Posts Tagged ‘Harmonica’

The Blues is my favorite musical form. I was reading an interview with Charlie Musselwhite recently. He described his early access to blues music and it was somewhat similar to mine. In 1960 my friends and I were bold enough to bike over to the black section of town where there were bins of records which had seen use on jukeboxes and were marked down. We could afford to try out lots of music we couldn’t find in our downtown record stores. We may have heard Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bobby Blue Bland and others on stations like WLAC but now we could take them home and play the vinyl right off of them.

My homeboy (Sonoma County) favorite.

My homeboy (Sonoma County) favorite.


But it wasn’t till I got to college that I was able to see some of my blues heroes perform live. During that time I saw John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters (featuring James Cotton on harp). I even got to shake hands with Muddy at a pre-show cocktail party, where I later embarrassed myself by accompanying him on air harmonica when he set down to play some blues riffs on the frat house piano. I was too drunk to know whether he was laughing at me or with me and didn’t much care. I was transported. I had no idea at the time that I would be playing passable harp for an R and B combo from 1986 to ’07.

It was during my college years that I first started hearing about a young white harp player named Charlie Musselwhite. I dug him, even bought a couple of his discs but was still partial to the stylings of Sonny Boy williamson, Little Walter, and James Cotton. White blues artists were rare then (60’s) and it was not till after I graduated that I began to hear Paul Butterfield and Corky Siegel on harp, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitar.

Over the years I have grown to appreciate Charlie’s work more and more. I admire his eclectic inclusive approach to music as indicated in the styles he plays and the cats he chooses to play with. He is just as likely to play Latin or Hawaiian, old timey or avant jazzy. You can also tell that he appreciates a wide range of musical forms and styles when you listen to his weekly radio show on my favorite radio station back home in Sonoma County (KRSH). But enough about me. Let’s hear it from wikipedia:

Charlie Musselwhite (born January 31, 1944) is an American electric blues harmonica player and bandleader, one of the non-black bluesmen who came to prominence in the early 1960s, along with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield. Though he has often been identified as a “white bluesman”, he claims Native American heritage. Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd’s character in the Blues Brothers.

Charles Douglas Musselwhite was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, United States. He has said that he is of Choctaw descent, and he was born in a region originally inhabited by the Choctaw. However, in a 2005 interview, he said his mother had told him he was actually Cherokee.[5]

His family considered it normal to play music, with his father playing guitar and harmonica, his mother playing piano, and a relative who was a one-man band. At the age of three, Musselwhite moved to Memphis, Tennessee. When he was a teenager, Memphis experienced the period when rockabilly, western swing, and electric blues and other forms of African American music were combining to give birth to rock and roll. The period featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, as well as lesser known musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and Johnny Burnette. Musselwhite supported himself by digging ditches, laying concrete and running moonshine in a 1950 Lincoln automobile. This environment was Musselwhite’s school for music as well as life, and he acquired the nickname “Memphis Charlie.”

In true bluesman fashion, Musselwhite then took off in search of the rumored “big-paying factory jobs” up the “Hillbilly Highway”, the Highway 51 to Chicago, where he continued his education on the South Side, making the acquaintance of even more legends including Lew Soloff, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Big Walter Horton. Musselwhite immersed himself completely in the musical life, living in the basement of, and occasionally working at Jazz Record Mart (the record store operated by Delmark Records founder Bob Koester) with Big Joe Williams and working as a driver for an exterminator, which allowed him to observe what was happening around the city’s clubs and bars. He spent his time hanging out at the Jazz Record Mart at the corner of State and Grand and the nearby bar, Mr. Joe’s, with the city’s blues musicians, and sitting in with Big Joe Williams and others in the clubs, playing for tips. There he forged a lifelong friendship with John Lee Hooker; though Hooker lived in Detroit, Michigan, the two often visiting each other, and Hooker served as best man at Musselwhite’s third marriage. Gradually Musselwhite became well known around town.

In time, Musselwhite led his own blues band, and, after Elektra Records’ success with Paul Butterfield, he released the legendary Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band album in 1966 on Vanguard Records (as “Charley Musselwhite”), to immediate and great success. He took advantage of the clout this album gave him to move to San Francisco, where, instead of being one of many competing blues acts, he held court as the king of the blues in the exploding countercultural music scene, an exotic and gritty figure to the flower children. Musselwhite even convinced Hooker to move out to California.

Since then, Musselwhite has released over 20 albums, as well as guesting on albums by many other musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in Their Hearts and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit of the Century, both winners of Grammy awards. He also appeared on Tom Waits’ Mule Variations and INXS’ Suicide Blonde. He himself has won 14 W. C. Handy Awards and six Grammy nominations, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Monterey Blues Festival and the San Javier Jazz Festival in San Javier, Spain, and the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

In 1979, Musselwhite recorded The Harmonica According to Charlie Musselwhite in London for Kicking Mule Records, intended to go with an instructional book; the album itself became so popular that it has been released on CD. In June 2008, Blind Pig Records reissued the album on 180-gram vinyl with new cover art.

Unfortunately, Musselwhite, as with many of his peers, fell into alcoholism, and by his own admission[citation needed], he had never been on stage sober until after he stopped drinking entirely in 1987.

In 1990 Musselwhite signed with Alligator Records, a step that led to a resurgence of his career.

In 1998, Musselwhite appeared in the film Blues Brothers 2000. He provided the harmonica position in the super-ensemble The Louisiana Gator Boys, which also featured many other rhythm and blues legends such as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Eric Clapton, Koko Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan, Dr. John, and Jack DeJohnette.

