I wouldn't call it so much a smirk but more of an all-knowing impish smile that always seems pasted on Charlie Musselwhite's mug. And between gregarious grins, the legendary bluesman still blows away at the electric harmonica — the Mississippi saxophone, the tin sandwich. Whatever you want to call it, Musslewhite is one of its masters.
He'll debate whether or not he's a legend. But just dig the man's story and see for yourself. He was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1944 and moved to Memphis three years later. Musselwhite was raised in a musical family: his father played harmonica and guitar, his mother played piano. Young Charlie came of age during the early rumblings of rock 'n' roll with Memphis at its epicenter. At this point, he worked odd jobs including running moonshine before moving to Chicago where the blues was already entrenched. Musselwhite was exposed to artists like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf, to name a few. It wasn't long before he was sitting in with these masters, becoming one of the few white artists associated with the blues in the early 1960's, along with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield.
Musselwhite's style and tone are instantly recognizable. He's released more than 20 albums and continues to record, appear on other artists' records, and circle the globe. His latest LP, "I Ain't Lyin'," is more of that Musselwhite magic. He even has his own ringtones available for download.
City Newspaper rang the bluesman up with some questions, and though we couldn't see him, I swear he was smiling. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. Here's what he said... and a-one, and a-two, and a-three, and a-four...
City: With all these years playing the blues, how do you keep it fresh and exciting?
Charlie Musselwhite: I'm always listening to all kinds of music for new ideas and experimenting.
What, or who, first turned you on to the harp?
I don't recall any one person turning me on to harmonica. Seems like there were always some around the house. I probably got them for presents at Christmas or my birthday. Back then they were real cheap. I remember it as being a fairly common toy ... most people had one in their home.
Being a white artist in the late-50's, early-60's Chicago, how did you break into that scene?
I didn't have any intention of breaking into any scene. I didn't have a goal of being a professional musician. I loved blues and taught myself and learned from guys in Memphis like Will Shade, Furry Lewis, Willie B, Earl Bell, and others. When I got to Chicago, I was happy enough just hanging out and listening to blues in all the clubs around Chicago. They all thought of me as a fan since I requested tunes all the time and they'd be surprised that I even knew the tune. I'd say "I've got the record." Anyhow, a waitress I'd gotten to know told Muddy Waters, "You oughta hear Charlie play harmonica." Muddy called me up to sit in and that changed everything. After that, Muddy always called me to sit in whenever he saw me. Others heard me playing and started offering me gigs.
What was it like sitting in for the first time with those great artists?
They were all very supportive and encouraging to me. They were flattered that I would come alone to all those clubs and hang out so we were already friends. When they found out I played they really insisted that I play.
At what point in your career did you realize you were a legend yourself?
Am I a legend? I'm not sure about that.
Who are some of the artists that you admire today?
I admire them all. Everybody has something to offer that is unique to them. And if they're a regular working musician, I admire them for that, too. This business is no piece of cake to make a living at.
You've been quoted as saying you only know one tune. Que pasa?
That's kind of a joke. It's just my way of saying I have an identifiable style. People tell me all the time that they always know it's me after the first few notes they hear. So everything I play, I play in my style. Whatever kind of music it is. It'll always sound like me.
Of all your records do you have a favorite?
The first one and the last one. The first one gave me a career, and the last one is where I'm at today.
Talk a little about the new album, "I Ain't Lyin'."
It was recorded live partly in California and partly in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I wrote most of the tunes. We had a lot of fun playing and I think that comes across when you're listening.
Do you have a Charlie Musselwhite ringtone on your phone?
What are you most proud of?
Musically, I suppose playing the White House was a pretty big deal for me. It was a tribute to music from Memphis. And it was even better that I got to play there with so many friends.