Release date: September 25, 2020
By Greg Easterling
One hundred years of blues...let that soak in for a while. That's the cumulative amount of professional experience that guitarist Elvin Bishop and harpist Charlie Musselwhite have logged since they both showed up on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s.
It was certainly a different day and time. The clubs in which both absorbed the blues are gone now with only the street names remaining the same. Pepper's Lounge near 43rd Street was once Muddy Waters' regular club, “every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday”. Turner's Blue Lounge was under the El station at 4012 South Indiana and 40th Street where J.B. Hutto played a regular Wednesday night gig. Otis Rush was on the West Side at Curley's; he also appeared at Pepper's. And at the corner of 48th and Indiana, there was the legendary Theresa's where Junior Wells had regular engagements every Friday, Saturday and Sunday often with Buddy Guy. Eventually the blues migrated north to Old Town on Wells Street at clubs such as Mother Blues, Big John's (at Eugenie Street) and the more folk music oriented The Gate of Horn owned Albert Grossman, future manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Big John's was one of the first North Side clubs to bring in black blues men from the South Side; Steve Miller did some of the booking, yes THAT Steve Miller, recently in from Madison, Wisconsin. And Old Town was also where you might find other young white guys who loved the blues: Paul Butterfield from Hyde Park, Mike Bloomfield of Glencoe, and Nick “the Greek” Gravenities who penned Butterfield's signature song “Born In Chicago”.
As for Elvin and Charlie? Bishop came from Oklahoma to attend The University of Chicago and fell in with Little Smokey Smothers with chances to jam with Hound Dog Taylor, Junior Wells and J.T. Brown. He also met and started to play with the Butterfield Blues Band before Bloomfield came on board officially. Musselwhite was from Memphis and got a job at Chicago's famed Jazz Record Mart while hanging out on the South Side under the influence of his early blues mentors Big Joe Williams and Big Walter “Shakey” Horton. An early encounter with Muddy Waters insisting that he sit in with the band on harmonica also made a deep impression. Charlie says, “I might not ever had a career in music if men like Muddy hasn't been so welcoming and encouraging”. He also got to know producer Samuel Charters who arranged Musselwhite's early session work with singer Tracy Nelson and also with Horton for Volume Three of the legendary Vanguard Records 1965-66 anthology, Chicago/The Blues/Today!. He was billed as Memphis Charlie on one song that featured two harmonicas with Big Walter taking the lead. Charters later produced Musselwhite's first band album on Vanguard with Harvey Mandel on guitar.
Both Elvin and Charlie relocated to California by the late 1960s for better weather and music connections as electric Chicago blues became a major influence on rock, especially with the coming of British blues lovers The Rolling Stones, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page which led to Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin. Bishop in particular would come to the attention of rock impresario Bill Graham for many gigs at the Fillmore West, plus management, and also a slot on Graham's own Fillmore label distributed by Columbia/Epic Records. Bishop went on to become part of the San Francisco Sound with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver.
While Elvin and Charlie were no doubt aware of each other in the Windy City, it took the California trip for both to forge a personal friendship that has resulted in 100 Years Of Blues for Chicago's Alligator Records. They toured Hawaii together for shows in the 1980s and went out again nationally in 2002. Charlie has guested on Elvin's recent Alligator albums such as 2014's Can't Even Do Wrong Right and Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio released in 2017. The original version of the title track of this collaboration originally appeared on the latter. Both Bishop and Musselwhite were so pleased with the results that they decided to do a whole album together. According the Elvin,”...it made me realize how much we have in common.”
You might even call them “Birds Of A Feather” which is also the name of the opening track for 100 Years Of Blues. Bishop wrote it and uses it as an actual introduction to whole thing. “Here we are birds of a feather, a whole bunch of blues lovers gathered together.” He talks it more than sings, setting the tone for what feels like a very intimate, down home, front porch kind of musical affair. The instrumentation is spare but effective with Musselwhite on harp, both Bishop and musical partner Bob Welsh on guitar and producer Kid Andersen playing upright bass. Andersen from Rick Estrin and the Nightcats also partially hosted the sessions at his own Greaseland Studios in San Jose. Charlie takes the first solo, introduced by Elvin who then takes his turn. Bishop reacts to the proceedings, “I feel the spirit moving”, concluding “Man, it's pretty hard to beat the blues!”
The next song is the album's first cover, one of three that appear on 100 Years Of Blues. “West Helena Blues” is a historic choice, written by Roosevelt Sykes and recorded by James Cotton with Otis Spann back in '66 forChicago/The Blues/Today! Volume Two. The city of Helena, Arkansas is rich in blues culture and was once called the “1930s blues capitol of the Delta” associated with legendary names such as Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II aka Rice Miller. It is also the home of radio station KFAA and the famous blues music program King Biscuit Time which has spread the word for longer than Charlie and Elvin individually. Musselwhite sings lead and plays, not one but, two solos here after a long harp Intro. The lyrical motivation for the songs is predictable. “I got a woman that I'm loving/Lives in West Helena, Arkansas”. The city gets name checked in a less complimentary fashion later as Charlie sings, “They tell me West Saint Helena, it ain't nothin' but a murderer's home.” Bob Welsh switches to piano here and helps to drive the song's rhythm in the absence of bass or drums.
