When 18-year-old Charlie Musselwhite left Memphis for Chicago in 1962, he wasn't even aware that the Windy City was the center of the blues universe. His only objective was to land a decent factory job. But Musselwhite would soon discover how vital the blues scene was in his new hometown. He would also notice that there were fewer harmonica players than guitarists working the blues clubs there. Since Musselwhite could play both instruments, he decided to focus on the harp since it presented the least competition. He began to find steady gigs and eventually earned his big break when Big Walter Horton enlisted him as a sideman on the classic album Chicago, The Blues, Today! in 1965. Sam Charters decided Musselwhite was worthy of a recording contract, and Charters produced Musselwhite's sensational 1967 debut on Vanguard, Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite's Southside Band. Stand Back remains an essential album for any harmonica player or fan.
Though Musselwhite's remaining output for Vanguard only consisted of three more solo albums and some limited work as a sideman, his stint with the label was one of the most fruitful periods of his career. Besides Stand Back, Musselwhite also recorded another classic release for Vanguard, Tennessee Woman (1969). Of the 20 tracks collected on this retrospective CD, 11 are lifted from those two great releases. These 11 cuts are far and away the CD's high points. Also nice are two tunes from John Hammond's So Many Roads (1965).
The remainder of this retrospective is mostly mediocre, but considering 13 out of 20 tracks are excellent, the album is a decent buy. I've never been thrilled with Musselwhite's singing, but I love his harp work. Musselwhite's best music has a spiritual quality without being religious. That vibe is certainly amplified by Barry Goldberg's churchy organ on the first five cuts here (from Stand Back ). Particularly stirring is Musselwhite's interpretation of the jazz instrumental Christo Redemptor. There are also plenty of fast-rockin' cuts in the collection. All in all, Best of is a fine introduction to one of the blues' greatest harmonicats.
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