Charlie Musselwhite’s recording of “Cristo Redentor” on his album Tennessee Woman (Verve Records) was a life-changing experience for me. It was the first recording I ever heard that made me want not only to play, but to master, the harmonica, because it revealed to me depths of emotion in the instrument that I had never dreamed existed.
It was 1969. I was 17 years old. I had been playing piano since the age of 9, and harmonica for about 2 years. I had learned a few things from Paul Butterfield’s and Taj Mahal’s records, and I thought I knew how to play.
I read a review of Tennessee Woman by Alan Heinemann in Downbeat, and I went right out and bought the record. I played it as soon as I got home. I dropped the needle on the first cut “Cristo Redentor,” of course at least a half dozen times before I could believe that what I was hearing that sound like someone screaming in a black-walled pit was actually a harmonica. I was simultaneously awed and overjoyed; I wanted to be able to make that sound more than anything.
I spent much of the next three years studying Charlie Musselwhite’s style. I listened to his album Takin’ My Time, on Arhoolie the great LP that featured Robben Ford on guitar and Skip Rose on piano, easily one of Musselwhite’s best bands over and over, memorising every phrase (of Rose’s as well as Musselwhite’s). I have not listened so closely to Musselwhite for years, and I still carry him around in my head; he is so blue. I am now more than ever convinced of what I believed at 17: Charlie Musselwhite can do no wrong.