind of crazy myself. I felt right at home. I wasn’t intimidated at all. I was too dumb to be afraid I guess. I was just hanging out. I was just part of the crowd. I was accepted. Like I was saying before, this was adult music. You didn’t see people my age there so when I’d request tunes or something guys like Muddy were flattered that I knew who they were and that I came to these clubs, drink and hang-out with them. I knew the names of their songs and their records—so this was flattering to them. There was nobody my age hanging out there. One night, a waitress I’d gotten to know really well—she told Muddy, ‘You should hear that boy play the harmonica. That changed everything. From that point Muddy had me sit in which wasn’t unusual because people sat in all the time. Peppers Lounge went until 4 AM. So, that’s a lot of time to fill up. If there were musicians who weren’t working that night they’d hang out or sit in. Even some lady—or housewife—would get up and sing a tune. Some guy who just came in from the factory, maybe he played some guitar, he might get up and play a number. So sitting in wasn’t unusual, but for somebody that young it was unusual. Especially for somebody young and white it was very unusual.
That’s amazing…the first time you were on stage was jamming with Muddy Waters…
CM: I remember thinking it was quite a thrill to be onstage standing next to Muddy Waters playing harmonica. It was like Wow. It wasn’t even a dream come true—I had never even had this dream…it was just something put on me. The blues overtook me.
I guess through Muddy you met all sorts of great musicians.
CM: Well, what happened from that night was—I went to Peppers a lot—I went to a lot of other clubs to, but I liked Peppers because they had a restaurant at that time. You could get a whole meal there…like a meat and three--home cooking. I was used to that from the South. It was hard to find food like you could in the South, but you could in Chicago. You’d get a home cooked meal. You could drink and hear great music. When you hang out any place you get to know people. Muddy always had me sit in. From that moment on, long as Muddy lived—when I’d show up to see him, he’d always let me sit in.
Sitting in with Muddy, other musicians would see and hear me playing and invite me to someplace where they were playing at some club. Word started to get around and I started being offered gigs. That was amazing to me that I was going to get paid to play—that got me a little more focused (laughs). It was just a hobby up until that point.
Any insight gained by suddenly playing with blues legends in a world that only heard of bluesman through Dylan, The Beatles or the Stones?
CM: Well, I thought it was great music, but I was also aware this wasn’t the Top 40. It was obvious it was on its way out because it wasn’t being carried on by younger people. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I was working in the factories during the week and on Monday mornings you’d be on break time talking about what you did over the weekend. I’d say, ‘I went to hear muddy Waters and these black guys my age would say, ‘Man, what’s wrong with you? You ain’t up with the times.’ I’d say, well I like Muddy Waters—and I like Howlin’ Wolf—and they’d say, ‘That’s old folks’ music. What’s wrong with you? You crazy?’ I’d say well I like it. I think it’s great music. To them it was just old folks music. They didn’t want anything to do with it. They just thought I was out of my mind. Well, I mean that shows you they thought the blues was over with as far as they were concerned. There was nobody taking it up. Obviously, that’s not the way it turned out, but at that point that’s what it was…
You’re one of the last links as far as players who actually played with all these blues legends. When you met Muddy, he probably in his forties, right?
CM: Yeah, I think he was in his forties when we met. He’d put on a show back then. He’d be running around onstage—I mean it was wild. I’ve seen him do shows for white audiences and they were really different from his usual show.
He’d tone things down a bit…
CM: Oh yeah. Muddy would do things like, he’d been playing “I’m A Man” and Muddy would step back—James Cotton would come to the front of the stage taking a solo while Muddy would shake up a beer bottle, put it in his pants, then he’d come back singing “I’m A Man”—un-zip his pants, pull out the beer bottle—pop the cap off of it and foam would go all over the audience. Women would be swinging their purses sayin’ ‘Sing it Muddy1 Sing it!’ This isn’t the show you’d see at a folk festival.
Who did you meet in those days?
CM: Well, I met everybody just by hanging out. I remember one night seeing Walter Horton. Walter saw me sitting at the bar and he made his way through the crowd to where I was sitting and he said, ‘Charlie, I want you to meet my friend Robert Nighthawk. That’s how I met Robert Nighthawk. Then I played with Nighthawk for a while. That’s how things would happen. I was just partying. I was just going with the flow. Just name the key (Laughs). There was no rehearsing going on---
Let’s go back for a second…talk about hanging out with Elvis back in Memphis.
