Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

The singer-songwriter-guitarist and blues harmonica virtuoso discuss their Grammy-winning collaboration, “Get Up!”—their first CD together.

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper creates music that blends an assortment of styles. Born into a family of musicians, he was singing chords at age 4 and started playing the guitar at age 6. By age 12, he was performing for live audiences. The three-time Grammy winner is a master of the slide guitar and has collaborated on records and in concerts with such artists as John Lee Hooker, Metallica and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Multiple Grammy-winning harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite is also one of the most awarded artists ever by the Blues Foundation, having won 27 Blues Music Awards. Born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis and schooled on Chicago's South Side, the groundbreaking musician made his mark leading blues bands in Chicago and San Francisco and has released more than 30 albums. He was recently inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.

Harper and Musselwhite have been looking for a collaboration project for more than 10 years and finally teamed up on "Get Up!"—a mix of gospel, blues, roots music and R&B, for the legendary Stax Records label.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: (Laughter) Ben Harper has teamed up with harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite to produce a new CD entitled “Get Up!” for the legendary label, Stax Records.

Ben, a two-time Grammy winner, wrote or co-wrote every song on the CD that’s been called cinematic in its storytelling and style. Charlie, a six-time Grammy nominee, adds his own unique brand of soaring harmonica lines to the cuts. So before we start this conversation, here’s a small taste of what this collaboration sounds like.

[Clip]

Tavis: So Ben, one of the things I’ve always loved about you is that over the course of your career – as a matter of fact, I’ve been doing this show, now we’re in our 10th season here on PBS -

Ben Harper: Congratulations.

Tavis: Thank you. And you’ve been on this program a number of times.

Harper: Thank you.

Tavis: So many times, certainly more than any other guest that I’ve had, you’ve been on here because of collaborations that you went after, that you wanted to do, and they always happen to be the legends, the icons, the old school guys who clearly you have an affinity for, an appreciation for.

So before I get into the Charlie thing specifically (unintelligible) the Five Blind Boys, but what is it about the old school cats that you are so drawn to?

Harper: The soul.

Tavis: Yeah.

Harper: The heart and soul, and a depth of musical inspiration that they have brought into my life, all my life. To have an opportunity like this, there won’t – they don’t come along often, and they probably won’t be a lot more – this man knows a man who played with Charlie – this man knew a man who played with Charlie Patton. Charlie Patton taught Robert Johnson.

Tavis: Right.

Harper: That’s him. So I know someone who knew someone (laughter) that knew Robert Johnson, you know what I mean? But I’d hate to geek out on you like that. (Laughter) But for me, the blues is where I come from.

Tavis: Right.

Harper: That’s the foundation of every note I’ve ever hit or will hit, and this man represents the deepest blues that has ever existed.

Tavis: So the collaboration might look good on paper, but what makes you know it’s going to work well in the studio, like for real, for real?

Harper: I think personalities and something that moves around us all that’s bigger than us, that brings us to a place in our lives where we can live into who we see ourselves being. Charlie and I meet right there, and that’s why.

Tavis: So the flipside of that question for you, Charlie – how does it feel on your end to have these younger cats, people like Ben Harper, seek you out and want to hang with you and get in the studio with you after all these years?

Charlie Musselwhite: I don’t know what the fuss is about, but I’ll take it. (Laughter) I appreciate it. It’s been a long old road, and I’m still doing it. It’s great to be working with a guy like Ben.

We just resonate, not only musically, but personally, and so it’s great to be out on the road playing music, seeing all the smiling faces, with a guy like Ben, for me. I don’t feel old, but (laughter). I feel better now than I did 30 years ago.

Tavis: And you don’t sound old, that’s for sure. As Ben said, the soul is still there.

Musselwhite: Well, I got a young heart.

Tavis: That helps. Why, to your point, Charlie, why are you still doing this? You’ve made your mark, man. Why still do this? Why get on the road with Ben and hit these hotels and buses and airports? Why do it at this time?

Musselwhite: Well -

Harper: Don’t talk him out of it, man. (Laughter) I got a good thing going here.

Tavis: Why still do it?

Musselwhite: If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t back out of my driveway again until I really felt like going somewhere.

Tavis: Right.

Musselwhite: I love the music, but being on the road ain’t a piece of cake, but it is real rewarding. You’ve got to – all those people can’t come to my house, so I’ve got to go out on the road and play for them. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. How did the harmonica become your instrument?

Musselwhite: Oh, Lord. Well, when I was a kid they were just around. I just had – it seemed like all the kids had a harmonica. When I was about 13 I got – I was really interested in blues, and I thought, well, I got a harmonica. Maybe I can play my own blues.

It sounds so good to listen to it, must feel even better to play it. So I’d go out in the woods and just started teaching myself my own blues, and then it just took over. The blues overtook me.

Tavis: You’re self-taught, though.

