Mike Wilhelm: Pioneering rock star and blues enthusiast

Phil Shaw

Mike Wilhelm, who has died of cancer aged 77, held a special place in the history of American rock and the development of the musical strands of Americana – and was even cited by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia as his favourite guitarist

In 1965, two years before the Summer of Love spread the hippie subculture, Wilhelm became lead guitarist in San Francisco group The Charlatans. Their use of LSD, light shows, lengthy “jams” and poster art – which saw their gigs termed Happenings or Acid Tests – led to the five-piece being branded the Bay Area’s first psychedelic act.

Their repertoire melded elements of US roots music, from country, folk and jugband to blues, swing and ragtime. This eclecticism differentiated them from bands that followed in their slipstream such as the Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

In his native Los Angeles, Wilhelm attended Canoga Park High School. His classmate and future bandmate, George Hunter, later moved to San Francisco, and when Wilhelm also went north in 1963 he became adept at playing surf-guitar tunes. He had taken up the electric guitar after seeing Buddy Holly play “Peggy Sue” on TV, but exposure to his older sister’s record collection fostered a love of acoustic blues. A chance meeting with Brownie McGhee led to the Tennessee blues legend teaching Wilhelm the fingerpicking style that served him well for the next 60 years.

Hunter then invited him to join the group he had been inspired to form after seeing The Rolling Stones. By then Wilhelm had completed two years in the naval air reserves. Even a stint in Vietnam, however, proved scant preparation for the residency they undertook in June 1965 at the Red Dog Saloon in the old silver-mining town of Virginia City, Nevada.

Hunter had dressed his bewhiskered band in Edwardian-era outlaw suits, with high-collared shirts, waistcoats, cowboy hats and boots. At the Red Dog, they also began carrying guns, both as part of their image and to deter attacks by redneck longhair-haters.

Fuelled by copious quantities of acid, The Charlatans started out playing Chuck Berry covers, blues and 1950s rock ’n’ roll. Gradually, their individual musical passions, such as Wilhelm’s for blues, began shaping the material, along with their drug intake. They returned to San Francisco ostensibly with a headstart over counter-culture bands who would become household names, though not before Wilhelm was “busted” for drug possession in Rodeo, California.

In 1966 they signed to Kama Sutra Records, which had enjoyed huge success with The Lovin’ Spoonful. Their live shows, illuminated by Hunter’s strobelight, drew sizeable crowds to the city’s big venues, The Avalon, Filmore, Winterland and Longshoremen’s Hall.

But the group and their record label had a communication problem, allowing their contemporaries to steal a march on them. Wilhelm and Hunter wanted to release “Codine” as their debut single and assured the company it was an anti-drug number. Kama Sutra feared radio stations would ban it. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, a pro-drug song, soon became a major national success.

By the time the “freak” phenomenon broke out of the Haight-Ashbury suburb and bands such as The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish and Buffalo Springfield went national and international, The Charlatans were still largely local. On the first night of Monterey Pop, the great west coast hippie gathering of 1967, Wilhelm and co played a high school dance in San Jose.

Wilhelm later recalled: “We had horrible arguments and fights all the time. But the music was amazing and kept us together.” Yet in 1968 Hunter and the band’s outstanding songwriter, Dan Hicks, both quit. Wilhelm and bassist Richard Olsen revamped the line-up and in 1969 they released an album, The Charlatans, on a new label but it was a commercial failure. Later that year The New Charlatans disbanded.

After forming a trio called Loose Gravel, Wilhelm spent six years on lead guitar with the power pop band Flamin’ Groovies, often acclaimed as forerunners of punk. He played on the albums Flamin’ Groovies Now and Jumpin’ in the Night in the late 1970s. In 2012 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Despite describing himself as retired – he lived in Lake County, California, with wife Ana Maria – Wilhelm released several solo albums, took part in Charlatans reunions, belted out their showstopper “Alabama Bound” in bars and worked on remastering their recordings from 1965-69.

Michael Ray Wilhelm, guitarist, singer and songwriter, born 18 March 1942, died 14 May 2019