CM: Oh yeah. I had Elvis’ phone number. I’d call up and find out where the party was…this was when I was in high school back in Memphis. I knew several people that were close to him that worked security who went to high school with me. I’d show up. There’d be a line of these guys who waved you through the gates if they knew you. At some point—I don’t remember the occasion—somebody just gave me the phone number so I could call his house. See, Elvis would rent a theatre where he’d have movies like all the latest movies and a whole bunch of Road Runner cartoons (Laughs). Or he’d rent the Fairgrounds and you’d go there and all the rides would be free—hot dogs—everything was free. It was always from midnight until 8 AM—an all night party. Usually, these places would be closed and that’s when he would rent them because those were his hours. He was up all night—he was a night owl. Or he’d rent the skating rink. I was going there because all these pretty girls were there. I wasn’t taking it all very seriously. It’s like when they say the grass is always greener on the other side. You don’t really realize that when you’re right in the middle of it. It’s like the whole thing with Chicago—as the years have gone by I have a perspective on how great those days were and I wished I’d paid more attention, but when you’re right in the middle of it, you’re just living it. When you’re at that age you don’t think about how one day all of this is going to be gone. You feel so invincible yourself. I really didn’t get to play harmonica around Elvis. Even when I first got to Chicago I wasn’t telling people anybody I could play. I never even thought about promoting myself like that.
Talk about running across harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson…
CM: He was another guy I was a big fan of so when I had a chance to go see him I was right there. He used to play at a club called Curly’s Twist City. I remember seeing him there. There was another place—I remember there was one day I was with Louis Myers and Louis had a gig that night—he was a guitar player. Sonny Boy would call him up and ask him to come play with him at this club. Louis said, ‘Well I already got this other gig. As it turned out, Louis gig fell through so he said, ‘let’s go see Sonny boy’. We got there and Sonny boy was playing by himself. He had nobody—no bass, no drums, no guitar—nothing. He was just playing harmonica and singing. Louis said, ‘Hey Sonny Boy, I got my guitar in the trunk of my car, you want me to go get it?’ Sonny Boy just looked at him and said, “Nah, I got it myself (Laughs).
You even knew another harmonica legend, Little Walter.
CM: He used to play at different clubs. In fact, one was called The Red Onion. Hernando’s Hideaway was another. Big Johns and I can’t remember where else, but he liked me for some reason. I’d be sitting there listening to him, hanging out like I liked to do, and he’d just walk up and hand me his microphone and harmonica, and say, ‘Play boy,’ And he would leave to go talk to some woman at the bar. Or he’d give me a ride home. He knew I liked his music because I was always coming to see him. He’d buy me drinks and stuff. He’d keep an eye on me to make sure I didn’t get into too much trouble.
Talk about how thing progressed when you were in Chicago.
Well, I also got a gig working at the Jazz Record Bar. Big Joe Williams lived there in the basement. They had folding cots down there. Joe and I would sit up all night just drinking beer and playing music or him telling me stories about Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson or whatever he felt like talking about. He’d take me around to the guys even before Muddy’s time. So, I was meeting a lot of old time blues guys while they were still around. I was playing with Joe. He’d get these gigs in these coffee houses where they had folk music and they thought of Joe as some old folk singer. They didn’t know what they were getting into. So we had fun. At one point, I got a job in another record store in a part of Chicago called Old town. There was a record store in the front and there were rooms behind it. The guy that owned the record store drove a cab in the daytime. I’d gotten into a fight with the guy who owned the Jazz Record Club. Joe was out of town at the time. When he got back to town, and found out I moved—he moved in with me (Laughs). We’d just hang out in the record store all day, people would come by—Homesick James would come by. Different musicians. We’d sit around and drink beer. We’d talk about one thing or another—the ball game or something.
I was playing in these little clubs with Joe then Mike Bloomfield—who lived a few blocks away—was coming over and hanging out. There was a little neighborhood bar down the street called Big Johns. Big Johns usually didn’t have music, but they decided they’d like to have Joe—they knew he lived down the street—they asked him to come play for some holiday—I can’t remember, maybe the Fourth of July. So, Joe had this gig and he asked me to play harmonica with him. The place was packed. They sold a lot of drinks that night so they told Joe ‘Hey come back tomorrow night. Just keep playing.’ We did great business. We were playing there—Mike Bloomfield decided since there was an upright piano there that he’d like to join in playing on the poano. So, Joe played guitar, I’m playing harmonica and Bloom field is playing piano.
