His family considered it normal to play music, with his father playing guitar and harmonica, his mother playing piano, and a relative who was a one-man band. At the age of three, Musselwhite moved to Memphis, Tennessee. When he was a teenager, Memphis experienced the period when rockabilly, western swing, and electric blues and other forms of African American music were combining to give birth to rock and roll. The period featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, as well as lesser known musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and Johnny Burnette. Musselwhite supported himself by digging ditches, laying concrete and running moonshine in a 1950 Lincoln automobile. This environment was Musselwhite’s school for music as well as life, and he acquired the nickname “Memphis Charlie.”
In true bluesman fashion, Musselwhite then took off in search of the rumored “big-paying factory jobs” up the “Hillbilly Highway”, the Highway 51 to Chicago, where he continued his education on the South Side, making the acquaintance of even more legends including Lew Soloff, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Big Walter Horton. Musselwhite immersed himself completely in the musical life, living in the basement of, and occasionally working at Jazz Record Mart (the record store operated by Delmark Records founder Bob Koester) with Big Joe Williams and working as a driver for an exterminator, which allowed him to observe what was happening around the city’s clubs and bars. He spent his time hanging out at the Jazz Record Mart at the corner of State and Grand and the nearby bar, Mr. Joe’s, with the city’s blues musicians, and sitting in with Big Joe Williams and others in the clubs, playing for tips. There he forged a lifelong friendship with John Lee Hooker; though Hooker lived in Detroit, Michigan, the two often visited each other, and Hooker served as best man at Musselwhite’s third marriage. Gradually Musselwhite became well known around town.
In time, Musselwhite led his own blues band, and, after Elektra Records’ success with Paul Butterfield, he released the legendary Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band album in 1966 on Vanguard Records (as “Charley Musselwhite”), to immediate and great success. He took advantage of the clout this album gave him to move to San Francisco, where, instead of being one of many competing blues acts, he held court as the king of the blues in the exploding countercultural music scene, an exotic and gritty figure to the flower children. Musselwhite even convinced Hooker to move out to California.
Since then, Musselwhite has released over 20 albums, as well as guesting on albums by many other musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in Their Hearts and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit of the Century, both winners of Grammy awards. He also appeared on Tom Waits’ Mule Variations and INXS’ Suicide Blonde. He himself has won 14 W. C. Handy Awards and six Grammy nominations, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Monterey Blues Festival and the San Javier Jazz Festival in San Javier, Spain, and the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
In 1979, Musselwhite recorded The Harmonica According to Charlie Musselwhite in London for Kicking Mule Records, intended to go with an instructional book; the album itself became so popular that it has been released on CD. In June 2008, Blind Pig Records reissued the album on 180-gram vinyl with new cover art.
In 1990 Musselwhite signed with Alligator Records, a step that led to a resurgence of his career.
In 1998, Musselwhite appeared in the film Blues Brothers 2000. He provided the harmonica position in the super-ensemble The Louisiana Gator Boys, which also featured many other rhythm and blues legends such as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Eric Clapton, Koko Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan, Dr. John, and Jack DeJohnette.
Over the years, Musselwhite has branched out in style. His 1999 recording, Continental Drifter, is accompanied by Cuarteto Patria, from Cuba’s Santiago region, the Cuban music analog of the Mississippi Delta. Because of the political differences between Cuba and the United States, the album was recorded in Bergen, Norway, with Musselwhite’s wife ironing out all the details.
Musselwhite believes the key to his musical success was finding a style where he could express himself. He has said, “I only know one tune, and I play it faster or slower, or I change the key, but it’s just the one tune I’ve ever played in my life. It’s all I know.”
His past two albums, Sanctuary and Delta Hardware have both been released on Real World Records.
Musselwhite plays on Tom Waits’ 1999 album Mule Variations. He can be heard at the beginning of the song “Chocolate Jesus” saying “I love it”. Waits has mentioned that he feels this is his favorite part of the song.
In 2002, he featured on the Bo Diddley tribute album Hey Bo Diddley – A Tribute!, performing the song “Hey Bo Diddley”.
Musselwhite lost both of his elderly parents in December 2005, in separate incidents. His mother, Ruth Maxine Musselwhite, was murdered.
Musselwhite joined the 10th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians’ careers. He was also a judge for the 7th and 9th Independent Music Awards.
Charlie Musselwhite was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010. The same year, he appeared on the JW-Jones recording “Midnight Memphis Sun” along with Hubert Sumlin.
For the first half of 2011, Musselwhite toured with the acoustic-electric blues band Hot Tuna. In the latter half of 2011, he went on tour with Cyndi Lauper in light of his harmonica recording contributions to her hit album Memphis Blues. While on this tour, he appeared with Lauper on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve 2011, performing alongside her for a modified arrangement of her signature song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
In 2012, Musselwhite teamed up with Ben Harper to record the album Get Up!, which was released in January of 2013. In January 2014, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album.