Friday, December 27, 2013

The "Live" Magic Sam

Magic Sam passed away in 1969.  He was only 32 years old and was well on his way to potential stardom.  He left behind a pair of essential studio albums from Delmark Records (West Side Soul and Black Magic), plus a significant number of singles recorded between 1957 and the beginning of his Delmark tenure, for labels like Chief, Cobra, and Crash Records.  However, it was a live appearance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival that really got people's attention.  Supposedly, based on that performance, Stax Records was ready to sign him once his contract with Delmark was fulfilled, but about six months later, Sam died from a heart attack.

That Ann Arbor appearance was captured and later released (in 1982) on a Delmark album that combined the Ann Arbor recordings with an appearance at Chicago's Alex Club in late 1963-early 1964, called, appropriately Live in Ann Arbor & in Chicago.  After I heard West Side Soul and Black Magic, naturally I wanted to hear more from this guy, so I managed to track down a cassette copy in the early 90's.  I didn't know much about Magic Sam, but I had read about his fabled Ann Arbor performance and wanted to hear it for myself.  It is an inspired performance, for sure, but it's hampered by the somewhat muted quality of the sound (though the Ann Arbor recording is a tad better than the Alex Club recordings), which gives it a "home recording" feel.

Despite the inferior sound, the performances are so dynamic that you are willing to overlook those shortcomings.  It's often been said that if these performances had been properly recorded with the best equipment available at the time, Live in Ann Arbor & in Chicago would rank among the best live recordings of all time.  As it is, it still ranks pretty highly.  It's clear from what you can hear that the attention Magic Sam received for this performance was well-deserved.

In 2002, Delmark released another set of Magic Sam live performances.  This time around, Rockin' Wild In Chicago captured him at three local clubs (the Copacabana, the Alex Club, and Mother Blues) over a five year period (1963-1968).  Again, the performances were inspired, but the sound was below average, gradually improving as the disc progresses.  For Magic Sam fans, however, the sound is a minor issue because live recordings of the guitarist have been so hard to find.  It has been said that the best way to hear him was in a club setting, similar to these recordings, and you have to agree after hearing him on these tunes.  He also covers a number of songs that you don't hear from him on any of his studio recordings...songs from Albert Collins, Albert King, and a great take on Earl Hooker's "Rockin' Wild," that closes the disc.  Like it's predecessor, great performances, but so-so sound.

There have been other live Magic Sam releases over the years, but the only other one I've heard is a live set, recorded at Sylvio's in 1966 that teams him with his uncle, harmonica player and singer Shakey Jake.  Black Top Records released this one as Magic Touch in 1992, and it offers up some good performances.  The sound is about the same home-recording quality, and Shakey Jake is featured on a few of the tracks, but Sam never recorded some of these tracks in the studio, so it's interesting to hear his take on them.  It's out of print, but is a nice listen, if you're able to track it down for a reasonable price.

For the most part, Magic Sam fans were content with these three releases, thinking that this was as good as they would ever be able to get from a musician who died 44 years ago, as far as live performances went.  Despite the lo-fi quality of the recordings, we were still able to get a feel of just how fantastically good Magic Sam was and what the fuss was all about by people who heard him in the club setting, but most Magic Sam fans thought that these were as good as a representation of his live recordings as they would ever be able to get.

But now those thoughts have been put to bed once and for all with the November release of Magic Sam's Live at the Avant Garde, by Delmark.  This set was recorded at a Milwaukee club on June 22nd, 1968, by a young high school senior named Jim Charne, who also provides vivid "behind the scenes" liner notes to this wonderful album that describe the recording process, background info about the club, and the sights and sounds of the club itself.

Due to the primitive nature of the recording process and the set-up and size of the club, Charne was unable to adjust or monitor the mix as it was being recorded, so it was "plug in, let it roll, and hope for the best" when he started recording.  Fortunately, Charne had recorded other artists there and was pretty familiar with the surroundings, plus he had a willing subject in Magic Sam, who according to Charne, "could not have been more gracious and accomodating."

Despite the issues Charne had to deal with while getting this recording, the sound is very good.  The instruments are especially clear and while the vocals are a bit fuzzy on a couple of tracks, it's not an issue that will impede the listening process.  Compared to what live recordings we've had to choose from previously, the sound is superior by leaps and bounds.

As for the performances.....Magic Sam sounds great.  The guitar work is very good and his vocals are as strong as on his studio recordings.  He's backed by Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums and they provide pretty good support.  As far as I'm concerned, this is the live Magic Sam recording that I've been waiting for.  While I would love to have heard the other live recordings with sound this good, I know that it will never come to pass, and this one will do just fine, thank you very much.

On this set, which is 67 minutes long, we get Magic Sam doing some of his popular tunes from his then-new release, West Side Soul ("Don't Want No Woman," "Feelin' Good," "I Need You So Bad," and "That's All I Need"), some songs from his next release, Black Magic ("You Belong To Me," Freddie King's instrumental, "San-Ho-Zay," Lowell Fulson's "It's All Your Fault"), a few covers of songs by his contemporaries (Junior Wells' "Come On In This House," "Hoochie Coochie Man," Muddy Waters' "Still A Fool," Otis Rush's "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," and Jimmy Rogers' "That's All Right"), and some old favorites ("Every Night Everyday," "Lookin' Good," "Bad Luck Blues," and "I Need You So Bad").

What amazes me...and I'm definitely not "in the know" about such things, by any the fact that these recordings basically sat on a shelf for 45 years and have never seen the light of day until now.  I could be wrong about that...maybe someone did know and they've just been hard to get access to or something like that.  Whatever the story behind them, I'm just happy that they are finally available for all of us Magic Sam fans to hear, and many thanks to Delmark Records for making that happen.  If you are a fan of Magic Sam's, or of that West Side sound, you simply have to get your hands on Live at the Avant Garde.


Bert Hut said...

Thanks for this nice blog about Magic Sam. I was curious to know about the sound quality of this latest live performance by Magic Sam but after buying the cd 60 years of Delmark Blues, which contains one song of this album, and your positive reaction on this performance at the Avant Garde, we'll have to get this one.
Wish you a lot of Blues in 2014!

Bert Hut

Graham said...

You won't regret your purchase, Burt! I've really enjoyed listening to it. The 60th Year collection is really good, too, and so is Delmark's reissue of Sylvia and John Embrey's late 70's album that they just released. Delmark is on a roll these days. Happy New Year!!