Musselwhite: Yeah. The harmonica’s the only instrument you can’t see what you’re doing, or anybody else. You’re really on your own. Every other instrument, you see the hands doing something where you can get a clue on how to play it, but you’re really on your own with a harmonica.

It’s the only instrument you breathe in and out of and you can’t see what you’re doing. (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s like going up on a tightrope. Ben, speaking of instruments, are there instruments – this might sound like a silly question, and maybe it is, but I’m curious, though, as to what you hear?

Are there instruments that you just have a complete adoration for that as often as you can you want to include them on your projects?

Harper: No one in particular.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Harper: Again, following the will of the music, I kind of let the song lead the charge in the way it wants to sound.

Tavis: Yeah. I only ask that because I just find that whenever I hear a harmonica, which isn’t terribly, terribly often these days, given what they give us. But whenever I hear it, man, it stops me dead in my tracks, and in part I think because of what Charlie just described in terms of what you’re actually, what they’re actually going through to get that sound out.

But every time I hear it, whether it’s Charlie, whether it’s Stevie, whether it’s – it just kind of stops me, the sound of the instrument.

Harper: I’m with you. It’s something so special when it’s played at this level, and when it comes to the blues, for me, it has to be there.

Musselwhite: It’s like a voice. To me, it’s like when I’m taking a solo, playing the harmonica, it’s like I’m singing without words. Because you can make it sound happy or sad – it’s all there.

Harper: And Charlie’s (unintelligible). What’s crazy is today on the show you’ve had two of the three greatest – Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal and Charlie are the three greatest living humans to play that instrument, so that’s crazy you’ve had two of the three on the show within that span – when’s Stevie been on last?

Tavis: I guess a couple – maybe a year or so ago, yeah.

Harper: All right.

Tavis: But I’ve been honored. As you know, I love music, and as a matter of fact, people stop me in airports and hotels and on the street and they thank me. I’m always humbled by it, but there are some people who thank me for talking to so many music artists.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: I literally was just having – literally just having this conversation today with our exec producer, Coby Atlas, and I was saying to her that the reason why I love music artists is that you get the most authentic conversations with them.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: I love politicians, but they’re always trying to stay on message. I love military generals, but they ain’t going to give you nothing. I could talk about a number of different genres of people who I talk to all the time.

You talk to artists, man, that’s the best shot you have at having an authentic conversation.

Harper: Wow.

Tavis: Because what’s in them typically comes out in one way, shape, or form.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: So just over the years I’ve been blessed to talk to so many, because I just love talking to artists. Speaking of artists -

Harper: (Unintelligible) thanks for putting up with us.

Tavis: No, no, I love it. Charlie, you’ve got this briefcase. I’m afraid to ask what’s inside of it. I hope something legal. (Laughter)

Musselwhite: Well today it is. (Laughter)

Harper: (Unintelligible) It’s not my briefcase.

Tavis: He said, “Today it is.” Is there a harmonica in there, by chance?

Musselwhite: I got a “Blues Man for Obama” (unintelligible).

Tavis: I like that, okay. (Laughter)

Harper: You can’t play it, though.

Tavis: Yeah. But is there something you can play in there?

Musselwhite: Oh yeah. I actually gave a – this is a Seydel harmonica. This the oldest harmonica company in the world. Older than Hohner.

Harper: Where are they?

Musselwhite: Seydel.

Harper: No, where?

Musselwhite: From Klingenthal, Germany.

Tavis: Wow.

Musselwhite: I gave one of these to President Obama.

He said that Stevie Wonder had given him a Chromatic. I said, “Well, if you want to play blues, I give lessons.” He said, “That’s nice, but I’m a little busy right now.” (Laughter)

Tavis: So he can’t play, but you can play a little something for us?

Musselwhite: What would you like to hear?

Tavis: Whatever you want to play.

Musselwhite: I don’t (unintelligible). (Laughs)

Tavis: Let me do this and I’m going to get out of your way, and we’ll give you the last minute to just play us out. Whatever you want to play.

So the new project from Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite is called “Get Up!” As you heard Ben say, not 11, not 12, not 13 – 10 tracks. (Laughter)

Harper: I’m glad there’s enough for you, Tavis. (Laughter)

Tavis: Ten tracks on the new -

Harper: I’ll play you some of the B sides. I’ll get you some of the outtakes if it’s not enough.

Tavis: Send it to me, send it to me. The new project, called “Get Up!” Ben, I’m always glad to have you on this program.

Harper: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. Charlie, an honor to meet you.

Musselwhite: Nice to meet you, an honor.

Tavis: Great to have you on.

Musselwhite: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: I’m going to say one last thing and you got 30 seconds to play us out. So as always, thanks for watching. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, keep the faith.

[Charlie Musselwhite playing harmonica live]

[Applause]

Musselwhite: Something like. (Laughter)

Tavis: There you have it. Thanks, Charlie.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 6, 2014 at 11:24 pm