Bio

  • 2019 GRAMMY Nominee NO MERCY IN THIS LAND with Ben Harper
  • 2014 GRAMMY Winner GET UP with Ben Harper
  • 13-time GRAMMY Nominee
  • 33-time Blues Music Award Winner
  • Many-time Living Blues Award Winner

Charlie Musselwhite’s journey through the blues was from his birth in Mississippi to Memphis, Chicago and California. Arriving in Chicago in the early sixties, he was just in time for the epochal blues revival. In 1966 at the age of 22 he recorded the landmark Stand Back! to rave reviews. A precipitous relocation to San Francisco in 1967, where his album was being played on underground radio, found him welcomed into the counterculture scene around the Fillmore West as an authentic purveyor of the real deal blues. 

Fifty years of nonstop touring, performing and recording have reaped huge rewards. Charlie Musselwhite is living proof that great music only gets better with age. This man cut his (musical) teeth alongside Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and everyone on the South side of Chicago in the early 1960’s. Thank your lucky stars that he is still with us telling the truth with a voice and harp tone like no other.

More than 20 albums later he is at the top of his game, a revered elder statesman of the blues nowhere near ready to hang up his harps, his depth of expression as a singer and an instrumentalist unexcelled and only growing deeper.

Charlie has been collaborating with the world’s finest Artists for many years, including Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gov’t Mule, INXS, Mickey Hart and Japan’s Kodo Drummers, George Thorogood, Eliades Ochoa, Cat Stevens and personal friend and best man at his wedding John Lee Hooker.

Musselwhite, more than any other harmonica player of his generation, can rightfully lay claim to inheriting the mantle of many of the great harp players that came before him with music as dark as Mississippi mud and as uplifting as the blue skies of California. In an era when the term legendary gets applied to auto-tuned pop stars, this singular blues harp player, singer, songwriter and guitarist has earned and deserves to be honored as a true master of American classic vernacular music.

I ain't Lyin

Charlie’s riveting Sonoma County show brought his unstoppable, hard hitting, tone heavy sound to the audience who couldn’t get enough. Luckily someone had turned on the tape and Charlie knew just what to do – he took the tapes down to Clarksdale MS and delivered them into the capable mixing and mastering hands of Gary Vincent who in collaboration with Charlie, brought Mississippi mud to this exceptional live recording. 

I AIN’T LYIN’ is all Charlie. The cd is a group of painstakingly crafted original tunes penned by the hand of this Mississippi master that resonate with the land of Mississippi itself. Charlie’s music rises from the river, crosses the levy, dances through the streets and cuts straight to the heart of what it is to be alive. 

Fifty years of nonstop touring, performing and recording have reaped huge rewards. Charlie Musselwhite is living proof that great music only gets better with age. This man cut his (musical) teeth alongside Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and everyone on the south side of Chicago in the early 1960’s – thank your lucky stars he is still with us telling the truth with a voice and harp tone like no other. 

Charlie Musselwhite may be the only musician to get a huge ovation just for opening his briefcase. Fans know that’s where he keeps his harmonicas and they’re about to hear one of the true masters work his magic on the humble instrument.

Musselwhite is, and always will be, a bluesman of the highest order. But he’s taken blues harp from the clubs on the Southside of Chicago (where “Memphis Charlie” and Mike Bloomfield backed Big Joe Williams) to places it’s never been before, both musically and physically. He’s soloed to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” with Cyndi Lauper on Good Morning America; wailed on “Echo Bells” with Japan’s Kodo drummers (produced by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart); and mixed blues with Cuban son legend Eliades Ochoa, each playing on the other’s album. He’s jammed on stage with Mick Jagger and recorded with such diverse artists as INXS, Tom Waits, bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, gospel Blind Boys of Alabama, and even Cat Stevens. And shortly before winning the Grammy for Best Blues Album for their collaboration Get Up!, he and Ben Harper played at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady, in a salute to Memphis soul. Charlie explains, “It’s fun and interesting and challenging to me to get to play in a new setting and do tunes that are different than the usual IIV-V and 12 bars.”

“Meeting Charlie was huge to me,” said Ben Harper in reference to the GET UP project. “Knowing his music but also his commitment to the blues and everything he brought to that. When you get the call to sit at the table with kings, you better have a well-pressed suit. I knew that time would come, so I kept setting material aside. But Charlie Musselwhite is the north star of this record. We were following him. The songs really came to life around Charlie and his sensibilities. We revolved around him and his harp; you can hear that.”

