Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #19: Magic Sam

Illustration for article titled Great Vintage Blues #19: Magic Sam

The "rules" for whether a musician qualifies for one of these Great Vintage Blues posts are just loose guidelines, to keep myself from getting so narrowly focused that I run out of material. Basically, the guiding principles have been: 1) The artist should have begun his or her career before the primacy of rock 'n' roll changed all the rules, roughly in the late 1950s, and preferably should have had a significant career started before World War Two. 2) The artist should have video clips of several live performances available on YouTube or elsewhere on the web. (Fan-made videos where a slide show of still photographs scrolls over the audio of a studio recording don't count.) 3) The artist should be, for preference, somebody that makes your jaw drop when you see them for the first time.

Magic Sam Maghett just squeaks by rule 1. His first record came out in 1957, when he was 20, and he's a full two generations separated from the pre-war Delta blues players, having been inspired to become a guitarist by latter-day Chicago electric bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Little Walter Horton. He's also a little iffy for rule 2, since as far as I can tell there's only two live Magic Sam performances on the web. Rule 3, though, no problem.

Though he came from a younger generation, Magic Sam's sound has a lot in common with the earlier Delta bluesmen. That's probably because although Chicago was where he made his mark, he was born in the Delta, where the economic conditions hadn't really changed much since Charley Patton's time. His family were sharecroppers and the young Maghett learned his craft on the guitar in part by first learning how to build an instrument from scratch out of baling wire and cigar boxes—the same thing that, for example, Mississippi John Hurt did. In reading biographies of these musicians to write these posts, I keep coming across people who were not just playing but building their instruments at a really young age, and I don't think it's a stretch to think there's a connection there with the proficiency they display later on. Maghett's family moved to Chicago when he was 13, and he dove into the vibrant music scene of the city's West Side, forming a band and calling himself "Good Rocking Sam." He quickly captured the attention of Waters and, even more importantly, songwriter and talent scout Willie Dixon, who wasn't able to convince his bosses to sign him to the prestigious Chess label but got Sam in at Cobra Records across town. Magic Sam's more well-known nickname was given to him in 1957, when he cut his first single for Cobra, "All Of Your Love." (The nickname also inspired the moniker of Maghett's childhood friend and fellow Chicago bluesman Morris "Magic Slim" Holt.) "All Of Your Love" and his successive singles in the late '50s were among the tunes that helped form what became known as the West Side sound, which explored the potential of the relatively new electric guitar to boost the sound of a small three- or four-person combo via distortion, tremolo, and amplification, and replaced the horn sections common elsewhere in Chicago with what's now considered a basic building block of both blues and rock 'n' roll: the guitar solo.

Sam's fortunes took a nosedive in 1959 when Cobra folded upon the suspicious drowning death of its founder, and Sam was drafted into the Army, both of which brought his musical career to a grinding halt. Maghett hated being a soldier so much that he deserted, getting six months in jail for his trouble, and after a disappointing attempt to restart his recording career concentrated on live shows for a couple of years. In 1968, he came out with his first full-length record, West Side Soul, an instant classic of the genre that definitively brought old-school country blues into the electric age. From there he seemed primed to become a superstar, giving the most talked-about performance of the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and completing a successful tour of Europe. But in December of that year, he suddenly died of a heart attack, and never reached his full potential. Though he wasn't forgotten, being posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1982 (ahead of such luminaries as Hurt and Bukka White), it's fair to say he's not as well remembered as he probably should be. After all, everyone knows the name of the other incendiary, influential guitarist who died young just a few months after giving a spectacular performance at a big outdoor festival in 1969.

The two Magic Sam clips online—"All Of Your Love" and "Magic Sam's Boogie"—are both conveniently packaged in this single YouTube post, which also features a short interview with Sam for German television talking about how he got his start.


#18: Rev. Gary Davis

#17: Big Joe Williams

#16: Professor Longhair

#15: Mississippi John Hurt

#14: Mississippi Fred McDowell

#13: Mance Lipscomb

#12: John Lee Hooker

#11: Big Mama Thornton

#10: Lead Belly

#9: Lightnin' Hopkins

#8: Son House

#7: Furry Lewis

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#3: Bukka White

#2: Skip James

#1: Sister Rosetta


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