Charles Douglas “Charlie” Musselwhite (born January 31, 1944) is an American electric blues harmonica player and bandleader, one of the non-black bluesmen who came to prominence in the early 1960s, along with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, or bands such as Canned Heat. Though he has often been identified as a “white bluesman”, he claims Native American heritage. Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for the character played by Dan Aykroyd in the Blues Brothers.
Musselwhite was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He has said that he is of Choctaw descent, born in a region originally inhabited by the Choctaw. In a 2005 interview, he said his mother had told him he was actually Cherokee. His family considered it natural to play music. His father played guitar and harmonica, his mother played piano, and a relative was a one-man band.
At the age of three, Musselwhite moved to Memphis, Tennessee. When he was a teenager, Memphis experienced the period when rockabilly, western swing, and electric blues and other forms of African-American music were combining to give birth to rock and roll. That period featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and lesser-known musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and Johnny Burnette. Musselwhite supported himself by digging ditches, laying concrete and running moonshine in a 1950 Lincoln automobile. This environment was a school for music as well as life for Musselwhite, who eventually acquired the nickname Memphis Charlie.
In true bluesman fashion, Musselwhite then took off in search of the rumored “big-paying factory jobs” up the “Hillbilly Highway”, Highway 51 to Chicago, where he continued his education on the South Side, making the acquaintance of even more legends, including Lew Soloff, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Big Walter Horton. Musselwhite immersed himself completely in the musical life, living in the basement of and occasionally working at Jazz Record Mart (the record store operated by Delmark Records founder Bob Koester) with Big Joe Williams and working as a driver for an exterminator, which allowed him to observe what was happening around the city’s clubs and bars. He spent his time hanging out at the Jazz Record Mart, at the corner of State and Grand, and a nearby bar, Mr. Joe’s, with the city’s blues musicians, and sitting in with Williams and others in the clubs, playing for tips. There he forged a lifelong friendship with John Lee Hooker; though Hooker lived in Detroit, Michigan, the two often visited each other, and Hooker served as best man at Musselwhite’s third marriage. Gradually Musselwhite became well known around town.
In time, Musselwhite led his own blues band, and after Elektra Records‘ success with Paul Butterfield, he released the legendary album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band in 1966 on Vanguard Records to immediate and great success. He took advantage of the clout this album gave him to move to San Francisco, where, instead of being one of many competing blues acts, he held court as the king of the blues in the exploding countercultural music scene, an exotic and gritty figure to the flower children. Musselwhite even convinced Hooker to move to California.
Since then, Musselwhite has released over 20 albums and has been a guest performer on albums by many other musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt‘s Longing in Their Hearts and the Blind Boys of Alabama‘s Spirit of the Century, both winners of Grammy awards. He also performed on Tom Waits‘s Mule Variations and INXS‘s Suicide Blonde. He has won 14 W. C. Handy Awards, has been nominated for six Grammy awards. received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Monterey Blues Festival and the San Javier Jazz Festival, in San Javier, Spain, and received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
In 1979, Musselwhite recorded The Harmonica According to Charlie Musselwhite in London for Kicking Mule Records, intended to accompany an instructional book; the album became so popular that it was released on CD. In June 2008, Blind Pig Records reissued the album on 180-gram vinyl with new cover art.