After Charlie was a member of Hot Tuna’s 2011 “blues tour,” leader/guitarist Jorma Kaukonen hit the nail on the head. “We just had a great time,” he smiled. “I mean, talk about the real shit – then there’s Charlie Musselwhite. When Charlie tells stories about the blues guys it’s because he knew them and played with them. And we know that harp players can be dangerous in the musical sensibility department, but not Charlie. He’s just the best. And he’s such a cool guy. It was one of those things that just felt so perfect.”

As Charlie often says, “The blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in bad times. It empowers you to keep going. It is secular spiritual music, the gospel blues. It’s music from the heart instead of the head.”

— Dan Forte, ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award winner for excellence in music journalism

Juke Joint Chapel

The blues sounded like how I felt growing up. Too many people think of the blues as sad, but I think many of these tunes will immediately dispel that notion, as they are fun, dancing tunes that lift your spirits. I often tell people that the blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in bad times. It empowers you to keep going,” states bluesman extraordinaire Charlie Musselwhite. “It is secular spiritual music, the gospel blues. It’s music from the heart instead of the head.”

 His journey through the blues was literal from his birth in Mississippi to Memphis, Chicago and California. Arriving in Chicago in the early sixties, he was just in time for the epochal blues revival. In 1966 at the age of 22 he recorded the landmark Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s Southside Band to rave reviews. A precipitous relocation to San Francisco in 1967, where his album was being played on underground radio, found him welcomed into the counterculture scene around the Fillmore West as an authentic purveyor of the real deal blues. More than 20 albums later he is at the top of his game, a revered elder statesman of the blues nowhere near ready to hang up his harp belt, his depth of expression as a singer and an instrumentalist unexcelled and only getting deeper. 

The live and kicking Juke Joint Chapel showcases five originals and seven choice covers with a stone groove band of Matt Stubbs (guitar), Mike Phillips (bass) and June Core (drums). The classic Eddie Taylor shuffle “Bad Boy” chugs with grace and attitude as Musselwhite slyly quotes “C.C. Rider” in his opening harp solo, his tone as thick as sweet molasses. His is one of the most recognizable voices in the blues, a true “instrument” he employs effortlessly to great expressiveness. “Roll Your Moneymaker” cruises smoothly as a ’55 Lincoln Continental, the luxury ride only interrupted by dynamic stop-time. Written by crap-shooting Shaky Jake Harris, whom Musselwhite says played harmonica as “another hustle” and modestly admits to “showing him a couple of licks.” Stubbs stands out and is a monster guitarist graciously allotted extensive solo space throughout from a leader who has enjoyed the services of many greats, but will never feel threatened by another instrumentalist. The toe tapping two-beat of Tony Joe White’s “As the Crow Flies” is driven hard by the propulsive and endlessly inventive Stubbs along with Musselwhite, who has observed, “In country music, the singer might say ‘my baby left me and I’m gonna jump off a bridge.’ But in blues, they say ‘my baby left me, and I’m gonna get a new baby’.” “Gone Too Long,” from fellow harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold contains one of his patented syncopated figures and an unstoppable rhythm from the Musselwhite band demanding you can’t sit down.

This Musselwhite set has a Little Walter nugget called “It Ain’t Right,” which almost levitates with buoyant energy. He exuberantly tests the metallurgy of his “Mississippi saxophone” while utilizing his natural blues growl to lecture his baby as Stubbs throws down the gauntlet to other blues guitar heroes. About the original “Strange Land,” Musselwhite states “I went to Chicago when I was 18 and coming from the South, I felt like a stranger in a strange land, not having any idea there was a book with that title.” The menacing, heavy country blues vamp surges below while the harper and picker take the track to an otherworldly place. The autobiographical, thumping shuffle “Blues Overtook Me” finds

Musselwhite confessing “The blues overtook me, when I was a little child. You know fast women and whisky, made this poor boy wild…I ain’t complaining!” as his slippery harmonica dramatically ranges from lyrical high notes to a snarly low rumble in an abstract evocation of his life. The exultant boogie of “River Hip Mama” pays homage to his close friend John Lee Hooker, the modern classic being covered numerous times. Saucy lyrics such as “She’s long and tall, she weeps like a willow tree…she caught me in the woods and weeped all over me,” compel the author to comment with amusement how often others get them wrong.

NO MERCY IN THIS LAND

No Mercy In This Land - Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper Review

“Charlie Musselwhite is that very rare and hallowed place where blues past, present and future collide,” says Ben about his collaborator and friend. “He transforms notes into emotions that feel both hauntingly familiar and brand new, as if hearing them for the first time every time. He is a living legend whose harmonica playing should be beamed into outer space to search for other life forms.”

