Interview: Issue 68, August 1994

Interview: Charlie Musselwhite


SLUG: You’re known for your harmonica playing, but didn’t you start playing the guitar as a child?

Musselwhite: Well, I had harmonicas as toys back when they were cheap. My mother would give them to me, so I actually had those first. But my father gave me a guitar when I was 13 and I wound up playing the blues on both instruments, simultaneously. I actually, at first, made myself a “guitar.” Not really a guitar, but a stringed instrument out of a steel ammunition box with a piece of wire tied to the handle and a piece of wood hooked on it. I could pull the wood down and dumm, dumm, dumm—get the note I wanted. Like a washtub base, so to speak.

Interview: Charlie Musselwhite, June 8 at the Zephyr, Issue 68
Interview: Charlie Musselwhite, June 8 at the Zephyr, Issue 68

SLUG: Why did you stick with the harmonica as opposed to moving onto something else?

Musselwhite: Well, those are things that cost more money. We didn’t have any money then. You see, when I was starting’ to learn how to play, I wasn’t thinking’ about making it a profession. I wanted to play the blues. I loved the blues. That’s all there was to it. It was just the enjoyment of being able to play your own blues. That’s how I got started. I didn’t know where I was headed. I wish I’d paid more attention to the people I’ve met and was learning from.

SLUG: It seems like you’ve met everyone. You’ve played with everybody.

Musselwhite: Almost. Guy Mitchell, you know, Sonny James, was in Chicago playing but he died before I went to see him. There were so many people in that scene.

SLUG: Now, these guys that you’re touring with…

Musselwhite: They’re the band on the album (In My Time…)

SLUG: What’s their background?

Musselwhite: Well, on guitar there’s Andrew “Junior Boy” Jones; he played with Johnnie Taylor and Freddie King. On drums, there’s Tommy Hill; he’s played with Johnnie Taylor, Grover Washington and various groups. Tommy and Andy are from Dallas. Felton Crews on the bass, he’s from Chicago and he’s played with everybody in Chicago. They’re all great so we can play anything.

SLUG: These guys aside, if you could pick any band or anybody to be members in a band, living or dead, who would you put together to be a “dream band?” I know it could depend on your mood or the night, but right now, who would you pick?

Musselwhite: Otis Spann on piano, definitely. There are just so many ways to go … it depends on such different styles. If you could get Jeff Riley on drums and Dennis Foley on bass and Skip James on guitar, you know … I mean, there’s endless possibilities that sound really interesting together. I don’t have any favorites other than Otis Spann. I thought he was the deepest piano player.

SLUG: What about guitar? I know that at your last wedding your best man was…

Musselwhite: John Lee Hooker.

SLUG: He’s one of my favorites.

Musselwhite: Yeah, he’s not like anybody. There’s nobody that sounds like John.

SLUG: And I see a lot of comparisons between him and you, style-wise.

Musselwhite: Yes, you know there are musicians who don’t have a sound, or really sound like anybody else, but when they play by themselves they don’t really startle anybody. Ha ha! A lot of guys have gotten into Top 40, and spend their whole life playing Top 40 and wake up one day realizing that they never found their own sound, which is a shame. It’s like climbing the ladder of success to find out you had it against the wrong wall.

SLUG: Well, I think your style is incredible; you’re considered one of the greats.

Musselwhite: Well, it’s interesting to me ‘cause I have no idea what I sound like. To me, the only thing you should do is just play from your heart. And you play as much as you can, as close to how you feel. I don’t want to say it’s a “spiritual experience,” but it is something more than just manual labor, you know? It is a higher-minded pursuit than laying concrete.

SLUG: Do you feel a need to be in a band?

Musselwhite: No, I don’t. If I hit the lottery, I’d just sit around and play for myself, I don’t care.

SLUG: Now, I noticed in your liner notes (on In My Time…) that you thanked Dan Aykroyd. What’s the connection with Dan?

Musselwhite: Well, he’s a part owner in the House of Blues nightclubs, which are going to be all over the world eventually. There’s three of them now. He’s done a lot to help the blues. That movie alone, The Blues Brothers movie really raised the consciousness of people’s awareness of blues and made it acceptable, even popular. He’s got the “House of Blues” radio hour that’s on around forty cities (last I heard), and he’s really dedicated to promoting the blues. I mean, what he’s doing is good for everybody—and he also told me that I was an influence for the Blues Brothers image.

SLUG: For their harmonica?

Musselwhite: I used to wear black suits with my hair slicked back with shades, and Dan used to see me when he was up in Canada going to school.

SLUG: I see the similarity—you’ve got the black on now.

Musselwhite: Well, the black outfit is for when you’re on the road all the time, ya know? You spill hot sauce on ya or something, you just wipe it off. It makes sense. That’s all there is to it.

SLUG: Now, when you started playing harp in Chicago, the clubs were either all-white or all-black, and I know you played with all the great black players of the time in their clubs. Did you feel like a minority to be a white boy who plays the blues on harmonica?

Musselwhite: Well, yeah. When I first got to Chicago, people on the North side didn’t go to the South side, ya know? I lived on the South side. When I got to Chicago, to me, I had more in common with the black people than the white people, because all the black people were from the South. We spoke the same language, ate the same food, liked the same music. I felt at home—more comfortable there. There was no problem at all with me. I’d go into a (Northern) restaurant and ask for something, and then they’d make fun of my accent, but not in the Black side of town. I kinda had to retrain myself to talk so people wouldn’t go “Huh? What are you talking’ about?”

SLUG: You know, you’re really looked up to by a lot of people. And, well, face it, you’re a legend, that’s all there is to it. And you’ve got to be one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met.

Musselwhite: I really appreciate that. I don’t really feel different than I ever did. I know that there are musicians that get real big ego problems, and they have problems in the band, and people think they’re not getting’ their right amount of exposure—all these kinds of things, you know. But we just have a good time. Nobody wants to be the star. We like music, and wanna make good music, and that’s all there is to it. I’m the band leader, but it’s not  big deal. I’d just as soon be a sound man, you know?

Interview: June 8 at the Zephyr

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