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Memories Of Memphis

Charlie Musselwhite is now considered the granddaddy of blues harp, but as a kid growing up, he was neighbour to Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and hanging at parties with Elvis. Vintage Rock hears ‘Memphis Charlie’ talk about a unique musical education…

CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE

Charlie Musselwhite happened upon the unveiling of the WC Handy statue when he followed a marching brass band

Charlie Musselwhite’s voice resembles Tennessee bourbon: rich, smooth, warm. Yet his face, deeply lined and scarred, suggest a life lived the hard way. “I used to drink and go crazy,” says the veteran blues musician, now 74, “but I stopped all that a long time ago.” Musselwhite is in a reflective mood as he prepares to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire with the much younger blues-rock guitarist Ben Harper. “I’m feeling kinda ragged,” he says. “But I’m OK. I’ve been touring in Europe and, even when I was young I found touring tough and now, sleeping on a bus in a bunk bed, it’s not getting any easier.”

Not that Musselwhite is complaining. He’s spent his lifetime playing blues harmonica and singing, never getting rich or famous but carving out a reputation as one of the best out there. Not for him the overloaded rock guitars that bedevil so many contemporary blues artists, Charlie keeps it soulful and down home. Very Memphis. For it is Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up and soaked in so much great music.

“I was born in Mississippi hill country so my people were what you might call hillbillies. We shifted to Memphis when I was an infant. Memphis is a river town, kind of rough and musically very rich. As a child I’d follow these black street singers around and try and figure out how they did it.”

Memphis in the 50s operated under laws that enforced strict racial segregation but young Charlie ignored both the law and the Ku Klux Klan, crossing the tracks to befriend Gus Cannon, Will Shade and Furry Lewis, black bluesmen whose pioneering 20s recordings helped invent American music. Cannon, he recalls, would sit on his porch, sip cheap wine and play banjo, never dreaming his jug band tune Walk Right In would become a popular standard.

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