Charlie Musselwhite at Iridium (Photo: Arnie Goodman)
He’s stronger than ever, so strong, in fact that it’s hard to believe that Charlie Musselwhite is 76, and one of the few remaining links to the legendary blues harmonica players from whom he learned the notes.
At his show at New York’s Iridium club Wednesday night (Feb. 26), Musselwhite cited several of his mentors and friends, most notably the late James Cotton. Musselwhite performed his fellow Mississippian’s (Cotton was from Tunica, Musselwhite is from Kosciusko) “West Helena Blues,” a Musselwhite favorite, which Cotton recorded early on for Sun Records in Memphis.
Musselwhite recounted how after they’d both moved north to Chicago in the 1960s, Cotton was playing harmonica for another Mississippi migrant, Muddy Waters, and used to jump on Waters’ back and play harp while Waters ran back and forth on the stage singing his much covered staple “I’m a Man.” There was a second part to the story having to do with a spurting beer bottle that doesn’t quite fit in a family news site, but there’s a good chance he’ll repeat it at future grownup gigs.
Cotton, incidentally, was a disciple of another Mississippi blues harmonica great, Sonny Boy Williamson (the second one, to be precise, as there were two!), who had mentored the young Cotton in West Helena before moving north himself. Musselwhite performed Williamson II’s classic “Help Me,” and told another story that can’t quite be retold here—but two that will.
“Why a grown man would carry a hatchet, you got to wonder?” Musselwhite said, relating how Williamson II used to do just that. But it came in handy one night when the great Chicago blues bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon pinned a $5 bill on the wall and said Williamson could have it if he could hit it.
“Sonny Boy took that $5!” Musselwhite recalled, then shared a story of how he longingly eyed a long line of drinks set up for Williamson at his table.
“Don’t you worry! I’m going to drink them all!” Williamson told Musselwhite, “and he did!”
The moral of the stories, he added, was that the performances found on CDs of relatively staid Newport Folk and European blues festivals aren’t exactly the same as the ones the locals enjoyed back in the day at the South Side Chicago blues lounges where Musselwhite cut his harmonica teeth.
Of course, he also played other top tunes from his own albums, like “Wild, Wild Woman” and “Bad Boy,” backed by a stalwart band of drummer June Core, bassist Randy Bermudes, and guitarist Matt Stubbs, whose leads seamlessly interfaced in perfect tandem with Musselwhite’s.
And as he took the lead, the muscular but soft-spoken Musselwhite remained the picture of quiet strength, elbows fixed tightly at his sides, forearms firmly across his chest and hands at the top cupping his harmonica (and microphone) securely against his lips.
It was a solid physical foundation for his incomparably steady and always intelligent solos, every note fitting properly in place.
He ended with his signature cover of jazz composer Duke Pearson’s “Christo Redemptor,” from his pioneering 1960s debut album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band. Like he said in introducing it, it never gets old.
Then again, neither does Charlie Musselwhite.
Charlie Musselwhite performs "West Helena Blues"