The Breath of the Blues

The harmonica is a curious instrument. Palm-size and usually made without moving parts, it looks so simple, like a toy. Mastering one should require no more than inhaling, exhaling, and fluttering a finger or two. But the innocuous little thing has frightened many a would-be musician into a life of playing only the radio.

That would be acceptable if the radio would play the occasional track by heroes such as Charlie Musselwhite. (Commercial radio, that is; public radio does its part.) But of course, commercial radio doesn't discriminate only against harp heavies like Musselwhite. They don't play the blues at all. Programmers must reason that broadcasting a full three minutes of the stuff won't sell tires, Toyotas, or whatever they're pushing to keep their corporate masters happy.

"Radio stations should do a lot better than they're doing," Musselwhite says during a phone call from Barcelona, Spain, where he's hanging out with Dr. John and playing another in a long line of European blues fests. "But they get their list of what they're supposed to play and that's it. It's a shame. I remember underground radio years ago when DJs could play whatever they wanted to play. That turned a whole lot of people on to the blues. If people could just hear it, they'd love it. But these people who are into programming have some sort of idea -- I don't know what it is -- but blues is not often part of it."

One station did make Musselwhite part of it back in 1967. Having grown up in Memphis, he was then living and jamming in Chicago, sitting in with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Buddy Guy. He had played in the bands of Big Joe Williams, J.B. Hutto, Louis Myers, Homesick James, and other Windy City favorites. Inspired by his mentors, harmonica legends Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, Musselwhite put his own band together and recorded Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite's South Side Band at the age of 22. Shortly after the release of this debut album, an admiring programmer in San Francisco gave it generous airplay. In addition to beginning a recording career that has lasted more than 30 years, the album -- and the radio exposure -- led to Musselwhite's move to the Bay Area, where he has lived ever since.

That programmer is long gone, but, even without the help of those at commercial radio, the blues is doing just fine today. In fact it's doing better than fine, and Musselwhite thinks he knows why: "The beauty of the whole blues renaissance is that it has really come from the people. The blues magazines and the festivals and the blues societies are all the result of people who love blues getting together. None of the record companies was pushing the blues. They always thought of it as just some passing fad. And then there's big-name people like the Rolling Stones, or there's things like the Blues Brothers 2000 movie I was in recently. Things like that -- and people such as Eric Clapton -- push the blues, and the industry has to listen: 'We better pay attention here.' So it's a lot of those things coming together that really makes the bigger record companies sit up and pay attention."

Proof that bigger labels do sometimes pay attention came in 1996 when Pointblank, an imprint distributed by Virgin Records, signed the then 52-year-old Musselwhite and released Rough News a year later. While the record wasn't a favorite of the critics (Stand Back!, 1969's Tennessee Woman, and 1993's In My Time were better received), the album has its moments. The lead track, "Both Sides of the Fence," is a steady, rocking number, the up-tempo country blues "Drifting Boy" really grooves, and Musselwhite's vocals get good and gritty on "Rough Dried Woman." But Musselwhite fans clamor for his harp-playing, and, not surprisingly, he stretches out best on the album's instrumental tracks.

Musselwhite has long been considered one of the most innovative blues harp players ever, one of the few who aren't satisfied with repeating the licks of Little Walter or Williamson. His uniqueness is evident on Rough News in his simply haunting take on the classic "Harlem Nocturne"; a music video for this track would demand grainy black-and-white images shot in the seedy alleys of some unforgiving metropolis. Musselwhite's fluency with riffs outside the blues lexicon proves useful on Santo and Johnny's melancholy "Sleepwalk." And smooth jazz presents no obstacle either, as Musselwhite shows on the nearly seven-minute title track.

Of course he's had three decades to hone his chops. During that time he has released more than two dozen albums and played as many as 300 shows per year. Mentioned alongside the late Paul Butterfield as one of the few white blues harpists of any consequence, Musselwhite was at the forefront of the blues explosion of the '60s and has seen the blues go through plenty of ups and downs. Despite the fluctuations Musselwhite has enjoyed continual success; he is confident things will only get better.

"I think it'll just keep getting bigger. The only real setback was during the disco era; all live music had a setback then. It's certainly become more accepted. I remember years ago, if you could find a record store that had any blues records at all, there were just a couple back in some corner somewhere. And now you go in and they all have blues sections. That tells you right there people are buying it. Blues has the human element. It's really coming from the heart. It's not synthesizers, it's not computers. It's real people with real instruments playing and singing about real life. And people hear it and something inside them goes, 'Oh yeah. I need that.' It's food for the heart."

Charlie Musselwhite performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at the Blues Festival at Riverwalk in Bubier Park, Las Olas Boulevard at S. Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets for the three-day (November 6-8) festival are $8 for a one-day pass, $14 for two days, and $20, $30, or $50 for three days. For more information call 954-761-5934.

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