True blues: Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite deliver

Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop’s “100 Years of Blues” is as historic as it sounds.
Pat Johnson photograph

Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop share their decades of experience and memories in their new album “100 Years of Blues,” proving once again that blues will never die.

With new originals and revamped oldies such as “What the Hell?,” their collaboration creates a refreshing and natural blues sound. 

Although friends and prolific recording artists who have made more than 60 albums between them, this is the first time the Blues Hall of Fame members have officially collaborated. Bishop is a guitarist famous for his homespun lyrics and delivery. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an original member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Musselwhite is a harmonica virtuoso but also an accomplished country blues guitarist. His rich, deep and soulful vocals have helped led him to a Grammy and 14 Blues Music Awards.

“We were on a package tour with several bands together. Elvin had his band and I had my band, but part of the tour was just me and Elvin sitting down together, side-by-side just playing as a duo,” Musselwhite said. “People seemed to enjoy it and we thought we ought to have a CD.” 

Bishop, 77, and Musselwhite, 76, began their careers in Chicago in the 1960s, both coming from the South, but they didn’t become closely acquainted until they moved to Northern California. 

“I don’t remember the first time we met, but the blues scene in Chicago was huge back then,” Bishop said. “There were so many blues clubs and so many great players there — everyone had their own circles.”

Welcome to the club

Musselwhite’s influencers had the likes of Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and harmonica legend Big Walter Horton, while Bishop was surrounded by Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor and his mentor Little Smokey Smothers. 

While in a diner around the corner from the Pepper’s Lounge, Musselwhite sat with Muddy Waters and a few other players, when a waitress revealed Musselwhite’s true harmonic talent. 

“The blues musicians were really flattered that we would come to these clubs and see them play” Musselwhite said. “They really welcomed me and encouraged me. When they found out I played, it changed everything.”

Musselwhite, who first went onstage at the urging of Muddy Waters, was instantly welcomed to their musical crew, not only as a fan, but as a fellow musician.

“Big Walter would call me ‘Little Brother’ and told people we were raised together, which of course was not true. He just loved to put people on with a totally straight face, just to entertain himself,” Musselwhite said. 

Much like Musselwhite’s big break, Bishop’s blues upbringing began in a less than usual place.

A cover story

“I made friends with the guys who worked in the cafeteria at the college that I went to, which was the University of Chicago,” Bishop said. “I kind of used the university as a cover story for getting to where the blues were and being able to go to Pepper’s Lounge and meet guys like Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.” 

Prominent memories and mentors from Chicago influenced a large amount of “100 years of Blues.” Throughout the album, the musicians explore their evolution from old-school blues to today’s extreme political and social climate. 

“‘South Side Slide’ is the sound of Chicago. It’s what we grew up with in Chicago and it was what we were playing then and the sound we still love today,” Musselwhite said. “People don’t know how to play like that anymore.”

Bishop and Musselwhite play around with vibrant guitar riffs and jagged harmonic melodies to illustrate how musicians have intertwined today’s music with the past 100 years of blues.

‘What the Hell?’

“A lot of people have talked about blues like it’s a fad, but it’s not. It’s always been here and it’s not going anywhere,” Musselwhite said. “Blues is a cultural thing — it’s not something someone thought up — it comes right from the heart, it’s about life.”

Bishop’s song, “What the Hell?” originally released in 2005, embodies the way blues adapts and transforms throughout the years as music theory and social constructs evolve. 

“Originally, it was written in response to everything crazy happening back then, like the Twin Towers. But nothing since then moved me in such a bad way, until, finally, we got Trump,” Bishop said. “I’m not a political guy but it felt wrong not to say anything.” 

One thing that is clear from Bishop and Musselwhite’s “100 Years of Blues:” The music and culture of blues is here to stay and will influence musicians for the unforeseeable future.

-Melissa Joseph

Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite
‘100 Years of Blues’
Label:
Alligator Records
Release: Sept. 25, 2020

Related stories:
Album review:
Get ready for a Grammy.
Book review: ‘Bitten By the Blues – The Alligator Records Story.’

ABOUT Melissa Joseph

Melissa Joseph
Named after an Allman Brothers' song, Melissa Joseph has a predilection for all things music and blues. Her first concert was Sammy Hagar when she was 3 years old and she's been attending concerts ever since. Melissa originally is from the Bay Area, but now lives in Chico where she is a full-time journalism student at Chico State and part-time writer for The Orion and Chico Enterprise-Record.

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