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Up The Coast : MUSIC CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE : Ace of Harps : The legendary road dog keeps moving while more and more people are moved by his blues harmonica.

January 24, 1991|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charlie Musselwhite is a blues legend. When he blows his harmonica, he also blows your mind. He gets a lot of practice. A classic road dog, Musselwhite does more than 200 gigs a year, according to his bio sheet. Junk mail addressed to "occupant" is an act of optimism--Musselwhite is the guy that's never home. Even the dog probably doesn't know him.

"Actually, we played closer to 300 gigs last year," Musselwhite said in a telephone interview from yet another hotel room somewhere. "Man, we drive around in this great big van, take turns driving. It's got these great, real comfortable captain's chairs. It's not bad. Every once in a while, I swing back by my place in Santa Rosa to mow the lawn and wash my underwear. Even though I don't make it home too often, at least I ain't working for the man. And you know, I'm the only person that ever moved to the Wine Country and actually quit drinking."

Musselwhite's latest album, "Ace of Harps," is his 14th and his biggest seller so far. And Chicago-based Alligator Records is his 11th label. "I don't know why I've had so many labels, but I do know that Alligator is a real good company. They know how to promote."

Born in Mississippi in 1944, Musselwhite moved to Memphis when he was a teen-ager. When he was 18, he packed his harmonica and headed for Chicago with the mission of landing a factory job. Instead he got involved in the Chicago blues scene and played with people such as Little Walter, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams--all the hot guys.

"I've liked blues ever since I was a kid," Musselwhite said. "I got into rockabilly and hillbilly music when I was in Memphis. Johnny Burnette was my neighbor. I used to hang out at his house when I was 12 or 13. It was then that I decided to play the blues."

His original influences were local musicians who played Delta blues, which Musselwhite said is country-influenced.

"But when these guys moved to Chicago, they bought amplifiers and electric guitars. That's Chicago blues. Anyway, I moved to Chicago when I was 18 and started hanging out with all these famous blues cats. I guess they liked me because they asked me to sit in with them. It was a great experience. I wish I had paid more attention, but when you're young you don't think it'll ever end and no one will ever die."

The blues, it seems, have never been more popular. Musselwhite is the rule and not the exception--these blues dudes are always on tour. Yugos, "Twin Peaks," pet rocks, checkered tennis shoes . . . fads come and go but the blues just keep on keepin' on.

"As far as I can tell, the blues have never been bigger," Musselwhite said. "These little blues societies are sprouting up everywhere. And all of them have these newsletters. A lot of clubs have blues nights now, and a lot of them that used to have a blues night every week now have blues every night. But I'm getting to the point where I only hit a place once a year."

Besides the radio, everyone seems to have the blues. For example, there is a Blue Monday show in Ventura, which is repeated the next day in Santa Barbara, making for Blue Tuesday.

Musselwhite will do both shows and you can bet your old scratched-up B. B. King records that he will be a hit. With his tight three-man backing band, Musselwhite rocks hard and he's finally getting some of the recognition he deserves. Musselwhite earned a W.C. Handy Award in 1990 for Best Instrumentalist of the Year, and he played on John Lee Hooker's Grammy Award-winning album, "The Healer."

"You know, we get quite a cross-section of folks when we play. Sometimes we play colleges and get all those college kids--they've got the blues. Some of those kids sometimes tell me stuff like 'My parents saw you here at this school 20 years ago.' Sometimes these punk rock dudes come up to me and say, 'You guys are great, what do you call that kind of music? Do you guys have any records?' And one time we played this old lady's garden club in Germany. That was a strange one. They just sort of stood and stared."

A common misconception about the blues is that it's really bummer music that, incidentally, has a good beat. "The thing I run across most," Musselwhite said, "is that blues is sad and depressing. Well, it can be, but the spirit of the blues says, 'I don't care how bad it is, I will conquer this.'

"Blues does not promote a 'give up' but rather a 'get up' attitude. And our music--we play blues for the '90s--is strictly good-time music. We do a lot of requests, then some other old ones then some new ones that aren't even recorded yet. You can just sit and listen or else you can get up and dance."

WHERE AND WHEN

Charlie Musselwhite plus The Signifiers will perform Monday night in Ventura at Alexander's, Harbor Boulevard and Spinnaker Drive. Tuesday he will appear at Felix's Cantina, 525 State St., Santa Barbara. For information, call 962-1432.

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