Charlie Musselwhite's Souvenir of Chicago : Blues: The veteran musician, at the Coach House tonight, was just a kid gone north and playing along when he latched onto a career.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hooded eyes and craggy countenance bespeak a harsh existence; the Southern drawl and greased-back hair give fair indication of his roots. But it is with the rich, mesmerizing tone of his swooping harmonica and the throaty growl of his singing that Charlie Musselwhite lets you know he's the real thing.

Musselwhite, who performs tonight at the Coach House, has been plying his trade in the blues for more than 30 years, from revolutionary upstart to grizzled, respected veteran.

Among the first white musicians to try his hand at the blues, Musselwhite, 51, is widely recognized as an elder statesman and one of the most eloquent, passionate performers on the scene.

Born in rural Kosciusko, Miss., and raised in Memphis, Musselwhite grew up listening to the blues.

"I always liked a lot of different kinds of music, but I always really loved the blues," he said in a recent phone interview. "Blues just seemed to make so much sense to me; it seemed logical.

"But growing up in Memphis, there was a lot of music all over. [Rockabilly legend] Johnny Burnette lived across the street from me, and I used to go over to his house and just sit around," he said. "I wasn't paying any attention to it at the time; I was just having fun. Wish I'd have taken some pictures now."

Although fascinated by music since childhood, Musselwhite never had ambitions to be a performer, but the script of his life was rewritten when he moved to Chicago at age 18.

"I didn't know a thing about Chicago," Musselwhite recalled. "I didn't even realize all those [blues] people were there. I just went up there looking for a job in a factory. Friends of mine would leave Memphis in an old jalopy and come back a year later for Christmas in a brand new car, talking about all them big jobs up in Chicago.

"Here I was working construction for a dollar an hour and running a little moonshine on the side, and it looked to me like things could be better," he said. "So I went up there looking for that job."

That was 1962, a good while before the British Invasion recycled the blues for American audiences, and many years before the first full-blown blues revival in rock 'n' roll later that decade.

Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Little Walter were like royalty to the huge community of aging blacks in Chicago, but they were virtually ignored outside the city limits and among the white record-buying public. Musselwhite, a fan of all their music, was astonished to find himself in the thick of Blues Central.

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"It didn't take long to find the blues scene up there," he said. "Here were all these people I'd been listening to on record! Every night I'd go to a different club. What a choice--should I go see Muddy tonight, or should I go see Wolf, or should I go see Elmore James? And what deals! You could go to Pepper's Lounge to see Muddy Waters for 25 cents, and you got a ticket for a free beer once you got in. I crammed about 20 years of living in my five years in Chicago."

Before long, Musselwhite became a participant as well as an enthusiastic observer on the Chicago blues scene.

"I never even had any dreams or goals of being a professional musician," he said. "I had no vision of being on any stage anywhere. But one night this waitress that I got to know real well told Muddy that I played harmonica and I ought to sit in. He made me sit in, and it was scary, but it was fun too.

"Word got around that this young white kid played harmonica. There wasn't any kids playing blues in those days. It was old-men's music--out of fashion, out of style. Kids my age would be saying, 'Man, why you listening to that [stuff]?' They liked the Temptations, stuff like that. So I was always getting offers to sit in, getting offers for jobs. The musicians were flattered that I knew who they were and had their records."

Before long, Musselwhite became known as a major blues talent in his own right, culminating in signing his first record deal with Vanguard in 1966. Musselwhite's debut effort, "Stand Back," was among the first blues albums targeted for a crossover audience.

In 1967, Musselwhite hit his stride with the album "Tennessee Woman," which included the seminal jazz-blues fusion workout on "Christo Redemptor," a 12-minute opus that cemented his reputation as a blues innovator.

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After recording three albums for Vanguard, Musselwhite moved to the Bay Area, where he has lived ever since. He toured incessantly and recorded for a number of labels but in the ensuing years became known as much for his capacity to consume alcohol as for his music, which went a long way toward holding back his career.

Sober eight years and having recorded three albums for Chicago's respected Alligator label, Musselwhite's career has been on the upswing.

"Once I retired from my drinking career, I wondered why I'd waited for so long," he said. "Alcohol is an old Southern tradition; everybody knows about drinking where I come from. I was drinking and running moonshine from the time I was an early teen-ager.

"Thinking about quitting was the hardest part. I didn't want to quit," he said. "I always drank. I'd never been on a stage sober in my life. But I didn't feel good; it wasn't working anymore. I couldn't get that old glow. Something was gonna give--you can't drink these vast amounts that I was putting away and stay healthy. Now, every facet of my life is better, and everybody at my house is happy."

When his career-affirming "In My Life" album was released by Alligator in '93, it was lauded by many as Musselwhite's finest. With his vocals and harp blowing in better form than ever, Musselwhite also surprised many fans with his deft slide guitar picking in the old Delta blues style.

"I started on guitar and harp at about the same time," he said. "But when I left Memphis for Chicago, there was, like, tons of guitar players, and there wasn't much need for another one. I got a lot of work as a harp player and became known as a harp player, so I just played guitar for my own enjoyment for a long time."

With his contract with Alligator having run its course, Musselwhite will soon be recording an album and shopping for a new deal. He's hoping for a spring release on whichever label he ends up with.

"I'm always working on something. Lots of irons in the fire."

* Charlie Musselwhite, Fry Sum Blues and Blue Highway perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 496-8930.

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