Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop — ‘front porch’ bluesmen celebrate their Chicago music roots

The duo are in concert at Ravinia on Thursday.

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Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop are touring in support of their album “100 Years of Blues.”

Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop are touring in support of their album “100 Years of Blues.”

Pat Johnson

When Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite return to the Chicago area for Thursday’s concert at Ravinia, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

Both musicians lived in Chicago in the early 1960s, an era when they were developing their craft by observing blues titans like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams.

Bishop, 80, and Musselwhite, 79, are now members of the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame.

Bishop, who sings and plays guitar, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Musselwhite is recognized as one of the world’s greatest harmonica players, with a style that is distinctive for its emotive subtleties.

Untitled

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Ravinia Festival Carousel Stage, 201 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park

Tickets: $49

Info: ravinia.org

At Ravinia, the duo will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Bob Welsh for a set featuring songs from their 2020 collaborative album “100 Years of Blues.” Released by the Chicago label Alligator Records, the album topped the Billboard blues album chart and received a Grammy nomination.

The lyrics to the autobiographical title track include references to Pepper’s Lounge and Silvio’s, two long-gone Chicago blues clubs that served as the musicians’ training grounds. Bishop and Musselwhite made the leap from fan to performer, fueled by invitations to sit in with bands that played long past midnight.

“With all the different bands happening, it was a great scene for a young musician who was ambitious and wanted to develop a little bit,” Bishop said in an interview from his recording studio in Lagunitas, California.

Elvin Bishop (left) and  Charlie Musselwhite.

Elvin Bishop (left) and Charlie Musselwhite.

Steve Jennings

“You’d go around to all these clubs, and it was to your advantage to know everybody’s tunes that you went to see,” Bishop said.

“I don’t care how famous you were, when it gets to be about 2 or 3 in the morning, you’ll be glad to see any kind of help you can get. So you tried to learn the tunes and make as good a showing as you could because that was like putting in your resume or a job application. So, if a vacancy popped up, they’d think of you.”

Musselwhite had a similar experience. When a friend told Muddy Waters about Musselwhite’s harmonica skills, the blues icon asked the young man to sit in with his band. That led to more gigs and groundbreaking recording sessions for Musselwhite as a sideman and leader.

“I wasn’t hungering to be in the spotlight,” Musselwhite said from his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. “I loved the music, and I just played it for myself. I wasn’t thinking about a career in music. Having me sit in wasn’t really unusual because [Waters] had people sitting in all the time. [Bands] would play till 4 in the morning, except Saturday nights, when they played till 5. That’s a lot of time to kill. So Muddy was happy to have people sitting in.”

“!00 Years of Blues”

“!00 Years of Blues” album cover.

Alligator Records

The duo’s “front-porch” style of stripped-down blues is a great fit for Ravinia’s outdoor Carousel Stage, where the duo is likely to play material from Musselwhite’s 2022 solo album “Mississippi Son,” which features his original tune “Blues Gave Me a Ride.”

The harmonica wizard has one exceptionally famous fan: former President Barack Obama. Musselwhite said he has had two conversations with Obama — one at a campaign fundraiser in San Francisco, the other during a 2013 White House performance.

Musselwhite said of the Bay Area interaction: “I gave Obama a harmonica, and I said, ‘I’ve heard that you like blues, and, if you’re interested, I could give you a few tips on how to play it.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s really nice, Charlie. But I’m pretty busy right now.’”

Bishop’s early years were spent in an Iowa farmhouse that didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. His family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Bishop earned a National Merit Scholarship and enrolled at the University of Chicago.

Bishop’s family didn’t have much income, and he was the first one in the family to attend college. He still has vivid memories of his family’s struggles.

“My dad stayed unemployed quite a bit,” Bishop said. “I remember I was in Chicago, and I got a letter from my mom, and it was typed on paper towels. My dad had got a job as a janitor, so he’d bring the rolls of paper towels home.”

Musselwhite was raised by a single mother in Memphis, Tennessee. Seeking a good job, as a young adult he moved to Chicago, where he found factory work. He also served as an exterminator’s assistant, spraying for roaches and dispensing rat poison.

Reflecting on his journey from youthful apprentice to elder statesman, Musselwhite said, “I don’t know how I got this old so fast.”

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