Back in the early 1960s, Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop were upstarts on the burgeoning Chicago blues scene. Both were young men when they arrived from out of state with a passion for the music and subsequently knocked around the dozens of clubs where such legendary musicians as Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf were mainstays of a decidedly unique American idiom.
It wasn’t long, though, before Musselwhite became an in-demand harmonica player, while Bishop, an exceedingly talented guitarist, helped launch The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. As a result, both men became highly influential during an era when the blues was being discovered by a larger audience and served as a source of inspiration to a generation of rock ‘n’ rollers.
Now, Musselwhite and Bishop are themselves elder statesmen and, for the first time, are touring together with upcoming stops at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Feb. 20 at 8 p.m., with Alisa Amador opening (visit mayoarts.org) and the Tarrytown Music Hall, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. (visit tarrytownmusichall.org). Although they have known each other for decades, the handful of gigs they are playing together this winter offers them an opportunity to look back while also celebrating their longevity.
“I knew him back when, but our paths never crossed much in the intervening time,” says Bishop. “We’ve been playing gigs for a couple of years, off and on, mostly at performing arts centers around the country. But this is the first time I really got a chance to get to know him and play with him a lot.”
“We’re just trying to make it fun for ourselves,” adds Musselwhite. “We’ve worked together before a little and recorded together, but not like this. So we’re doing tunes we’re known forever, but also some new tunes. There’s a lot we could play. Between the two of us, there’s 100 years of the blues. That’s saying something.”
For blues fans, that’s saying a lot.
As time marches on, there are fewer surviving musicians associated with a time and place — mid-20th century Chicago — that has occupied a storied place in American culture. Even now, the music remains popular enough to attract fans to clubs and festivals across the country, sustaining the careers of journeymen such as Bishop and Musselwhite.
And they have both been making the most of it — touring and releasing albums regularly for decades, save for a hiatus now and then. In fact, they’ve completed a new album together and are hoping to get it released sometime over the next few months. As with their current mini-tour, it will feature Bob Welsh on guitar and piano.
The stripped-down format allows them to stretch a bit — focusing not only on their playing and the songs, but giving them an opportunity to engage the audience in new ways. “We like to get together and do these duo or trio kind of things because we get a chance to take turns doing tunes, but in between, we’re talking, telling stories, having some laughs,” says Musselwhite.
Although this will hardly be a trip down the proverbial memory lane, both are a bit bemused to find themselves still onstage.
“I still haven’t got used to it,” says Bishop, who dropped out of college to play music full time. “It seems like a couple of weeks ago, I was the youngest guy onstage at all time. Now I’m the oldest guy. What the hell’s going on? I don’t know.
“The idea of making a living at it this long … I just never entertained the idea of being a professional at first. I just admired the musicians and did what they did.
“When I started out, I always kind of felt that I was a big success right from the start just because I could play with my heroes. It was like going to the moon. We were lucky to be there when we were.”
Bishop first gained notice when he and Paul Butterfield formed a band in 1963 that emulated his heroes. The Butterfield Blues Band was part of a first wave of younger groups — both in the United States and England — that brought Chicago blues to a much wider audience. At the time, such groups were all the rage as radio stations and record labels saw a big payday with teens.
Bishop rode the wave as the group — which later added Michael Bloomfield, yet another ace guitarist — became a legendary act thanks to gigs at The Fillmore venues run by Bill Graham. Along the way, they recorded one of the more influential albums of the era, East-West, which included a 13-minute instrumental that featured Indian raga.
The band also played at Woodstock in 1969, though by that time, Bishop and Bloomfield had left.
Bishop scored a huge radio hit in 1975 with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which remains a staple of classic rock radio playlists to this day. Since then, he developed a comfortable niche for himself, although he landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thanks to his tenure with Butterfield, as well as the Blues Hall of Fame.
Musselwhite, meanwhile, traveled a similar trajectory. Initially he was a guitarist, but “there were a ton of guitar players in Chicago and that’s how I ended up on harmonica,” he said. “I got more gigs. I was in demand.” And it meant he could give up his job in a factory.
By mid-’60s, he had formed a crack band and was signed to the Vanguard label, which released his first three albums.
He soon relocated to California — as did Bishop a few years later — and became part of the burgeoning music scene. Although he never scored a radio hit, he similarly spent the next several decades solidifying his credentials with steady touring and regular record releases. And like Bishop, he was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame.
“We’re old guys,” said Musselwhite. “But the audiences confirm our suspicions. We knew it was great music and we just had to play it. Turned out we could make a living at it.
“For me, it’s about celebrating life. It’s your comforter when you’re down and your buddy when you’re up. And it’s funny, because I didn’t set out to have a career in music. Didn’t know it was possible. Never occurred to me it was something I could do.”
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