Elvin gets topical next on his original song, “What The Hell?” with some reflections on post 2016 life delivered in his trademark Okie accent. “Look at the shape the nation's in/the situation is a shame and a sin”. Recorded before the Covid 19 pandemic, Elvin's observations are still timely even though mostly inspired by the results of the last presidential election. “How can four years seem so long” asks Bishop, lamenting that “half of the people in this country can't stand the other half/why can't we halfway get along?” Elvin's tone is neighborly while communicating frustration without being condemning.
“Good Times” follows but it's not a declaration that happy days are here again in 2020 or 21. It's a look back by Charlie who sings, “Where did all our good times go?”. Musselwhite impresses here with his more than respectable slide guitar work that's a focal point of this track. He usually sticks to his specialty of blues harp but stretches out to show an additional talent on this original song of his. It's not the first time Charlie has played guitar though. Listen to his song “Stingaree” from the 1993 Alligator release In My Time, a track also featured on Alligator's 25th Anniversary Collection in 1996.
“Old School” is next and it's a song that Elvin originally waxed for his Can't Even Do Wrong Right album. Charlie contributed harp on the original and returns here, sharing vocals on the chorus with Elvin. With the more laid back retro feel of 100 Years Of Blues, this was a natural choice for the two to revisit. Bishop brings a knowing smile lyrically, revealing he's no fan of “Facebook or social media, no Twitter or Tweets”. He requests, “Call me on the phone if you want to talk to me” and later, “Don't send me an email/ send me a female!”.
Both Charlie and Elvin shine instrumentally on Cut 6, “If I Should Have Bad Luck,” a Musselwhite original that signifies the halfway point of the album. Elvin's solo is especially melodic, no surprise from the guitarist who crafted the historic guitar solo for his big pop hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” one of the best solos of the 1970s. Charlie demonstrates his mastery of the so-called Chicago harp sound forged in the noisy environs of South Side blues clubs by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and his friend Big Walter Horton. Different sounding from Delta harmonica, the Chicago technique was derived from cupping a microphone and blues harp together, literally touching them in the palms of one's hands to produce a powerful sound that was perpetuated by Junior Wells, James Cotton and for decades now by Charlie.
“Midnight Hour Blues” is another cover, written by a largely forgotten blues keyboardist who was one of the top blues performers between 1928 and 1935 on the Vocalion and Bluebird labels. Leroy Carr was responsible for future standards such as “Blues Before Sunrise” and “How Long, How Long Blues” before he passed at the age of 30. Elvin and Charlie play it slow and full of feeling for a lonely protagonist whose “mind was wandering back to days of long ago” because “the little girl I used to love/I don't see her anymore”. Bishop handles the heartfelt sounding lead vocals here.
It's another Musselwhite original next in the form of a question, “Blues, Why Do You Worry Me?”. Charlie sings here with another winning harp solo, joined again by Bob Welsh who helps set the pace on piano. Elvin delivers a short but stinging solo. There's no good answer lyrically as Charlie confesses, “I used to drink to keep from worrying/now I ride from town to town” reflecting a transient life on the road. In the end though there's resilience as he sings, “I learned to smile at trouble/I won't let it get me down”.
Then Bishop comes up with some long awaited “South Side Slide,” the album's only instrumental which also gives the two blues aces some space to solo and match licks quoting briefly from classics like “Blue Monk” by Thelonious Monk. The album's longest track “Blues For Yesterday” happens next with some nice piano work from Welsh and an effective lead vocal from Charlie that's both affecting and sentimental.
Nearing the end of the album now, Musselwhite and Bishop pull out an important Sonny Boy Williamson II song, “Help Me” which Junior Wells covered as a tribute to Sonny Boy on Chicago/The Blues/Today! Volume One. It's a final time to shine on the album's second longest jam with great solos from Elvin and Charlie over some stylish piano accompaniment provided by Welsh.
Then it's nearly full circle with the new recording of the title track, 100 Years Of Blues which features Elvin recapping some of the details of their mutual South Side musical adventure from so many years ago. As good as it is, functioning as a close to this intimate musical portrait of the blues, these great stories should also be preserved in a book sometime before it's too late to do so.
Many thanks to Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite for gifting us with this recording during a time of trial. It's a down home, relaxed kind of jam that soothes musically while still addressing some issues, both timeless and contemporary. It also provides incentive to hear these stories that reveal so much about the history of the blues in Chicago at a time when many of us have more spare time perhaps. The blues may help us get through yet again, a function they've fulfilled in American culture since the harsh days of cotton fields and chain gangs.
Greg Easterling hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.