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite know something about the darkness that underlies the deepest of blues. Standing side by side on a small stage in Los Angeles in March, the duo ease into the haunted twang of a song called “No Mercy in This Land,” with Harper on electric bottleneck guitar and his partner blowing a wounded melody into the harmonica in his cupped hands, eyes shut tight.

Most of the lyrics are sung by Harper, but it’s the 74-year-old Musselwhite who leans into the mic for an anguished final verse: “Father left us down here all alone/My poor mother lies under a stone/With an aching heart and trembling hands/Is there no mercy in this land?”

It’s the title song from Harper and Musselwhite’s second album together, and the words are weighted with genuine tragedy as the harmonica legend sings on the Grammy Museum stage. Harper wrote the track, in part, about the 2005 murder of Musselwhite’s mother in Memphis. They were the first lyrics written for the album.

“Some things just stay with you in a way that don’t let go until you write them,” Harper, 48, tells Rolling Stone before the set, recalling the crime that led to the world-weary tune. “I brought it to Charlie hesitantly, reverentially as something we could possibly duet on. Charlie didn’t hesitate. I was honored and relieved.”

– Rolling Stone Magazine

 

When you win a Grammy as Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite did in 2014 for Get Up! an encore is certainly called for. In No Mercy in This Land the collaborative duo reaches even deeper into spare, haunting country blues, with touches of soul, gospel, and shuffling blues. This is an album that could have come out in the sixties, evoking the sound of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Josh White, and early Taj Mahal. Harper admits that this is the blues album he’s always wanted to make. There’s a purity to it. Harper wanted to measure this album against some of those legends and gave it his utmost attention to detail. That’s another difference from its predecessor; every track but one was sent to the musicians in advance while Get Up! brimmed with spontaneity. Arguably also, this record is more thematically connected. A spiritual thread runs through it.

While separated in age by more than two decades, the younger multi-instrumentalist Harper, especially early in his career, was channeling the classic blues, soul, and R&B, and gospel that made him seem like an old soul, reminiscent of the way Taj Mahal started. Musselwhite, of course, is a living legend who began in Chicago but over the course of his career has extended to Tex-Mex, Cuban, Americana, swamp rock, country, and even jazz. The two connected on a 1997 John Lee Hooker session and have worked together intermittently since, both live and in the studio. Harper played on Musselwhite’s brilliant Sanctuary album for example.

Like he did on the previous outing, Harper produces, sings every song, does the writing, and seems to be leading with Musselwhite prodding him on. Even with a rhythm section and keyboardist present, the album reads mostly as the work of the duo. The opening haunting notes of “When I Go” set the stage for Harper’s blues moans while Musselwhite lays down a mournful harp. It’s a slow-burning blues of loss that sparingly points out what is essential for survival.

Tempo revs up with the jump blues “Bad Habits,” featuring some wild blowing from Musselwhite. Like most of the fare, they use conventional blues idioms and structures. Soul imbues “Love and Trust,” with both artists singing on the chorus.

Harper becomes a blues shouter on the Chicago inspired “The Bottle Wins Again” and keeps pumping on “Found the One” until he reveals deep soul on the gospel infected “When Love Is Not Enough.” “Trust You to Dig My Grave” is classic acoustic blues. The sparse and lonely title track punctuated by Harper’s resonator, has both sharing vocals in a topical statement about today’s troubled times and personal reflections, reminiscent of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”. Again, they take the tempo up for the shuffling “Movin’ On,” the album’s most energetic cut, before closing with the slow burner “Nothing at All.” Here, as on the other slower, mournful tunes, Musselwhite’s harp tone is incomparable.

Guitar harp duos like Terry and McGhee, Cephas and Wiggins, and others played together for more than a decade. Harper and Musselwhite get together only occasionally but sound as if they’ve been playing together their entire careers. The chemistry and respect for each other’s talents is palpable. Given the stature of these giants, don’t be at all surprised if they garner another Grammy.

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and formerly Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live Music Host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

Get Up!

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
2014 GRAMMY Winner
2014 GRAMMY Nominee

Stax Records January 29, 2013 “It all goes back to that John Lee Hooker session,” enthused Ben Harper. “Even John Lee mentioned it,saying: ‘yeah, yeah, you guys… that’s good. Yeah, yeah. You should stay with that. Do that.’”

