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Mussel Memory 

Charlie Musselwhite remembers harmonica pioneer and "scrapper" Little Walter.

Charlie Musselwhite traveled the Memphis-to-Chicago route of many an urban bluesman in 1962. In the Windy City, the young harmonica player befriended the legendary Little Walter. Now, this year's appearance in a tribute to Little Walter marks Musselwhite's first time at Jazz Fest. Musselwhite's last album, the Grammy-nominated Sanctuary, was a career highlight, but he won't play those songs at the Fair Grounds, though they will likely be part of his April 24 Snug Harbor appearance.

His first exposure to Little Walter came when he lived in Memphis. "I knew a guy that was a jukebox distributor and he had this garage with literally thousands and thousands of 45s," Musselwhite says. "So I had all these old 45s from the jukeboxes of Little Walter, Muddy (Waters) with Little Walter. Then when I went to Chicago I started hanging out at all the blues clubs. I went to where Little Walter was playing and met him there. We became friends right away. He had me sit in with him. He wouldn't invite me or anything -- he'd just walk up and hand me his harp and microphone and say ŒPlay, boy,' and leave me so he could go over to the bar or talk to some woman or something."

Little Walter's live shows, he says, were pretty wild.

"It was real loose and it was real casual. You get the guitar player taking a solo, maybe the drummer taking a solo. Walter would come back and play some more. He might just vamp a tune, talk to the audience for a while, and then start playing something else. It was a different kind of a feel than you hear on a 45.

"Everybody liked his songs; they liked his singing and his tunes and his playing. He was a favorite of all the blues guys back then. They might not have liked him personally, some of them, but they liked his music."

Over the years, Musselwhite and Little Walter became close friends. "I think he was flattered that I would come to these places to hear him, hang out and drink with him," Musselwhite says. "We just kind of became buddies. He'd give me a ride home after the gig. One time there was a kind of an altercation that got way out of hand and he thought I should probably leave. I didn't want to go, but he took me out to the bus stop and waited there with me till the bus came to make sure I got out of there, which I felt was unnecessary, but he apparently thought that there was going to be some trouble. He didn't want to see me get hurt.

"He was a scrapper, no doubt about that. He was a little guy, but pound for pound he was a real tough guy. He was a nice guy, too; he didn't go around purposely starting trouble. It's just that environment stuff like that happens. He's the kind of guy who wouldn't back off. People would be jealous, you know -- a guy gets drunk, maybe the guy's girlfriend is requesting a tune, he's bent out of shape and thinks something else is going on. Then the chairs start flying.

"It's really changed a lot since those days. All those little bars where Walter played and those rough little places that were so great, they're all gone. I know one place called Turner's Blue Lounge on Indiana Avenue in Chicago, last time I passed by the sign was still up but I don't think a note has been played in there in 30 years."

Because of the unique nature of the instrument and their relationship, though, Walter was more of a mentor than a teacher to Musselwhite.

"The harmonica is the only instrument you can't see what's going on," he says. "You can't see what you're doing and you can't see what anybody else is doing. You can talk about it, but we never talked about it hardly at all. Everybody would say to play your own style. From the very beginning, I always thought that was the way to go. You learn your instrument and then you play the way you feel. "But it's like language -- you talk like the people you grew up around. It's part of your environment, so when I'm playing, sometimes something will come out and I'll think, 'Wow, that's a Little Walter lick.' I know there are harp players that sit down and memorize whole solos and instrumentals note for note off of records, which I guess is a good way to learn but I never had the patience to do that. Just like the way I record -- I try to keep it as spontaneous and coming from the heart as I can."

click to enlarge Charlie Musselwhite (pictured) recalls that Little Walter wouldn't invite him to join him onstage. "He'd just walk up and hand me his harp and microphone and say Play, boy,' and leave me so he could go over to the bar or talk to some woman or something." - STEVE SHERMAN
  • Steve Sherman
  • Charlie Musselwhite (pictured) recalls that Little Walter wouldn't invite him to join him onstage. "He'd just walk up and hand me his harp and microphone and say Play, boy,' and leave me so he could go over to the bar or talk to some woman or something."
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