Ralph J. Gleason was the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jazz and Rock critic in the 1960s, and I learned a lot from his columns. At the end of his thrice-weekly observations and reviews, he’d run a list of upcoming shows in the Bay Area. The bands seemed fascinating; names like Grateful Dead or Country Joe and the Fish signaled something fresh going on. The longest name was Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Sound System, and I wondered what kind of music the man with the odd name made, and where in San Francisco was the South Side. Daly City?
As a freshman in college, I finally got to see what was then called the Charlie Musselwhite Blues Band in 1967, at the Straight Theater on Haight Street. I’d already seen Junior Wells with Buddy Guy and Otis Spann at the Fillmore Auditorium, but this was a bit different. Where Junior Wells and his band were more of a show band, well-rehearsed and somewhat choreographed, Musselwhite and his group seemed more free-form. They watched each other and interacted among themselves with more improvisation. The songs were open-ended, and what struck me was hearing some of the same songs Junior had performed (i.e., “Early in the Morning”) with a totally different presentation.
Tim Kaihatsu played guitar in Musselwhite’s band, and he constantly maintained eye contact with the others, signaling solos, stops and various nuance. Their efforts were more collaborative than individual, even the solos. Tim died a few weeks ago, and I was reminded of his great musicianship by the many remembrances posted by his contemporaries. But Charlie!
With slicked-back hair, black sport coat and sunglasses, Musselwhite had a hell of a presence, but it wouldn’t have been so striking if his music hadn’t more than matched the image. Where Junior Wells’ harmonica playing was tight, rhythmic and concise, Charlie was more free-form. And his compadres (especially pianist Skip Rose) were as much about Jazz as Blues, making a type of music that really couldn’t be labeled. It was just GOOD, and seemed to be stretching out in search of new directions. It was restless and relentless. And there was a genial aspect as well. Charlie’s good-natured way made the listener feel welcome and included.
I was hooked. The Junior Wells/Buddy Guy/Otis Spann seed was bearing incredible fruit, and I followed Musselwhite around the Bay Area from show to show. I saw Albert King at the Fillmore, and more Blues styles followed, but Charlie’s music resonated for me from that first time, and I got his first album and played it over and over. But that record, Stand Back, had been recorded with a different band and a different feel than the music I was seeing in the Bay Area. Harvey Mandel’s guitar work just didn’t swing like Kaihatsu’s, though there was lots of fine harmonica playing.
Charlie’s 1968 release, Stone Blues, featured Tim Kaihatsu and most of the band I had been seeing, with several excellent Little Walter covers and some longer tunes with extended solos. I must have owned 10 copies of the record, and gave copies away from time to time, evangelizing the Blues with Charlie’s help.
After I left San Francisco, I followed Charlie Musselwhite over the years, catching his shows whenever I could. He always featured great guitar players (such as Eddie “Hi Tide” Harris, Luther Tucker, and Mike Schermer) and a swinging band, and he seemed to be on a ceaseless tour of the United States. I’d hear from friends who caught Charlie in tiny towns throughout the nation. But drink and drugs dulled the luster, and it became a crap shoot – would he show up, could he stand up, would he feel like really entertaining an audience? Except for 1971’s Leave the Blues to Us, his albums remained top-notch. And thankfully, he pulled the plug on the party in 1986.
Despite some inclusion in mainstream entertainment, like the Blues Brothers 2000 movie and his work with Cindi Lauper, I never felt that Charlie had received his due as a creative musician. His merging of Memphis country Blues (Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band was an early influence), Chicago postwar Blues and world music (recording with Cuban musicians, touring Brazil) makes his music distinctive and original. And now, in 2014, Charlie has finally been accorded some official respect. After eight previous Grammy nominations, his collaboration with Ben Harper, Get Up!, was awarded the Grammy for Best Blues Album. He also just received a couple of Blues Music Association awards for his work on the Grammy-nominated Remembering Little Walter project, garnering Best Blues Album and Best Traditional Blues Album recognition. (This show, organized by Mark Hummel, appeared in Redding at the Cascade Theatre a couple years ago.) Charlie has now played the White House as well, and his inclusive, inventive brand of Blues is becoming more familiar, and accessible, to people around the world.
Nearly fifty years after I first noticed his name, dozens of shows and twenty albums later, one of my original inspirations in the world of music has received what amounts to establishment recognition. The validation is more than merited, and I take my hat off to the man whose “South Side Sound System” made me curious, all those years ago. Viva, Charlie Musselwhite!
“Good Rockin’ Derral” Campbell has lived in the State of Jefferson all of his 65 years, and has been programming Blues music on the radio since 1986. He joined Jefferson Public Radio in January of 2004, and his interest in the Blues includes playing saxophone in The Blues Rollers, a band from Redding.