Mike Wilhelm, founder member of the Charlatans, died of cancer on May 14. Alec Palao pays tribute to Jerry Garcia’s favourite San Francisco guitar player.
It almost seems like Mike Wilhelm was destined to be an unsung figure, a cult hero. There has been not near enough of the man to be heard on record over an almost sixty-year career, with only a handful of bona fide albums to his name, amongst them a wonderfully-curated mid-70s anthology, masterminded by Andrew Lauder and the editors of Zigzag,. Most of his appearances have been one-off collaborations, or as a member of groups like the Charlatans, Flamin’ Groovies and his own barrelhouse outfit, Loose Gravel. But in every case, Wilhelm’s contribution always stands out clearly. He had a remarkable and deft touch with blues, country and, especially, classic rock’n’roll, all musics that seemed to resonate deeply within his psyche. Of all the guitar slingers within the original San Francisco front ranks, Mike Wilhelm was the only one who could truly deliver a Chuck Berry lick with the required amount of panache.
To be sure, it is as guitarist of those amazing Charlatans that Wilhelm probably left his most indelible mark. If George Hunter was the aesthete who brainstormed the group’s concept, and Dan Hicks the maverick songwriter who added an unexpectedly delicious twist, then it was Mike Wilhelm who designed the frame, and to a large extent, drove the band musically. The folk-ish roots of his southern California background parlayed effortlessly into the plugged-in Americana that the Charlatans pioneered. Mike was at the forefront of all this, and therefore he becomes as influential as any of the band’s immediate contemporaries, or those local acts that quickly went on to fame and fortune. No less than Jerry Garcia was known to indicate Wilhelm as his favourite guitarist on the scene.
Some years ago, when I came across a tape recorded in a house in Berkeley in 1964, I got an insight into just how important Mike may have been. This was pre-Charlatans, when his musical activities were limited to a frat band called Danny Clapp & The Bangers. Amongst typical, if distinctive, folk and folk-blues workouts, there lay a fully-developed arrangement of ‘Alabama Bound,’ not only to become the musical calling card for the Charlatans, but a clarion call of sorts to every disenfranchised folkie and beatnik that made up the early SF scene. In that regard, it can be reckoned that it was Wilhelm who established an organic template for local folk-rock to aspire to, somehow more authentic and organic than the Los Angeles or New York varieties. Older than his years, Mike’s gravelly voice delivered just the right amount of erudition, as can be heard on the many lead vocals he took with the Charlatans, such as their bone-chilling take on ‘Codine Blues.’ Such authenticity even stretched to his chosen persona in the band, the gunslinger look he more or less maintained thoughout his life, coming across like Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp or in later years – and I say this most affectionately – the rock’n’roll equivalent of Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon.
Despite their sartorial magnificence, in both sight and sound, the original Charlatans quintet was destined never to be properly heard at the time. Mike and bass player Richard Olsen reformed the band in early 1968, subsequently recording the only album ascribed to the act during its lifetime, chock-full of many fine Wilhelm moments. Then came a much more rough-hewn organization, the power trio Loose Gravel, but they only recorded sporadically and mostly played local clubs. In 1976, Mike was co-opted into SF institution the Flamin’ Groovies, whose Cyril Jordan for one was fully aware of both the guitarist’s abilities and the Charlatans’ immense standing – the Groovies had even recorded the Charlatans arrangement of ‘I Saw Her’ on their instructive “Shake Some Action” long-player. Wilhelm toured extensively in Europe with the band through to the early 1980s, as well as appearing on the albums “Now” and “Jumpin’ In The Night”. Since that time, Wilhelm maintained as busy a schedule as possible, indulging in the aforementioned collaborations with fellow cult axemen such as John Cipollina, his own recording projects, or the occasional Charlatans reunion. In recent decades he had relocated north to the community of Clear Lake with his wife Ana-Maria, where he continued to keep active music-wise, most recently with the Bottle Rock Band.
I saw Mike play many times over the years, mostly in solo performance, where his fingerpicking style really came to life on an acoustic 12-string. I recall being at one such show in the ‘90s, where Cyril leaned over and whispered “you know he’s gonna blow our minds”. Impressed that his old bandmate would still give Mike the kudos, sure enough, the ringing tones of his fingerpicked railroad ballads, or some outstanding crystal blues, did the trick. Wilhelm was also a hell of a raconteur, with a finely-tuned understanding of the Old West, causing him to frequently devolve into lengthy discourses upon historical events, places, and the songs that marked them. One never knew when to jump in, but I always enjoyed talking to him, and felt quite humble in his appreciation of my reissue efforts on behalf of the Charlatans.
In which regard, it was a thrill to see him play those pathfinding Charlatans classics at the reconstituted band’s shows in the mid-90s, or at the two Red Dog Saloon reunions in Virginia City held in 1991 and 2015 respectively. The latter event was of course bittersweet, as Mike was by now in a wheelchair and struggling somewhat in performance, but it was nevertheless a magical night. Recent phone conversations were punctuated with the mechanical wheeze of his oxygen machine, and online he provided a running commentary on his increasing trips to the Veterans Hospital to get treatment, so it was sadly inevitable that the cancer would eventually catch up with him.
It’s an open secret that Mike is also responsible for one of the greatest, and oft-repeated, exchanges in San Francisco music history, one enshrined in the movie Last Days Of The Fillmore. After a petulant Bill Graham refuses Loose Gravel a slot on the bill, Wilhelm’s sassy retort in the face of the impresario’s hubris - “fuck you, and thanks for the memories!” – acts as a paradigm of the both the humility and the attitude with which he led his life. I’ll long cherish both those parts of Mike Wilhelm’s personality. The music scene will never be quite the same without him.