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By Brian Palmer
"Memphis" Charlie Musselwhite says the secret to happiness is to treat life like a harmonica solo.
"You've just gotta find the right key and play all the notes in the chord," says the veteran rock/blues harp player. "If you've got the right vibrations, then get in a groove, let it flow and it'll turn out better than you expected."
Musselwhite found his key 30 years ago (or, rather, it found him) when he was discovered by Muddy Waters as a struggling bluesman on the south side of Chicago. Since then, he's cut 16 recordings and put in guest performances on albums by blues notables such as Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf, country rocker Bonnie Raitt and pop darlings INXS.
And even after three decades in the business, Musselwhite is mystified by the pocket-size piece of metal that can transform breath into beauty. "The harmonica is real voicelike, very human," he says. "When you play the harp, it's in your mouth, it's in your body, and it becomes a part of you."
Growing up on the poor side of the tracks in Memphis, Tennessee, Musselwhite got harmonicas from his parents in lieu of toys because harmonicas were cheaper and lasted longer. He recalls playing for hours, even as a young boy."
I remember seeing the street singers in downtown Memphis, hearing blues on the radio and buying blues records in junk stores," he says. "But I didn't know the blues would have anything to do with my life later on."
The blues bug finally bit Charlie when he was a teenager. He befriended several Memphis musicians (including guitarists Furry Lewis and Will Shade) who taught him a few tricks of the trade.
Even so, music wasn't bringing home the bacon, and Musselwhite sought out a more stable source of income: bootlegging. "I would drive out in the country and get my truck filled up with these cans of moonshine," he remembers, "and then I'd deliver them to these other guys who would bottle it up and sell it at drive-in hamburger restaurants."
One day, however, Charlie noticed a state police car on his tail and figured he was close to getting busted. A change of scenery was called for. So, at 18, the fledgling musician turned bootlegger packed up and lit out for sweet home Chicago. The year was 1962.
Shortly after his arrival in the Windy City, Charlie moved into an apartment below the Jazz Record Mart and scored a few gigs at smaller clubs around town. He also landed a day job as an exterminator. He drove all over the city and kept seeing fliers for performances by the very blues artists he grew up on--names like Muddy Waters, Elmore James and the great harmonica player Big Walter Horton.
In between gigs setting traps for pigeons and spraying for roaches, he'd write down the addresses of hot blues spots to hit at night.
One day, a waitress who knew Muddy Waters told him about a young white boy named Charlie who could play the hell out of a blues harp. Muddy checked him out, and the next thing Musselwhite knew, he was sitting in on Waters' gigs. "It was scary at first," he says, "but I enjoyed it. Waters thought it was far out that someone so young could play like I did."
"In Chicago, I felt I had more in common with the black people than the white northern people," Musselwhite says. "The blacks were mostly all from the South--we all ate the same food and spoke the same language, so I felt at home."
Charlie says the harp player Horton was by far his biggest influence. "We'd just sit around jammin', drinkin' and hangin' out. There wasn't anything formal about it at all."
Although Musselwhite's style was rooted in the standard Memphis and Chicago-style blues forms, he fused it with the hard-driving energy of rock. In the mid-'60s, Charlie and Paul Butterfield tapped a young audience of rock fans who were drawn to their high-energy style of blues.
Musselwhite recorded the classic Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite's Southside Band in 1966 for the Vanguard label--one of the first blues albums marketed for a rock audience. After cutting two more albums for Vanguard, Musselwhite moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he lives today. "I'm the only blues musician who moved to the wine country and quit drinking," he says.
Apart from Stand Back!, Musselwhite's most successful albums were Ace of Harps and Signature, released on the Alligator label in 1990 and '91, respectively. His most recent recording for Alligator, In My Time, was released in January on his 50th birthday.
Charlie's smooth crooning on his newest album has a Delta-blues sound, but he also pulls off a pair of gospel tunes with the Blind Boys of Alabama and a raucous set of '50s Chicago-style swing that highlights his blazing harmonica work.
"Don't let the term 'blues' fool you," Musselwhite cautions. "When we get to town, the blues we play won't make you sad. It'll get rid of your blues."
Charlie Musselwhite is scheduled to perform on Monday, October 30, at the Rhythm Room, with Hans Olson. Showtime is 9 p.m.