The Making Of Ben Harper And Charlie Musselwhite's Get Up!
(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. The series' current installments present in-depth insight and details about recordings that won 56th GRAMMY Awards.)
(As told to Chuck Crisafulli)
[Get Up!] actually got its start almost 20 years ago with a blessing from John Lee Hooker. I became friends with John Lee after he invited me to open up some shows for him at the Sweetwater, which is a legendary Northern California club. He and Charlie were already extremely close; John Lee was the best man at Charlie's wedding. So when John Lee started working on what ended up being his final studio recording, he called both Charlie and I to play on it.
At those sessions Charlie and I connected as friends, but we also realized that, musically, we both wanted to explore some uncharted territories together. We especially knew this was worth doing when John Lee said, "You two need to do something. You make a real good racket." We figured, "If John Lee Hooker's saying it, it's the law."
There were three ways the songs on Get Up! happened. There were songs I came to the table with, there were ideas that needed to be fleshed out, and there [were] things that were born on the spot in the studio. In all cases there wasn't anything I wrote that Charlie didn't make better. It was sort of [like he said], "This is how you thought it went, here's how it goes." I basically followed him as my musical north star. And he gave me a lot of trust lyrically — a lot of room to come up with what I could by putting a pen to a blank page. That meant a lot to me because I always want the words to hold up as well as anything else on the record. Just because it's blues, doesn't mean you don't have to put as much care into the lyrics as Paul Simon would.
If you put 10 great musicians in a room, you won't necessarily end up with 10 great songs, so Charlie and I definitely appreciate how well we work together. It's funny, but as much music as there's been in the history of the blues, the pairing of lap steel and harmonica is one that hasn't been fully explored. That combination of sounds gave [me and] Charlie a lot to dig into. Charlie has a great way of playing rhythm under the vocals — it's almost like he's got a Hammond B-3 in his mouth. It's incredible to hear a harmonica used that way. That's one of our secret weapons.
Then again, there are Charlie's solos. When he took his solo on the song "I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone," it was one of the three greatest musical moments of my life. There's playing with John Lee Hooker, there's sitting two feet away from Solomon Burke while he sang a song that I wrote, and there's Charlie taking that solo. I thought I had written a song that would happen to have a solo, but it turned out the song was just an excuse for that solo to exist. We were playing live in the studio, and everybody in the band just started looking at each other and freaking out. It's amazing we were able to finish the song. We knew wherever John Lee was he was smiling ear to ear.
— Ben Harper
Ben and I had been wanting to record together for years and years, but we were never free at the same time long enough to get it done. We did some little things on each other's records and sat in with each other when we could, but it was hard to find time to make the record we both really wanted to make.
Finally it happened that we had the time and the place, and when we went into the studio it seemed like we'd been waiting so long that all the tunes were like wild horses just ready to bust out of the corral. [The songs] just poured out one after the other and everything got done in one or two takes, with no overdubs except the background vocals. There was real magic in the studio. It felt like this music was all ready to happen and we just needed to show up to let it happen.
I think the key to the music on Get Up! is [how] Ben's background and his history as a player and my background and my history as a player come together and spark something that's bigger than both of us. You might say we're different people in some obvious ways, but the way we think and feel about music matches up perfectly, and that's what makes the music resonate.
I don't like music to sound complicated. I like just playing from the heart. It was important to us to leave some of the rough edges in and let the music sound loose and spontaneous. In fact, the last song on the album, "All That Matters Now," was so loose that I didn't even know we were recording. You can hear doors creaking and things banging around and me laughing. I thought we were just working out something to record later, but Ben had told the folks in the booth to record everything, and I'm glad he did because we got a great song out of it, door creak and all.
It's usually hard for me to go back and listen to something I've played on. I always think I could have played better. I'm not really comfortable listening to myself or looking at myself for that matter, but this record still sounds good to me. It just feels right.
I never know how anybody else is going to react to my music. I guess I play to please myself and just hope that somebody out there will like it. So it really means a lot to me, and to Ben as well, that other people could hear something special in this record, and I think we're both still on a cloud from that great GRAMMY evening. I've already got the trophy set up in an exalted spot in my living room, with a nice little light over it. You walk in there and you can't help but genuflect.
— Charlie Musselwhite
(At the 56th GRAMMY Awards, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won Best Blues Album for Get Up! — marking the first win of Musselwhite's career and the third win for Harper. Released in 2013, the album topped Billboard's Blues Album chart. Harper is currently on tour, with select dates scheduled with Musselwhite through July.)
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)