When the Bay Area's Summer of Love is discussed, the chat chiefly regards the music, politics, and drugs that shaped a generation — but that discussion is nearly always focused on rock 'n' roll. That all-important year of 1967, however, was also a marker for those outside of the Grateful Dead paradigm. Important artists who heeded the calls of '60s watersheds John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Muddy Waters influenced the season significantly, too, and are therefore due their share of recognition. One such musician is blues harmonica icon Charlie Musselwhite.
Since the mid-1960s, Mississippi-born Musselwhite has been one of the head honchos of harmonica. He possesses a deep, dense tone that's part Mississippi roots, part Chicago electricity.
Born in 1944, Musselwhite cut his teeth playing harp — hepcat slang for harmonica — with legendary acoustic bluesmen Furry Lewis and Big Joe Williams in Memphis. Joining the multitudes migrating to Chicago for factory work, his graduate school was the South Side blues clubs in the early and mid-'50s, sitting in with Windy City harp masters Little Walter Jacobs and Walter "Shakey" Horton.
Asked how a white youth was received in that usually segregated milieu, Musselwhite says, "You got to remember, back then, the blues was 'middle-aged music. There weren't any young people, black or white, following blues, and these guys were really flattered by my interest in what they were doing."
In the mid-'60s, the blues underwent a renaissance. Spurred by acknowledgements from the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Eric Clapton, kids flocked toward the sources of their inspiration. How did the chairmen of the board receive this development, in Musselwhite's opinion? "When the tide comes in, all boats rise the same," he says. "They were happy — it was a chance for the music and them to be better known."
Then came the strange Western rumblings, strong enough to be felt in Chicago. The eclectic phenomenon known as underground radio, where DJs would play anything that struck their fancy, was happening in San Francisco. Musselwhite's debut album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band (yep, the label misspelled his name) was in heavy rotation. "People were calling me to come play out here [in San Francisco]. I kept saying no, but then after a while I'd got enough offers so I'd have a whole month of work. When I got there [in 1967], I knew after 10 minutes I wasn't going back to Chicago!" It wasn't just the weather, either. "The people were nice, there was all kinds of art happening, the whole scene was really alive," he says.
Musselwhite's first San Francisco gig was at the Fillmore, on a bill with Cream and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. For Musselwhite — used to playing in very small Chicago clubs — this was the big time. "I'd never seen so many people in my life! It was a packed house!" he remembers. Jack Bruce, bassist/singer for Cream, asked Musselwhite if he could lend him a harmonica for the show — and he remembered to return it, too.
After relocating to the Bay Area, Musselwhite became a fixture on the blues and blues-rock scenes. Guitar greats Harvey Mandel, Luther Tucker, and Freddie Roulette played in his bands. It wasn't until the late 1980s that Musselwhite, having conquered alcoholism, began touring internationally. Releasing albums on the Virgin, Telarc, and Real World labels gave him a visibility beyond the blues scene. He even turned up on Tom Waits' Mule Variations, though Waits and he were friends (and Sonoma County neighbors) long before that.
Recently, Musselwhite performed and recorded with Ben Harper, and he has collaborated with Eddie Vedder on a song for Sean Penn's latest film, Into The Wild. This weekend, Charlie and his regular touring band will rock the San Francisco Blues Festival, with John Hammond and Allen Toussaint lending a hand. It's deuced appropriate timing, with all the anniversary celebrations for the summer that was pivotal to Musselwhite's career and the San Francisco blues scene as a whole. What was that about not being able to go home again?