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“100 Years of the Blues”: Two blues stars team up again for a show in Santa Rosa

“100 Years of the Blues”: Two blues stars team up again for a show in Santa Rosa

Famed blues harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, who lived in Geyserville for 30 years until returning to his native Mississippi in 2021, has been performing his entire adult life and sees no reason to stop.

“I’m 80,” Musselwhite said by phone from Chicago, where he recently performed with his own band. “There I was, minding my own business, and I was 80.”

Musselwhite and his frequent performing and recording partner, 81-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, will play together again on July 20 at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa in a concert headlined by the Taj Mahal Quintet.

“We’re having fun, so why stop? It’s not like we’re working in a factory. We have so much fun together. We tell each other stories between songs and make each other laugh on stage,” Musselwhite said.

“We know this music so well that it’s like falling off a log,” he added. “I can hear Elvin playing two notes and he can’t shake me off. I can follow him.”

Both musicians tour with their own bands, but also team up for duo shows.

“I do both, and Elvin does the same,” Musselwhite said.

Their most recent collaborative recording, “100 Years of the Blues,” on Alligator Records, was nominated for a 2022 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Musselwhite met Bishop shortly after he emigrated to Chicago from Mississippi as a young man in the 1960s. Bishop, who was born in California but moved to Oklahoma with his family at age 10, had also come to join the city’s blues scene.

After arriving in Chicago, Musselwhite began hanging out at local blues clubs and was initially viewed by the musicians as a normal guy. Then one night, a waitress at Muddy Waters’ hometown club, Pepper’s Lounge, urged the master blues musician to give the boy a chance.

“There used to be a company that put shows together, and everyone would go on tour on the same bus. They put us together, and it worked so well that we realized we both enjoyed it, so let’s do it more,” Musselwhite recalls.

In 1963, Bishop joined harmonica player Paul Butterfield’s blues band and stayed with the group for five years. Bishop, who now lives in Marin County, is perhaps best known for his 1976 crossover pop single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which featured vocals from Mickey Thomas.

Musselwhite also led his own blues band and, following the success of Elektra Redords with Butterfield, released the album “Stand Back!” on Vanguard Records in 1966.

Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for Elwood Blues, the character played by Dan Aykroyd in the 1980 film Blues Brothers. Musselwhite appeared in the film’s sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, along with many other blues stars, including BB King and Eric Clapton.

The harmonica star has appeared in about half a dozen films.

“I didn’t plan on doing any of it,” he said. “People would come to me and ask, and at the time it seemed like a good idea. I’m not a real actor, but I can memorize lines and say them as if I believe them myself.”

Musselwhite portrayed FBI informant Alvin Reynolds in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).

“I had a small but crucial role,” said the musician.

In real life, Musselwhite’s grandfather was involved in a gunfight with Al Spencer, an outlaw. “His name was also Charlie Musselwhite,” the musician said.

During his musical career, Musselwhite has toured with everyone from Hot Tuna to Cyndi Lauper and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits and many others.

With “Get Up,” his duo CD with 46-year-old singer-songwriter Ben Harper, which won a Grammy for best blues album in 2014, the experienced blues musician was able to win over a whole new generation of fans.

“Ben Harper is dropping hints about a new duo album, maybe in December,” Musselwhite said. “He has ideas. I have ideas. And I have an album of my own in the works that will be out next fall.”

In 2021, Musselwhite moved back to Mississippi with his wife Henri and now lives in Clarksdale, the birthplace of the blues. One of his neighbors is actor Morgan Freeman.

“Morgan Freeman is part owner of a club called Ground Zero,” Musselwhite said. “It’s about three minutes from where I live. If I were to fall, I’d already be halfway there. Sometimes I go and sit there.”

Miusselwhite’s favorite restaurant in Clarksdale is Rest Haven, which has served some famous musicians over the years.

“Jerry Lee Lewis used to go there a lot,” Musselwhite said. “The menu is half Lebanese and half traditional Southern food: fried chicken and mashed potatoes.”

Musselwhite said he is happy to be back in Mississippi.

“Complete strangers come up to you and say hello,” he said.

The other half of the double bill at the Luther Burbank Center, the Taj Mahal Quintet, features multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal, who blends blues with reggae, funk, jazz and Cajun music.

The group’s line-up includes his long-time bandmates Bill Rich and Kester Smith, as well as guitarist and lap steel virtuoso Bobby Ingano, who joined in 2019. A new steel drummer will complete the quintet.

Reach staff writer Dan Taylor at [email protected] or 707-521-5243. Follow @danarts.