Mississippi born Musselwhite is one of the most revered blues musicians in the world. The harmonica master, also a respected singer and songwriter in his own right, has won countless awards during his legendary career including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and collaborated with innumerable musical giants of the past 50 years including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder and the aforementioned Hooker, just to name to name a few.

Mississippi born Musselwhite is one of the most revered blues musicians in the world. The harmonica master, also a respected singer and songwriter in his own right, has won countless awards during his legendary career including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and collaborated with innumerable musical giants of the past 50 years including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder and the aforementioned Hooker, just to name to name a few. 

A fan of the harmonica virtuoso since childhood, Harper begged an introduction to his idol at Australia’s Bryon Bay Blues Festival in 1996. Despite the difference in age and background, the two hit it off immediately. The next pivotal moment came at a 1997 session for John Lee Hooker where they locked in musically, finding a common language that is seamless and remarkable. 

Since then, the two musicians have worked together over the years, including sessions for Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me in 2002, on Musselwhite’s 2004 Grammy nominated album Sanctuary;the budding mates teaming on a version of Harper’s “Homeless Child” and on Harper’s own album Both Sides of the Gun in 2006. Each time Harper and Musselwhite played together it was lightning in a bottle. The more they played,the louder Hooker’s words echoed. 

In the grand but all-too-rare tradition of full-album artist collaborations, Get Up!(Stax/ConcordMusic Group) featuring Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite is a modern blues classic. The release, Harper’s 12th studio album, surveys gospel, roots, country and R&B; the marriage’s fluid chemistry helping his multi-layered canvas expand as never before. 

“Blues is a feeling,” Musselwhite points out. “It doesn’t have to be a certain chord change. You could have 1-4-5 chord changes without that feeling and it wouldn’t be the blues. B.B. King could sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and it would be the blues.” 

Harper, Musselwhite and the band (guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and drummer Jordan Richardson) play this intense and emotional song-cycle with economical grit. Produced by Harper with co-production credits going to engineer Sheldon Gomberg, the band members and Grammy winning roots music producer Chris Goldsmith, Get Up! has a timeless feel, as if it had been recorded 40 years ago in Chicago at Chess Studios just as easily as the Carriage House in Los Angeles. 

Harper, Musselwhite and the band (guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and drummer Jordan Richardson) play this intense and emotional song-cycle with economical grit. Produced by Harper with co-production credits going to engineer Sheldon Gomberg, the band members and Grammy winning roots music producer Chris Goldsmith, Get Up! has a timeless feel, as if it had been recorded 40 years ago in Chicago at Chess Studios just as easily as the Carriage House in Los Angeles.   

Opening with “Don’t Look Twice” Harper echoes Blind Lemon Jefferson, vocalizing in a high octave falsetto. The swaggering electric blues of “I’m In I’m Out and I’m Gone” comes next, the spirit of Muddy Waters no doubt smiling from beyond the grave. 

“To me it’s one of the crown jewels of the album,” Harper says of “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone.” “I am just going to go on record and say it. I think it contains one of the greatest harmonica solos in history. It’s straight ahead but that’s elusive. It’s hard to do something straight ahead and make it sound fresh.” 

The fearsome “Blood Side Out” finds Harper portraying a man pushed past his breaking point. Both the blunt guitar solo and the emotive harmonica capture the frustration and manic energy of someone who’s been on the short end of the stick too many times. 

There’s plenty of defiance on Get Up! and also tender heartache. Case in point the poi gnant acoustic guitar and harmonica duet of “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend.)” Featuring poetic lyrics, the song’s three short verses detail a painful break-up, vividly embodied in Musselwhite’s brilliant accompaniment. “I’ve played with John Lee, Solomon Burke and Taj Mahal, and one of my greatest musical moments is playing that song with Charlie,” Harper says. 

“I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” is an angry blast of electric blues that could be directed at anyone who hasn’t lived up to their promises, be it lover or politician. “I could fit those words to political imagery and it would almost work better than matters of the heart,” Harper points out. 

A rollicking New Orleans piano highlights “She Got Kick”, an unambiguous testimonial to the ultimate control of the opposite sex. Things go further out on “We Can’t End This Way,” a heavenly synthesis of acoustic blues and gospel written in three-quarter time. In lesser hands it would have been a mess of good intentions but here the music is simply a celebration teeming with life. 

Anchored by a pulsating groove, the band goes just as far in a different direction on “Get Up!” the title track. “That song was written around a killer baseline that Jessie had,” Harper explains. “It’s tempting to throw everything but the kitchen sink on top of it, but we left it sparse. Powerful.” 

