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Magic of the Blues

Trick Players: Magic Slim (center) is Chicago's finest.

For veteran Chicago bluesman Magic Slim, the highway is home

By Nicky Baxter

SOMEWHERE NORTH of six feet and meaty, bluesman Magic Slim is a large man. His sound is, if anything, even bigger. A shouter with lung power to burn, the native Mississippian is a better-than-average guitarist as well. On Gravel Road, a representative disc showcasing Slim's aggressive, take-no-prisoners blues, those two attributes are fully evident. Listening to this record, it's easy to understand why Chicago blues pioneer Magic Sam anointed Morris Holt "Magic Slim."

At the time he got his name, Slim was holding down the bass in Sam's band. That period, while relatively brief, was crucial to the his development, although Gravel Road reveals other influences as well.

Albert King's "Cold Women With Warm Hearts," for instance, is all Albert on the vocals; the guitar, however, is strictly Slim's--for the most part. With its restive, country-boogie beat, the title track reveals the bonds connecting country folk to the city of Chicago. Check, for instance, how drummer Michael Scott and bassist Nick Holt (Slim's brother) cook up a groove blistering with un-canned heat.

The album covers a variety of styles, bouncing from B.B. King's "Bad Luck Is Falling" to the acerbic but swinging Bo Diddley ditty "Before You Accuse Me" to blackbelt soul of Otis Redding's protofunk tune "Hard to Handle." Clearly, Magic Slim has more than the 12-bar blues on his mind.

Having migrated to Chicago in his late teens, Magic Slim is the quintessential Windy City bluesman. Before he earned his reputation there, Slim had some dues-paying to do. Despite his association with Magic Sam, however, the razor-totin,' corn whiskey­quaffing musical "elite" wasn't even trying to hear the young, unseasoned guitarist. It was not long before Magic Slim was back on that train bound for Mississippi to get his act together.

When he returned, though, Slim was more than ready and willing for the legendary "cutting" sessions in which the perennial query "Who's bad?" was answered nightly in juke joints reeking of on cigarette smoke and booze and the threat of violence if you wanted to go there. A lengthy stint at one of Chicago's most prominent blues houses put Magic Slim and his newly formed Teardrops on the map.

Probably it was semigod Hound Dog Taylor, whom Slim and his Teardrops had replaced at the club, who prompted the musician to go on the road. Like many other players struggling to clock that green, Taylor had found it more lucrative to hit the chitlin circuit than to stay home. Almost as a matter of course, Magic Slim and the Teardrops scored big with audiences in Europe.

In Brazil, a nation until very recently not exactly known for harboring hordes of blues patrons, the Teardrops are treated like royalty. Slim's very first performance there was as an opener for Buddy Guy, Etta James and Albert Collins; it was Brazil's first-ever blues festival. If Magic Slim didn't steal the entire show, he walked offstage with a considerable chunk of it in his back pocket. As a result of that single concert, Slim was suddenly transformed into a media "event," appearing on television talkies and the front covers of magazines with gallons of juice.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., where audiences don't seem to appreciate the homegrown genius of African American blues artists, the name Magic Slim generally invites questions (at best) and disinterested yawns (at worst). That's not to suggest that Slim's recorded output has had absolutely no takers at all, but it is safe to say that Slim will not soon be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, albums such as Alligator's Raw Magic, Gravel Road and his current release, Highway Is My Home (Evidence), clearly warrant wider recognition.

Magic Slim plays Thursday (July 18) at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. Call for ticket information. (408/243-6441)

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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