Joe would never stay any place long—he always had to go. There came a time when Joe said, ‘I gotta leave town. I gotta go see somebody.’ I think he went to Omaha, or some place. So while he was gone, mike switched to guitar and we got a drummer and a bass player and we just kept the gig going. This place—Big Johns—on the nights we weren’t working we told the people that ran the club—how they should hire blues bands like Otis Rush, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf. They started hiring these blues bands from the south side to come up and play in their club. Then these other clubs on the north side saw the great business and what the other guys were doing and they wanted to have blues bands too. So, that’s how the whole scene switched over to the north side.
You were the catalyst for the whole scene.
CM: Yeah, well it’s all sort of a fluke really. If the guys at Big Johns didn’t know big Joe lived down the street, they hadn’t hire him and Mike hadn’t showed up to keep the ball rolling, who knows what would have happened. That was around 1963.
During that time, did you notice The Rolling Stones somewhat brought Americans' interest back into the blues?
CM: Well, I really wasn’t paying attention to that. People were getting turned onto the blues that would ordinarily not go to the south side. Now they were able to hear it on the north side and it was becoming a pretty big deal.
When did you first begin studio session work?
CM: I think the first thing I remember doing was for a folk singer. I don’t even remember the name now. I remember they only had a few tracks. These days they have 64 tracks. Back then it was two or four. Four was about it. If you what they call overdub now—they would combine tracks so it would free up another track. Maybe the guitar player would play rhythm the first time around. They would combine his rhythm with the bass. Then they’d open up a new track so he could play lead.
I don’t even remember what label it was—we were backing up some singer—Tracy Nelson’s first album. I played on her second album too. Paul Butterfield’s album came out and Sam Charters knew me the Tracy Nelson album and he was with Vanguard. So Vanguard was kind of on the level with Electra—that’s where Paul was, so they thought maybe we’ll do something with this guy Musselwhite (laughs). So Sam Charters asked me if I wanted to make a record, and I said yeah. Sure—why not? To me, it was kind of a lark. I didn’t expect much to come from it one way or another. I thought it would at least be fun…maybe make a little money, but as it turned out it gave me a whole career. That album came out and put me on the road…
You’re talking about your Stand Back album, right?
What was your perspective about songwriting then?
CM: I always experimented with writing tunes for fun, but I wasn’t thinking of myself as a songwriter. It was always easier to remember a song you made up yourself than to remember someone else’s. I wasn’t thinking of songwriting in a professional sense. To me, it was still all about having a good time. I didn’t know where it was gonna go because I was so young. I had no responsibilities. I just wanted to have a good time.
Your discography is formidable (I read a list)…
CM: Oh yeah, I forgot about all that stuff. The Chicago Blues series had me and Walter Horton playing harmonica. There were three volumes. It had three different tunes by different guys like J.B. Hutto, I can’t remember everybody. Johnny Shines played guitar…
How long did you stay in Chicago?
CM: Well, it was five years, but I did about fifteen years of living in those five years. In August or September of 67 I was out in California doing my first gig, which was at the Fillmore and it was me, Butterfield and Cream. It was Cream’s first U.S. gig. That was my introduction to the west coast. I thought I was gonna go out to California and do a few gigs and then come back to Chicago. When I got out to California, I found out all up and down the West coast were tons of great gigs that played good money. I’d been working in these little blues bars for not much money and in California it was easy to see that you could make a living. Out here on the West coast blues music was something exotic. They didn’t really know about the blues—it was something new to them. It was the underground radio that really did it because they weren’t playing me on the radio in Chicago. So that underground radio on the West coaster, and that first album gave me a career. That was my ticket out of the factory…I was twenty-two or twenty-three.
In San Francisco you played with everyone from members of the Grateful Dead to John Lee Hooker…
CM: They had all these big jams in the Golden Gate Park—they called them Be-Ins. There was jamming going on all the time. You’d go to these clubs and you could sit in with just about anybody…The Avalon, the Fillmore, The Matrix…man there were clubs all over the place. Live music every night of the week…
Heaven for a musician…
CM: And you met a lot of connections and met a lot of people that way. Things were happening.
I interviewed Jim Dickinson a few months ago…
CM: …Oh, I know Jim…
…He’s a big fan of yours and that y’all were in Memphis together at the same time, but he was out in the suburbs and you were down in the city. But Dickinson loves Champion Jack Dupree and you ran across him also. I love his Blues From the Gutter album.
CM: Yeah, in Germany I met him. We played a show together with a famous horn player—whose name I can’t remember—yeah I had that record.
What’s been the hardest thing for you to learn after all these years?