The haunting battle hymn, “I Ride at Dawn”, dedicated to departed Navy SEAL Nicholas P. Spehar, the brother of a friend, is a harrowing look at a modern day warrior preparing for duty. “Real blues has depth and substance,” Musselwhite points out. “It’s not just tunes that are tossed off. These songs are all from the heart, more so than from the head. More than just music, they are reflections of life.”

The album ends with the uplifting “All That Matters Now.” The song is a reconciliation of sorts after the album’s emotional journey. “I was in the production booth, in total producer mode trying to figure out where to go next,” recalls Harper. “And I hear Charlie and Jason messing around in the studio with this deep groove. I heard it and told my engineer to roll tape. Don’t go fix the mic, just roll tape. There’s people talking and walking through the room, but it doesn’t matter.”

Recorded down and dirty, fast and live, Get Up! Is an old school creation. This kind of musical chemistry demanded the approach. But its attitude, brash, assertive, disarming and vulnerable, is defiantly modern. This is a record Harper has always aspired to make but knew required the essential life experience. Get Up! proves it’s been time well spent.  

Mr. Harper, a folk and blues singer-songwriter, and Mr. Musselwhite, the electric blues harmonica veteran, celebrate the release of “Get Up!” (Stax / Concord), their hot-blooded collaboration album. The record’s pleasantly shambolic spirit suggests a fortuitous jam session with moments of gospel elevation.
The New York Times
[Musselwhite’s] ender harmonica beautifully counterpoints Harper’s bruised, emotionally charged vocals.
Mojo
4 STARS
Harper finds himself sharing the stage with one of the most gifted harmonica players in modern day blues, Charlie Musselwhite.
PopMatters
Charlie Musselwhite helped hammer out the genre’s shape when it was still red-hot. Now, the harmonica player and singer has teamed up with a member of the next generation, Ben Harper, to rekindle some of that blues fire.
The Wall Street Journal
In Musselwhite [Harper’s] found a kindred spirit: an understated virtuoso able to push past tradition without losing himself. They’ve made a set that feels timeless and right on schedule.
Rolling Stone
In movies, they talk about chemistry between co-stars. It can happen in music, too. [Harper and Musselwhite] have it with their timeless, blue-powered “Get Up!
The New York Post
Ladies and gentlemen… I’m thrilled to present to you the first great album of 2013: “Get Up!” by Ben Harper w/ Charllie Musselwhite.
No Depression
When a singer-songwriter [Ben Harper] and a blues legend [Charlie Musselwhite] put their heads and their hearts together in the name of a good tune, the resulting tapestry of scales, shouts, hums, riffs and broken-hearted ruminations is bound to be a vibrant one, and that’s exactly what the pair set out to celebrate last night at Irving Plaza.
Paste Magazine

The snappy “Blues Why Do You Worry Me?” lopes with a lilt as Musselwhite’s poetic lyrics confirm his credo with “I learned to smile at trouble, I won’t let it get me down (2x). I’ll keep on keepin’ on ’till the last deal goes down.” A surprising figurative trip to South America produces the irresistible syncopation of “Feel It in Your Heart,” described as “It’s what they call ‘forro’ music in Brazil and is a corruption of the English ‘for all’, because it is the music for everybody. It’s kind of like the blues of Brazil. The blues and the music of Brazil and Cuba are cousins of each other because that’s where European and African music came together and sparked a new music in a new place.” The obscure Prince Conley minor key samba “I’m Going Home” is slick as satin with a booty-shaking beat kept popping by the perpetually locked-in rhythm section of Phillips and Core. Appropriately closing the festivities is the Duke Pearson minor key ballad “Cristo Redentor,” translated as “Christ the Redeemer,” originally inspired by the monumental statue of Jesus overlooking the Rio de Janeiro harbor, and Musselwhite’s signature performance. His audience always clamors to hear it and the enormously moving instrumental affords the harp-meister the opportunity to let flow his bottomless wellspring of soulful expression, combining the emotion of the blues with touching melodies.

Charlie Musselwhite, more than any other harmonica player of his generation, can rightfully lay claim to inheriting the mantle of many of the great harp players that came before him with music as dark as Mississippi mud or as uplifting as the blue skies of California. In an era when the term legendary gets applied to auto-tuned pop stars, this singular blues harp player, singer, songwriter and guitarist has earned and deserves to be honored as a true master of American classic vernacular music.

— Dave Rubin, KBA recipient in Journalism