The Blues Never Die

17 April 2014 | 10:29 am | Dan Condon

"Even if they can’t understand the lyrics, they understand the feeling."

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When Tom Waits wants a harmonica player, he calls Charlie Musselwhite. When INXS needed to sample some harmonica on Suicide Blonde, they called Charlie Musselwhite. There aren't many who won't look straight to this blues harp gun when they need the best.

“Some of my earliest memories that were exciting to me were the street singers in downtown Memphis. Most of them were blues singers; I'd just stand on the street and hear them playing the blues,” he recalls. “I just loved the music and there was something about it being out of the street like that that made it so special, it just drew me in.

“So much was going on there; rockabilly and gospel and blues and hillbilly and R&B. Stax Records and Sun Records were there, the Hi [Records] label with Willie Mitchell – all kinds of music was happening. Rockabilly seemed like it was invented there, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette lived across the road from me. There were gospel tent meetings; sometimes you could just be walking down the street and hear some music, you'd follow the sound to hear some band playing somewhere.”

Chasing work in the factories as a young man he moved up Highway 51 to Chicago, where he fell in with a blues scene that seemed unbelievable at the time and is just astonishing to hear about now.

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“You had a lot of clubs, all over the south side of the Chicago playing blues. You could go and hear Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf – the city was loaded with the blues, live blues, all over town. It felt like a kid bein' in a candy store. You just don't have those choices anymore – they had so many choices in one place it was really astounding.”

He has nearly 30 full-length records to his name, and countless collaborations with some of the world's greatest. Not bad for a guy who didn't have aspirations to become a professional musician. “I didn't have a goal or plan to be a musician. I'd been meeting guys that played and learning from them, but just because I loved the music – I didn't think it would go anywhere. Even if it hadn't ever gone anywhere I'd still be playing it, it was just something that I had to do. All those guys I learned from – the old-timers I knew in Memphis and the not-so-old-timers in Chicago, if I had've known where this was going I'd have paid a lot more attention.”

While Musselwhite is saddened by the fact so many blues greats are passing away, he does think there's plenty of promise in the future of the blues.

“It seems to be bigger than ever. In my travels I've found there are people playing blues in every country, from Canada to Brazil. It's not a fad, there's more substance to it than that. People hear and they've got to hear more of it. Even if they can't understand the lyrics, they understand the feeling.”