"No blues guitarist better represented the adventurous modern sound of Chicago's West Side more proudly than Magic Sam," wrote All-Music critic Bill Dahl. To this day, this fiery young man's "thick legacy of bone-cutting blues" hangs in the air over his old stomping grounds.
Magic Sam was born Sam Maghett in 1937 Grenada, Mississippi, where he is honored with a Blues Trail marker. http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/magic-sam
Fiddles and square dances were popular among African Americans in that area, and Sam learned the guitar in a hillbilly style. In the mid-1950s, he arrived in Chicago, picking up some urban blues guitar pointers from his new neighbor, Syl Johnson, who was to become a famous soul singer. Syl's brother Mack Thompson served as Sam's loyal bass player, and harmonica player Shakey Jake Harris encouraged his career and played with him in West Side clubs.
Sam's distinctive house-rocking rhythms might have grown out of both his city and country influences. His stinging guitar, soulful vibrato singing, and hip young energy reached out to the next generation of people after the older blues singers like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Sam made his first record, "All Your Love," for Eli Toscano's Cobra label in 1957. One of several small record companies based on the West Side, Cobra also recorded Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. "All Your Love" includes Sam's trademark D major-A minor riff. Syl Johnson said Sam based this riff on Lowell Fulson's big band blues song "It's My Own Fault" and Ray Charles "Lonely Avenue."
Easy Baby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6m8qweJ9Lw shows Sam's famous riff and his very hip 1960s appearance.
Sam was drafted into the Army but could not deal with that life. He went AWOL and served time in prison, which threw him into a depression. Around 1960 he clawed his way back, making several records for Mel London's Chief label. In 1963, he gained national attention for his single "Feelin' Good (We're Gonna Boogie). Guitarists still consider it a challenge to duplicate his rapid-fire boogie style.
Big Bill Hill broadcasted live each Monday at the L&A Club over WOPA, http://188.8.131.52/public/zecom/museum/Chiradhist/wopa.htm
an Oak Park radio station. John Fishel, a founder of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival which featured Sam in 1969, wrote the next year in Living Blues magazine about the night when Freddy King, another huge (both in size and ability) West Side guitar player and Sam challenged each other to win the audience at the L&A Lounge on South Pulaski Road. Such collisions of great blues players were known as head-cutting contests.
Sam's two albums for the Chicago Delmark label, "West Side Soul" and Black Magic" According to Bill Dahl, Sam wowed an overflow throng at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and Stax was reportedly primed to sign him when his Delmark commitment was over. However, heart problems cut short Sam's life at age 32 on Dec. 1, 1969.
Sam music and spirit live on in his fellow musicians. Morris Holt "Magic Slim" grew up in Grenada the same time as Magic Sam, but picked up his musical chops later with Sam's help, playing bass in Sam's band. Sam gave him the stage name "Magic Slim," but he was stouter looking than Sam. His fans respected Slim as a heavyweight of blues. Based in Nebraska for the last few years, he toured the world onstage until his health gave out and he until he died in February 2013.
West Side guitarist Vernon Harrington was 16 years old when Magic Sam died. He remembers, "When I was about 11, I'd sometimes play hooky from elementary school, go over to Sam's house and get guitar lessons. He stayed on the 1500 block of S. Hardy in a yellow Courtway building. The place is all rowhouses now." Sam had barbecues in his yard and would invite musicians to play outdoors. Folks in Grenada, MS remember Sam coming home to teach youngsters about the blues.
Magic Sam's love, as one of his songs says, will never die.
For more West Side Blues stories, click the author's name above.
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