Ben Harper grew up roaming the aisles and restoring guitars at his family's music store, the Claremont Folk Music Center. Going on its 60th year of business, the storefront in Southern California is where Harper first discovered the harmonica playing of blues legend Charlie Musselwhite.
"We had Charlie's records stacked high at my family's store and at my house," Harper tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Now, he can add another album to the stack. At 43, Harper has a dedicated following and two Grammy Awards, but he achieved a life goal on his latest release: collaborating with Musselwhite. The new album Get Up! is a collection of original blues and roots songs, heavily accented by Musselwhite's harmonica.
"To me, the harmonica is like a voice," says Musselwhite, who turns 69 Thursday. "And when I'm taking a solo, it's like I'm singing without words."
The songs on Get Up! draw on the great Chicago blues tradition that Musselwhite entered as a teen looking for factory work in the 1960s — a world of all-night jam sessions in smoky bars, where Muddy Waters was king.
But Harper and Musselwhite also work to modernize that sound, creating a blues record for today. Here, they discuss recording Get Up! and the resonating power of the blues.
Musselwhite on breaking into the Chicago blues scene at 18
"I didn't think about doing it myself because this was, like, adult music. There was nobody my age playing it that I knew about — until, one night, this waitress that I had gotten to know told Muddy [Waters], 'You ought to hear Charlie play harmonica.' And soon as Muddy heard that I played, he insisted that I sit in — which wasn't unusual, because people sat in at Pepper's Lounge all the time. It was just unusual for this kid — this white kid — with all these grown-ups. So when people heard me playing, then I started getting offers for gigs. And this really got my attention. I thought, 'This is my ticket out of the factory.' "
Harper on the song "We Can't End This Way"
"There was an award event — Oscars, Grammys, something was going on downtown — and I was skating around on a skateboard. And I'm kicking around, working on my moves. There was a cat on the corner and, you know, he was a hustler. His hustle was, he'd just stand there and go 'Help!' Like, cry for help ... and I'd see people walk past him. I was like, 'Man!' They were just filing past him in their $5,000 outfits, just moving past him as if he is, you know, disposable. And I was just like, 'Wow, this is something else.' And that's when it hit me. It's like, 'Man, we can't go out like this.' "