Over the years, Musselwhite has branched out in style. His 1999 recording, Continental Drifter, is accompanied by Cuarteto Patria, from Cuba’s Santiago region, the Cuban music analog of the Mississippi Delta. Because of the political differences between Cuba and the United States, the album was recorded in Bergen, Norway, with Musselwhite’s wife ironing out all the details.

Musselwhite believes the key to his musical success was finding a style where he could express himself. He has said, “I only know one tune, and I play it faster or slower, or I change the key, but it’s just the one tune I’ve ever played in my life. It’s all I know.”[8]

His past two albums, Sanctuary and Delta Hardware have both been released on Real World Records.

Musselwhite plays on Tom Waits’1999 album Mule Variations. He can be heard at the beginning of the song “Chocolate Jesus” saying “I love it”. Waits has mentioned that he feels this is his favorite part of the song.[9]

In 2002, he featured on the Bo Diddley tribute album Hey Bo Diddley – A Tribute!, performing the song “Hey Bo Diddley”.

Musselwhite lost both of his elderly parents in December 2005, in separate incidents. His mother, Ruth Maxine Musselwhite, was murdered.[10]

Musselwhite joined the 10th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians’ careers.[11][12][13] He was also a judge for the 7th and 9th Independent Music Awards.[14]

Charlie Musselwhite was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010.

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Still Living In The Valley of the Moon

Norton Buffalo (September 28, 1951 – October 30, 2009) was a singer-songwriter, country and blues harmonica player, record producer, bandleader and recording artist best known as a versatile exponent of the harmonica, including chromatic and diatonic.

Buffalo, the son of a harmonica player, was born in Oakland, California and raised in Richmond, California. At John F. Kennedy High School he performed in a series of bands. By the early 1970s he gained renown as a San Francisco Bay Area musician, playing with such Bay Area groups as Clover, The Moonlighters, and Elvin Bishop.

In early 1976 Buffalo joined the “farewell” European tour of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and was recorded on the band’s final live album We’ve Got A Live One Here!, which included Buffalo’s song Eighteen Wheels. After the tour, Buffalo returned to California, briefly played with a number of local bands, and later in 1976 he joined the Steve Miller Band‘s Fly Like an Eagle national tour. He also played harmonica on the band’s hit follow-up album Book of Dreams, released in May 1977. Buffalo appeared on the tracks Winter Time and The Stake.

By the late 1970s Buffalo had formed his own band, The Stampede, and recorded two Capitol Records albums: Lovin’ in the Valley of the Moon and Desert Horizon. In 1977 his harmonica work appeared on Bonnie Raitt’s Sweet Forgiveness and The Doobie Brothers’ Livin’ On The Fault Line albums. Not long after the release of his second album in 1979, Buffalo and his band were featured on the PBS music television program Austin City Limits. In 1981 he produced an album for the popular Northwest band Wheatfield. He was a member of the Mickey Hart band High Noon in the late 70s and early 80s with Merl Saunders, Mike Hinton, Jim McPhearson, Vicki Randle, and Bobby Vega, and played with Saunders on the Rainforest Band album It’s in the Air in 1993.

Buffalo also appeared in and worked on several films. He did a cameo appearance in the rock movie, The Rose starring Bette Midler, where he was a member of the band (on harmonica and trombone) and spoke a line or two. He had another cameo in Michael Cimino‘s 1979 film Heaven’s Gate starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Sam Waterston and Jeff Bridges. He also co-wrote the music for the films Stacy’s Knights and Eddie Macon’s Run with guitarist Mike Hinton.

Norton performed and recorded as a member of The Steve Miller Band for over 32 years. He often performed and recorded music as a session musician, and appeared on 180 albums. A cover of Buffalo’s song Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox was in heavy rotation at Jerry Garcia Band concerts from 1991 until Jerry Garcia‘s death in 1995, and appeared on the live release Shining Star.

On September 2, 2009 Buffalo was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lower right lobe of the lung. The next day, he found out that it had spread to his brain. Norton retired to his home in Paradise, California, where he sought treatment at Feather River Hospital. He died on October 30, 2009 in Feather River Hospital.

Shake Your Hips Rhythmically

To round out the first full month of those Amazing Humans let’s depart from my recent trend of choosing old or dead people to draw and write about. As a matter of fact this young woman is a Mississippi Saxophone (harmonica) prodigy. She bonded with the harp at 7 years old. She first caught my eye a few years back at the Sonoma County Fair’s Annual Blues Festival. She must have been sixteen or seventeen then. She shared the stage with an accomplished old blues artist (whose name I can’t recall). As he sang about the joys of squeezing that lemon till the juice runs down his leg, I had grandfatherly protective feelings about this shy little school girl, looking down occasionally, smiling, waiting for her solo. Then her opening came, she jumped right on it. More than stood her own, playing with appropriate nastiness, intensity and skill, way beyond her years.

She’s already played with a lot of the greats including Charlie Musslewhite and Mark Hummel, and I expect you’ll hear a lot more of her in the future. I was going to make a sexist comment about the rarity of cute female harp players but I decided against it. Play on Santana Kirk!

Other Santana Kirk facts (courtesy of  an article written in the Blues Festival Guide, 2006, Carrying On the Tradition, by Robin Thrush Sr.):

– She played The Russian River Blues Festival at ages 12 and 13.

– Charlie Musslewhite guests on her first CD, “Ain’t Kiddin’ Around”.

– She has also shared the stage with James Cotton and T-Birds front man, Kim Wilson.

-She was featured on a PBS program, “Blues Variations” and The Johnny Otis  Radio Show.

And for me, one month in the books, 334 Amazing Humans to go.