The tone of Memphis Charlie Musselwhite

I don’t know when it was or who it was–or what instrument it was in reference to–but someone once told me it was all about tone, the player’s instrument’s tone, that is.

It’s one of the many keys to Charlie Musselwhite’s greatnesss as a blues harmonica player, but it applies to any harp player, really. Re Charlie, he has one of the richest tones, virile, robust, horn-like, smooth yet rhythmic. And like all the greats, readily identifiable.

Compare it with my pal Corky Siegel’s, though in Cork’s case, I do a shitty job describing it. All I can say is, without knowing exactly what I mean, that it’s balloon-like. Like the reeds in his harp were encased in a balloon, maybe, or some such material that expands and contracts without breaking–even when overblowing, to use a technical harmonica term out of context.

Listen to the 1970 Siegel-Schwall ’70 album track “Walk in My Mind” and the harp accents at the end of each phrase and then the fluid back-and-forth bend at the end of each verse and, please, come up with a better description.

But back to Charlie. I don’t know when I got to know him, but figure I must have met him, at least, before I came to New York from Madison in 1982. But me and my blues friends used to talk about him all the time after we got out of high school and started going to see him, and even though we didn’t know him, God knows we cared about him as if we did.

“How’s Charlie doing?” we’d ask whoever was lucky enough to see him most recently. “Oh, he didn’t look so good,” was often the answer.

We attributed it to his drinking, and for sure, the extreme introvert was a big drinker–two quarts of liquor a day, he once said, “every second I was awake,” until he tapered off (“I remember getting all the way up to noon without a drink and I thought, ‘that calls for a drink!'” he told’s T.E. Mattox)” and then quit cold after being moved by the bravery of Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old tyke who famously fell down the well in Texas in 1987 and was dug out 58 hours later. He had always felt he had to drink to play in front of people on stage, but now figured that if Baby Jessica could sing nursery rhymes to herself during her ordeal, why couldn’t he “just get up on stage and do something I know perfectly well how to do” without the alcohol prompt.

Charlie ended up writing “The Well,” the titletrack of his 2010, about Baby Jessica. He now lives in Sonoma County, and after his gig Thursday night (Mar. 10) at City Winery, said he’s the only musician who moved to wine country and quit drinking. Too bad, in a way, because they made up a special signature bottle of wine for him.

He had walked out with his band unannounced, setting up his harmonica case on a stand next to his mic and keeping it open, facing him, throughout the show. It was covered with stickers, not unlike those of so many other touring musicians, but from where I sat the only one discernible was the “I [heart] Clarksdale [Mississippi]” at the bottom, though I’m sure the rest were good.

Born along the Mississippi Blues Trail in Kosciusko, Miss., Charlie Musselwhite, who later bought a building in the historic blues town of Clarksdale, moved with his family to Memphis as a child. He recalled running moonshine during his City Winery set (he said it was nothing like Robert Mitchum’s 1958 bootlegging movie classic Thunder Road, though it has been noted, incidentally, that he and Mitchum bear a resemblance, though a Facebook friend says recent promo shots of him look more like David Niven).

“The police wanted me to live where they worked,” he said, so he moved to Chicago and drove an exterminator truck, thereby learning where the blues clubs were and hanging out and studying with the great Chicago bluesmen, many of whom likewise moved from Mississippi in search of work.

Late in the set he spoke of busking with blues guitar legend Robert Nighthawk on the streets in Memphis, where he eventually picked up the nickname Memphis Charlie.

“We made tons of money,” he said. “Twenty-five bucks once.”

But watching Nighthawk, he also learned how to play a stinging slide guitar, as demonstrated during the set on “Crying Won’t Help You.” He also performed “Strange Land,” from his landmark 1967 debut album “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” about discovering Chicago following his move and before, he noted, knowing about Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

His harmonica case, like I said, remained open. Charlie periodically fished out a different-key harp, maybe glanced at the set list or otherwise looked down into it as his phenomenal guitarist Matt Stubbs soloed. One of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite myths was that he slept every day until Hollywood Squares came on, so I was kinda hoping he was checking out some whole episodes or at least a few classic Paul Lynde bits on an iPad secreted in his harmonica case–but I didn’t ask afterward.

I also remembered two of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite response lines, one of which I use whenever the opportunity arises: Some guy once yelled out, after he took the stage at a gig, “How are you doin’, Charlie?” upon which he answered, “You don’t know, do you?” In fact, I actually used that line in a tweet just last week. The other, too specific for me, was Charlie’s understandably annoyed retort to “Play some blues!”: “You give me the blues!”

Here, though, it was, “How y’all doing tonight? We got the blues in the house tonight. You ready to hear a little blues?” and a request that the club’s “million dollar dance floor” be filled: “I see women move and I feel like I accomplished something!” he said, in his ever soft voice and droll manner.

He did “Long Lean Lanky Mama” from last year’s great live album I Ain’t Lyin’, and noted that “by pure coincidence, all the blues tunes we’re doing happen to be on that CD” after revealing that “it turns out there’s a way for you to listen to us in the safety of your own home,” copies of I Ain’t Lyin’, also by pure coincidence, being available at the table by the door.

While it’s safe to say that everyone at City Winery was blown away by Charlie’s blues harp blowing, one fan stood out, standing up in the VIP area the entire show.

“Do it the way you done it!” Cyndi Lauper commanded after Charlie called her up, upon which she sang Chicago blues harp hero Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool,” as she did on her 2010 album Memphis Blues–also recorded with Charlie–after a remarkable on-the-spot soundcheck micromanaged from the stage with City Winery’s sound man down to the precise number of hertzes.

“She really is a sweetheart, who knows her voice and range exactly,” he marveled after the show. “But you’d never want to cross her.”

I filed this last comment somewhere in my brain for future reference if needed, though Cyndi was a purring pussycat next to Charlie.

“I toured with him every night and pride myself on watching him and telling myself to remember everything,” she said, and she was typically adorable as she sang and danced like she was in some Mississippi Delta roadhouse. She was just as adorable after the show, making trademark goofy faces while posing for selfies with all who asked.

“She just killed me again!” said Charlie after she finished, adding in between his own fan selfies after the show that she was so funny on tour that he once had corn come out of his nose from laughing so hard. It might happen again, for Cyndi’s parting words were “Charlie, you should go on tour with me!”

Charlie returned for his encore while everyone was still standing.

“Did somebody say ‘Christo’?” he asked. “I wasn’t going to do it.”

His signature instrumental “Christo Redemptor” was on Stand Back and is on I Ain’t Lyin’ as well, and really, there was no way he wasn’t going to do it. He stayed long after it was over to sign copies of the album at the table by the door.

5 thoughts on “The tone of Memphis Charlie Musselwhite

  • March 15, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Great article Bess. Charlie is one of my favorite people in the whole world – except for you. Corky

  • August 4, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    does charlie use overblows at all/
    great article by the way
    Like corky’s playing and Charlies

  • August 7, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Not like Howard Levy, if that’s what you mean! But definitely on the high register. And so glad you liked the article!

  • August 7, 2017 at 11:15 am

    I love Charlie’s tone. I also love his tone on the harmonica! Corky
    By the way. Beautiful article Jim!

  • August 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Takes a great player to know a great player.

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