For Charlie Musselwhite, picking up a harmonica today isn’t much different from the first time. As a child in Memphis, Tennessee, choosing the instrument was like playing with any of his other favorite toys. Musselwhite was lucky enough to be born into a musical family, so he quickly realized his favorite toy was more than just a trivial plaything he would soon outgrow.
Today, Musselwhite is commonly ranked among one the most prominent pioneers of electric blues, rock 'n' roll, and boogie music. A list of awards and accolades accrued by the 71-year-old could easily fill the rest of this story's word count, with some notable examples including an induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, a Blues Music Award, and a handful of Grammy nominations. He's collaborated with big names such as B.B. King, Tom Waits and Ben Harper. His signature style was the inspiration behind Dan Aykroyd's character in Blues Brothers.
However, Musselwhite isn't one to let such landmarks define him, giving that honor alone to his musical style, dutifully crafted over many decades. After developing a relationship with the harmonica, he fell in love with the blues, which were in the middle of a sort of renaissance in the South.
“It was a very exciting time to be around,” said Musselwhite. “I never thought I would end up becoming a musician, being a part of it.”
The young Musselwhite worked all types of odd jobs while developing his own sound. Living in such a vibrant, pivotal place and time inspired him to develop his style, or, as he put it, “play my own blues.” Even when Johnny and Dorsey Burnette were living across the street, and Elvis Presley was inviting him to parties, Musselwhite wasn't sure he would end up as a musician.
It wasn't until he went to Chicago that the world of blues music swept Musselwhite downstream, leaving him forever changed.
“When I went to Chicago, the blues overtook me,” said Musselwhite.
Acquainting himself with the likes of Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, among others, Musselwhite started to become convinced that he could make it in music, and compiled his first album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band. The brazen debut, which pairs Musselwhite's smoky harmonica and vocal work with a talented backing band, is considered a classic by many critics and musicians alike, and broke the young bluesman through to the mainstream.
When asked how he developed his signature style, Musselwhite explained that much of it came to him naturally.
“It wasn't anything conscious, I just played what I felt,” he said. “I thought everyone was supposed to play their own style.”
Much of Musselwhite's inspiration came from his surroundings in his early years in Memphis, snapshots of people, places, and natural surroundings. To him, blues is about everyday life, people trying to get to work, waking up every morning, and eating meals with their families. His music also hearkens back to the birthplace of the blues in the humid wetlands of Mississippi.
“When you're there in the Mississippi Delta, it just evokes a feeling. The river has a feel, a spirit to it.”
Musselwhite hopes this spirit will come across to his audience, to whom he recommends bringing their dancing shoes.
“They'll hear tunes from the past, tunes from my new CD, and maybe some that haven't been recorded yet,” he said. “But mainly it's for a good time, to get everyone leaving the show smiling.”