Friday, February 17, 2012

The Blues of the Magic Man

Of all the blues artists I've listened to in my twenty-five-plus years of listening to the blues, Magic Slim has to be the most unwavering.  For over forty years, Slim has done one thing and done it very well...he's has played genuine houserockin' music all over the world.  Nothing fancy, no bells and whistles (for the most part), just rough and ragged, down and dirty, strictly blue collar blues. 

He has one of the largest repertoires of any blues musician.......he's a veritable human juke box......and the uncanny ability to take anybody's song and transform it into his song.  Over the past twenty years, he has gone from being "seldom recorded" to one of the most prolific of recording artists, with a ton of releases both domestically and overseas.  His band, though having undergone some big changes over time, is still one of the very best in the Windy City and is the epitome of the classic blues band.  As I stated a few months ago on this blog, if you don't like Magic Slim, you don't like the blues.

Magic Slim was born Morris Holt in Grenada, MS in 1937.  He started out on piano, but lost his little finger in a cotton gin mishap.  Unable to play piano, he took up guitar, making his first by taking the bailing wire from his mother's broom and nailing it to a wall ("My Mama whopped me when I Tore up her broom, but she let me keep using it.  My Mama said later that if she had know what I'd be into later, she wouldn't have given me a whopping.")

A Young Magic Slim
In 1955, he made his first trip to Chicago and encountered another Grenada native, Magic Sam.  Magic Sam gave him tips on playing the guitar and even gave him his nickname.  At the time, Slim was tall and slim, so the name fit pretty well.  Sam encouraged him to develop his own style, which Slim eventually did.  Unfortunately, he wasn't quite ready at the time, even though he landed a spot with Robert Perkins' band, Mr. Pitiful and the Teardrops.  He eventually moved back to Mississippi to work on his sound.

When Slim returned from Mississippi in the mid 60's, he brought his brothers, Nick and Lee Baby, with him, to serve as his rhythm section.  Upon his return, he more than ready to compete on the tough Chicago Blues scene.  He inherited the Teardrops, and recorded a few singles, beginning with "Scufflin'," in 1966 and going on into the mid 70's.  He also recorded  couple of albums for a French label in 1977 and '78.  His first big break came in 1978, when he was given the opportunity to appear on the second volume of Alligator's superlative anthology set, Living Chicago Blues.  After that, he recorded for several labels, including Rooster Blues, Isabel (later reissued by Alligator), but after the early 80's, the recording opportunities dried up.

John Primer
Slim never slowed down though, touring relentlessly.  Over time, he developed a powerhouse band with his brother rock steady on bass guitar, Alabama Jr. Pettis on second guitar, and a revolving door of excellent drummers.  In 1982, guitarist John Primer joined the group and remained for thirteen years.  Primer provided a new dimension to the group, adding more of an R&B/soul edge to Slim's sound with his occasional vocals.  Slim often gave Primer and other members the spotlight, allowing them the opportunity to sing some tracks.

In the early 90's, Slim's recorded output began to skyrocket, as he began recorded overseas with the Austrian label, Wolf, and domestically, he began a long, productive relationship with Blind Pig Records.  He's still going strong, releasing discs for both labels regularly.....each one as solid a set of Chicago Blues as its predecessors.  Primer left in the mid 90's for a solo career, and Nick Holt passed away a few years ago, but the band is still as strong as ever, and Slim continues to allow talent room to blossom under his tutelege.

Now, Magic Slim's catalog consists of nearly two dozen albums, a mix of live and studio recordings, and even a live performance captured on DVD.  He has been cast as the lead on a motion picture, called We Be Kings, which is currently seeking funding, and he even got a Blues Marker in his native Grenada last year.  Soon to be 75 years old, Magic Slim shows no signs of slowing down, which is something we should all be grateful for.

Selected Discography.......

Sorry, but picking just a few of Magic Slim's releases as favorites is an impossible task for me.  Instead, let me recommend you listen to ANY and ALL of his recordings.  The early recordings for the French labels are raw and ragged and worth finding.  The Highway Is My Home, on Evidence Records, is a nice place to start.  His release for Rooster Blues, Grand Slam, is one of his best, and included a couple of his earlier singles when it was finally released on CD in the late 90's.

The Wolf catalog is a dynamite mix of live and studio recordings.  Some of my favorites from the Wolf label include his five volume Live at the Zoo Bar series, recorded over the late 80's and early 90's, featuring his early band through the Primer era.  Not only do you get a sampling of most of Slim's earlier bands, but you also get a sampling of his huge repertoire.  There's also a Teardrops Blues Jam CD, that features tracks with other band members taking the spotlight, another great live set called 44 Blues, and several excellent studio albums, like The Blues of the Magic Man.  You can't go wrong with any of the Wolf albums.

The Blind Pig recordings are easier to find in the U.S., and represent Slim and the Teardrops' continued development over the past twenty years.  Primer appears on the first Blind Pig release, Gravel Road, taking center stage several times.  The remainder of these releases included a trio of fantastic Dick Shurman-produced efforts (Scufflin'Black Tornado and Snakebite) that rank with his best ever, plus a Papa Chubby-produced release (Blue Magic) that attempted to update Slim's sound a bit (with mixed results), a live CD/DVD set (Anything Can Happen), the requisite guest star-laden affair (Midnight Blues), to his latest release (Raising the Bar), which is as good as anything he's ever done.  See what I's nearly impossible to pick a favorite because they are ALL great. 

Of course, you can't forget the classic Live at B.L.U.E.S. that I mentioned a few months back (which is unavailable, but would be in a just world).  If you don't have any Magic Slim in your collection, you need to exit this blog right now and pick up a few tracks or albums online or in a record store (if you can find one).  You will thank me later.

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