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Silenced: Magic Slim’s ‘Raw, Unadultered Chicago Blues’

Magic Slim: A true Chicago bluesman, through and through
Magic Slim: A true Chicago bluesman, through and through

For blues enthusiasts who care less for the shock of the new than for the comfort of the old, there was no more reassuring figure than Magic Slim, who has died aged 75. When Slim was in the house, it was as if the clock had been turned back to the 60s, or even the 50s; to a time when blues still represented the lives and tastes of blue-collar African Americans. The sluggish beat, the congested vocals, the guitar wielded with the blunt precision of a miner’s shovel, the feeling that the musicians had come to the club or the studio still in their work boots: Slim and his band, the Teardrops, preserved that aesthetic through five decades. 

Yet his name was made not in Mississippi, where he was born, nor in Chicago, where he played, but in Europe. His first five albums came out on French labels, and subsequently more than a dozen–about half of his life’s work–appeared on the Austrian label Wolf. Tours and concert bookings took him to the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Scandinavia and Greece; he also visited Japan, and on several occasions Brazil, where he had great success. –Tony Russell, The Guardian, Feb. 24, 2013

Magic Slim and the Teardrops, ‘Gotta Love Somebody,’ live in Italy at the Piazza Blues Festival in Bellinzona (1995)

When Magic Slim thundered at the microphone–his voice rough and ragged, his guitar riffs tough and punchy–listeners heard classic Chicago blues as it was conceived in the 1950s. 

Not nostalgic or dated but simply unconcerned with latter-day musical fashion or commercial considerations.

That approach, which Mr. Slim clung to throughout his career, made him a symbol of Chicago blues around the world and an upholder of its noblest traditions. 

“He never sacrificed what his music was about,” said Jerry Del Giudice, co-owner of Blind Pig Records, which began recording Mr. Slim in 1990 and continued to do so through his final release, last year’s “Bad Boy.” 

Mr. Slim’s music, added Del Giudice, “was Mississippi mud. … He electrified Mississippi blues. And he stuck with it. He was no rock-and-roller.” 

Said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, “Magic Slim was a true Chicago bluesman through and through. He gloried in the rough edges of the music. He never tried to make it slick.” –Howard Reich, Arts critic, Chicago Tribune, February 22, 2013

Morris Holt, who began making his living as the fierce bluesman Magic Slim in 1966 and died on February 21 after undergoing surgery for a bleeding ulcer, more than earned the respect The Guardian’s dismissive critic denied him in his shockingly cynical obituary. Clearly, someone doesn’t get it–“it” being the blues–but the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich, and those he interviewed, do. Let’s see…1966 to 2013 is a span of…47 years during which time he took home six Blues Music Awards. Slim, who was 75 when he crossed over, treated fans the world over to what his buddy and fellow veteran Chicago bluesman Billy Branch described to Reich as “raw, unadulterated Chicago blues.” And those blues were not irrelevant to anyone’s lives, but rather were consistent with Willie Dixon’s elegant formulation: “The blues is about life; if it ain’t about life, it ain’t the blues.” But we see this all the time, hip critics oblivious to history, wedded to the mainstream status quo (how else to explain most of what shows up on the Grammy Awards show?) and too jaded to understand a genre that doesn’t exist absent the truth of the human dilemma, whether the truth be in folly or tragedy or simply something being a damn shame or too hot to handle.

Slim, and the blues, will always have the last laugh. Both exist beyond time.


Magic Slim and the Teardrops, ‘Part Time Love,’ at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival (2009)

Born on August 7, 1937 in Torrence, MS, Morris Holt worked the cotton fields of the rural south even as a child. But he was drawn to music early on and, being unable to afford a real guitar, fashioned one from baling wire taken from a broom and nailed to the wail–the diddley bow. His first love, however, was piano, but when he lost the little finger on his right hand in a cotton gin accident, he got serious about learning the guitar.

At 11, Holt moved to nearby Grenada, MS, where he befriended guitarist Samuel “Magic Sam” Maghett, who taught young Holt some guitar basics and later gave him a new name reflecting the kid’s slight frame: Magic Slim. Sam and Slim “went to school together,” Holt said in a 1996 Chicago Tribune interview. “We played acoustics, on a Sunday up under a shade tree, after we’d go to church and come back.”

In 1955, Holt made his first trip to Chicago, where he played bass in Magic Sam’s band and picked up his new name. But the level of competition in the Windy City discouraged Slim, who told the Tribune, “They wouldn’t let me sit in. They’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t play nothin’.” Suitably humbled, Slim retreated to Mississippi and got busy mastering the blues–for five years he woodshedded, then returned to Chicago with the attitude, “All right, I’m ready for y’all now!” he told the Tribune.

He soon established himself on the Chicago blues scene, and in 1966 began his recording career with the single “Scufflin’.” After forming the Teardrops with his younger brothers Nick and Douglas the next year, he had one of the hottest bands on the circuit. By 1972 he was a mainstay at Florence’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, purveying a searing, scorched earth brand of blues perfectly suited to the venue’s heated atmosphere.


Magic Slim and the Teardrops, ‘You Got to Pay’

His first album, Born Under a Bad Sign, was recorded for and released by a French label in 1967. Over the ensuing decades his work appeared on the foreign Wolf label and domestically on Alligator, Rooster Blues and, for nearly 22 years, Blind Pig, which in 2010 released one of Slim’s strongest efforts, Raising the Bar, during the artist’s 20th anniversary with the label, and last year released the well-received Bad Boy. Domestically and internationally, Slim has more than 30 albums in his catalogue.

Slim developed a guitar style that blended a distinct vibrato with a slide-guitar-like sound formed with his bare fingers against the strings. Known for playing with picks on both the thumb and index finger of his right hand, he was recognized as much for his powerful, gruff vocals as his musicianship.

In the early ‘90s Slim and his wife Ann moved to Lincoln, Nebraska (which changed its name from Lancaster shortly after the President was assassinated) in an effort to get their teenaged son Shawn away from their gang-infested Chicago neighborhood. Shawn, who goes by the name “Lil’ Slim,” leads his own band and was a Teardrops guitarist on what proved to be his father’s final tour. Well ahead of his move to Lincoln, though, Slim made an impact there as the first black act to play the town’s Zoo Bar, which was his first experience in a white club. According to Zoo Bar owner Pete Watters, speaking to the Lincoln Star Journal’s L. Kent Wolgamott in the paper’s February 21 edition, “It had to have been ’74-’75. Long before he moved to Lincoln, he’d play a whole week at the Zoo Bar. Monday through Saturday, he’d pack the bar, six nights in a row. And he’d do it three or four times a year. Long before he moved here, there was a love affair between Magic Slim and Lincoln.”

“His music is really getting to the end of an era,” Watters said. “Of his generation, Buddy Guy and Eddy Clearwater are two of the last guys left. What he did was so earthy. Musically, he was one of a kind. The music will be preserved. He will never be forgotten. I’m so sad I’ll never see my friend Morris Holt ever again.”

Another Lincoln resident, Jason Davis, now 41, was a minor when Slim began holding forth at Zoo Bar. Davis would hang outside the bar with a friend, playing the blues and hoping to meet Slim. Not only did he meet his inspiration, he wound up playing in a band Slim would use occasionally during his Lincoln gigs. “It was one of the great achievements of my life to be one of the magic man’s band mates,” Davis said. “He had that ability to pull that passion out of people. He could remind you it’s good to be alive, right here and right now.”

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