Charlie Musselwhite: Stand Back!

Charlie Musselwhite
Stand Back!

I think Charles Musselwhite was lured to California in part by KMPX, which was a newly conceived “underground” FM station in San Francisco in 1967. During regular daytime broadcast hours, the station was a foreign language station, but at the stroke of midnight the pumpkin coach pulled by enchanted mice in harness arrived and a magical transformation took place. Soon, soundboard tapes of Grateful Dead concerts appeared, home tapes of Janis Joplin singing blues in a living room with someone typing in the background, and other records that in all likelihood would only be heard on KMPX would be broadcast until 4 a.m. weeknights. One morning in the wee wee hours, the listening audience (and you can only imagine what we all must have been like) was warned to “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band.”

The first time I heard Mr. Charlie back in 1967, I wasn’t sure who he was. The inveterate hipster radio DJ whispered close to the microphone in a stoney voice and dropped the needle on a platter queued for play. Some things are so important that I can remember every detail around them. Tom “Papa-San” Donahue settled back into his chair, and I could hear the creak of his black leather jacket and I could easily imagine him wearing shades in the studio in the middle of the night. That was back in the days that some Frequency Modulated DJs were beginning to free-form their programming in reaction to the standard AM-FM fare and would play the music they chose. Anyway, that early frost-filled pre-dawn morning I was introduced to the record that was destined to become my favorite record of all times.

The most memorable was a jazz piece played on harmonica, called “Christo Redemptor”. Maybe it was the hour, or my state of mind, but I was sure I had heard that song before somewhere. Incredibly, the music only got better as the record played on. “39th and Indiana”, “Help Me”, and “Early in the Morning” were not just instant classics but genuine electric blues stunners. But the song that resonated in me that night as KMPX was about to sign off at 4 a.m. was a modified shuffle called “4 p.m.”. Harvey Mandel on guitar was carrying the whole long piece, a mixture of blues and a hint of a new recognizable style that didn’t have an official name but was sometimes described as “psychedelic”. And I thought, “They’re playing like that in Chicago? Maybe there is hope for the world, after all.”

Not until I found a copy of the album did I know Charles Musselwhite was white. This was a bit of a shock because this might mean the Paul Butterfield Band was not a fluke of some kind. Eventually, both Musselwhite and Butterfield came to symbolize “the white blues movement” of the mid-’60s and not just because they were first out of the gate. They are notable for being true to the style, and so earned the respect of their mentors. Yet, I felt a greater resonance with Musselwhite, perhaps explainable in part because his roots were in country blues.

I didn’t know until much later that Musselwhite as a teenager listened to Arthur Crudup records at Elvis Presley’s house in Memphis. Soon after, Musselwhite was playing with persons I knew only from liner notes on limited reissues of old records or borrowed copies of Sing Out — people so legendary and distant as to be ancient achetypes, players like Will Shade, Furry Lewis, and Gus Cannon. This was before Musselwhite traveled up to Chicago to the legendary blues clubs I’d only heard of by name, places called Pepper’s and Theresa’s, where he played onstage with Little Walter and Shakey Horton and even Sonny Boy Williamson. Charles’s debut was a bit different, anyway, because he was backed by a veteran black rhythm section and they stuck together like glue. Inadvertently continuing a long blues recording tradition, the record company misspelled Musselwhite’s first name on his debut album. When Musselwhite made history with that first album, he was in his early twenties.

Anyway, within a short time, Charlie was in the Bay Area. I’d see him here and there, listening to the guitarists and conga-drummers playing near the South entrance of the Berkeley campus, and in other places as he moved through the climate of that area. One of the things people accomplished back then was to “liberate” Berkeley’s park across from the city hall, and have free concerts during the spring and summer each Sunday. The park was soon renamed Provo Park in honor of the Dutch resistance group who were internationally famous among other things for providing access to free transportation for any who needed it, by way of community-owned and used white bicycles. Gasoline-free public transportation was a radical idea for the time. Of course, the music was an expression of the community, also, so the performers played for free at the park. Given his personal history of Maxwell Street in Chicago, it was a natural that Charles Musselwhite would show up soon to play for free one Sunday.

He hadn’t been in the Bay Area but a few months. Nevertheless, he had a genius for finding people, and was able to put together a solid group. He was into community and all expressions of it. I was so excited, I was dancing back and forth in place. I knew it! Soon I would be hearing “4 p.m.” played live, and better than the record. He introduced the band members by name, and I was nearly dying with anticipation. But Harvey Mandel was not among them. Instead, there was a player who would become famous for his sneak guitar attack, who Charles introduced as “My Japanese blues guitarist, Tim Kaihatsu.” And because Harvey Mandel wasn’t with them, they didn’t play “4 p.m.”

Probably still full of surprises, that Charles Musselwhite.