CM: Well, in the beginning for me, going from these little clubs to suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool, then it was supposed to be more professional…like signing contracts, being on time, having a band and rehearsing. Then it was a whole new ball game and I didn’t have a booking agency. I really didn’t know anything about the business. From that angle I was just used to playing on the streets for tips. I was playing in these rough little bars for a few bucks. There was nothing about it that was professional. So suddenly it was sink or swim—figure it out. I guess I figured it out enough to survive. I know I made a lot of mistakes too. I wouldn’t if I’d had a manager.
Talk about your relationship with John Lee Hooker. He was the best man at your wedding.
CM: He lived in Detroit, but he would come through Chicago fairly regularly to play. I was a big fan of his music so if I wasn’t doing anything I’d go to where he was playing, and we just became immediate friends. We just stayed in touch. We both moved out to California. I came out a little ahead of him, but I remember telling him, ‘Man you gotta come out here it’s really nice. I don’t know if that’s what did it, but he did move out here. We were always real good friends. I often stayed at his house. He was the best man at my wedding. I recorded on his album. He recorded on mine. He was a good friend. I spoke at his funeral—that was really hard.
I’m going to skip around here a bit Charlie…I’ve got many questions to ask…time’s always an issue…but I just thought to ask you about your music appearing in Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan…another Memphis connection…
CM: I’d done some other stuff, but I think that was my first major film.
You also played with James Burton…
CM: Oh yeah…we were on a bill together…he was playing with The Killer…
…Jerry Lee Lewis…
CM: Yeah. James and I were talking backstage…just kind of hanging out. I was around him a lot in Memphis and didn’t know it…just like Jim Dickinson. We may have brushed shoulders and never knew it.
Since I’m throwing out different artists…talk about recording with Tom Waits. I somehow see you too getting along very well…
CM: (Laughs) Heh Heh Heh. He’s a great guy. Anybody who should know anything about music should know about Tom Waits. Anyone that has any depth to them...
You guys live pretty close together. How did you meet him?
CM: Well, we met years ago when we were both still drinking—there are stories about us having these big conversations with huge laughs, but neither of us remembered (laughs). We know each other from those foggy days. Now, we’re relatively neighbors. He’s about a half-hour drive from here to get from his house to my house. I met him back in the late 70s. I’m on about three of his album.
Mule Variations and Blood Money I'm sure…
CM: We see a lot of things in the same way. Tom and I enjoy talking to each other. We get together now and then for dinner. We entertain ourselves pretty easily (Collective laughter). We get some good laughs in…at some else’s expense (laughs).
Your album Sanctuary was great. And Delta Hardware contains some real gems. On your last record you recorded a sort of spoken word piece about The Hurricane Katrina disaster…you usually refrain from making any sort of political statement…
CM: You’re right. I’ve never made any statements that could be considered political or socially heavy. I felt like it was time to say something. I just thought what a terrible mess the way the whole thing was handled. Me and the producer of that album wrote that together. My bass player at the time wrote that other tune called “The Invisible One’s”…it’s a companion piece to “Black Water”.
You’re taking a little break, but you’ll be hitting the road again soon.
CM: Yeah, that’s what I do.
We should try and eat some barbecue together when you come to Savannah in November.
CM; Yeah, we’re playing a festival there.
It’s on a Saturday—the 8th—The Roadhouse Blues and Barbecue festival.
CM: It sounds like fun. I fly to England the next day.
So tell me about this new horror film—The Pig Hunt—you’re in…the trailer looks interesting. You seem to be a kind of menacing character.
CM: (Laughs) Well you could put in that way. I play a guy named Charlie who owns a little country store. These guys come in looking for directions and I send them on their way to mayhem! (Laughs) It’s got bikers, hippies, cults, naked women, and dope dealers. For a joke I sometimes tell people it’s a documentary on daily life in backwoods Arkansas (collective laughter).
Who is the writer?
CM: Well, I know the writers…Robert Anderson and Zack Anderson. They’re from northern California. Robert Anderson had a best seller novel called Booneville. Booneville has its own language called Boon Boot-ling. And I have to speak some Boot-ling in the movie. I think it’s the first Boo-ling ever spoken in a movie.
Give me an example.
CM: There’s a word timmy—I can’t remember what it means. I don’t even remember the lines now—you’ll hear ‘em when you see the movie. It’s supposed to be out this year, but they haven’t given me a date yet. But they also have three more movies lined up that they have me in mind for—it should be fun.
It will be cool to see you up on the silver screen. Well Charlie, I appreciate you talking to me. Most honorable fun…
CM: Thank you man. I’m flattered. This was great fun. Feel free to stay in touch.
I’ll talk to you before you come to Georgia in the fall…