Birth of the Blues: Sam "Magic Sam" Maghett
Many blues writers and rock critics alike will cite Magic Sam's debut album for DelMark in 1967, 'West Side Soul', as perhaps one of the most important and influential modern blues albums ever made. I cannot disagree. Maghett, along with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, essentially created Chicago's West Side blues sound on their own out of necessity and Maghett's debut album set about blowing people away and setting the standard for blues/blues-rock that continues.
Born on February 14th, 1937 in Grenada, Mississippi, Sam was regarded as a "musical child" by his family, progressing rapidly from the one string diddley-bow to harmonica, guitar, bass, piano and drums. He taught himself to play by listening Muddy Waters and Little Walter records and passing along any tips he may have learned to his schoolmate Morris Holt. (You may know that name; Morris Holt was later to be known as Magic Slim, a moniker given to him by Magic Sam when the two met up again in Chicago as young and aspiring musicians).
Relocating with his family to Chicago in 1950, they settled on the somewhat bleak West Side of Chicago. Sam made friends with next-door neighbor, Syl Thompson and Mack Thompson (a vocalist and a bassist respectively). There was a story circulating that Sam used to take his guitar with him to school where he would face taunts from his classmates. Until he played in front of an assembly, caught the fancy of the girls and went home with 'a pocketful of phone numbers".
At the encouragement of his friend and later collaborator on several tunes, harmonica player Hank Thompson, Sam began to sing along with his guitar. He learned to sing by joining the Morning View Special, a gospel group from Chicago's West Side. He and his friends began to gig around their neighborhood, catching gigs at small clubs for six or eight dollars a night. In 1954, Sam dropped out of school and began to pursue a music career full time.
In 1955, at 18 years old, Sam was admitted to the Musicians Union along with Mack Thompson (they were sponsored by their friend, harmonica player Shakey Jake) and once they were legal, the boys were set to hit the circuit. One night, Jake took Magic Sam to see Muddy Waters at the infamous 708 Club. No one is quite sure how, but Muddy was convinced to allow Sam to sit in with the band. After hearing Sam play, the owner of the club hired him for a gig. Later that same year, Sam's friend from Greneda, Morris Holt, arrived in Chicago. After lying about his age (he was younger than Sam), he began to play behind Sam for several gigs before departing to join up with Mr. Pitiful and The Tear Drops.
Blues great Mighty Joe Young related this story about the young Magic Sam at a gig in Robbins, Illinois in the late 50's in an interview in Living Blues Magazine: "There was a jam session going on out there; Magic Sam, Mack, Syl Johnson (he had changed his name from Thompson). They was wailing away. I didn't know them, because I hadn't been in Chicago too long. They was playing pretty good guitar. Sam had a beautiful style at the time, like it was between his own and this tune about "It's My Own Fault" by Lowell Fulson. Sam played it with the tremolo on the guitar, and it gave him a little bit different sound and that put him in his own bag. I was lying in bed three weeks later and I heard a record come over the air…"All Your Love". And the minute I heard the guitar, I knew it was Magic Sam".
Sam had begun to learn from the styles of Lowell Fulson, Ray Charles, Junior Parker and B.B. King as well as incorporating the “boogie” style that was becoming increasingly popular in Chicago. Along with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, Magic Sam was inadvertently creating the West Side blues. West Side blues were a busy and full sound incorporated by three (and occasionally four piece) bands that allowed them the heavy sound of a full band. One of the things that distinguishes the West Side sound from the South Side, is that rather than horns in the band as in the South Side sound, the West Side players emulated the horn parts on their guitars, playing extended leads that would normally be handled by the horn section. This led to extended, blistering solos.
Sam, like most of the younger blues players in Chicago at the time, favored the Fender guitars, starting on a Telecaster, switching to a Stratocaster but eventually settling on ES-335 styled Epiphones played through a Fender Bassman amplifier. He cranked in plenty of distortion and tremolo that gave him a very different sound than what was being heard in the clubs at the time. There are those who knew Sam who said that he told them that he would lick the fingers on his picking hand because “it would help him change the sound of the guitar”. (NOTE: I do NOT recommend this practice – you know, electricity and all that).
After making a demo of ‘All Your Love” and being rejected by Chess, Magic Sam took his band to Cobra Records and their subsidiary label, Artistic where they were signed and cut five sides in 1957. Until this time, Sam had been recording under the name Good Rocking Sam. But label owner Eli Toscano told Sam he needed another name since there were several area bluesmen already using Good Rocking as a stage name. After a session, they all sat around the studio trying to come up with names. Sad Sam and Singing Sam were dismissed for being told “old”. Thompson came up with the name”Magic Sam”, altering Sam’s last name of Maghett. Sam thought about it and offered “Well, I don’t want to be Sad Sam, Poor Sam, Black Sam, Dark Sam or what have you – put Magic on it”.
“All Your Love” was a huge regional hit for Magic and according to Mighty Joe Young, “The record was a hot record. He really took on Chicago with that tune”. Sam released several other singles with Cobra but his talent was not quite fully developed and many were greeted to a lukewarm reception. The label issued its final release early in 1959 and a few months later, the President of the tiny label was dead in what was officially deemed an ‘accident”, although many others say that it was foul play that brought him to drown in Lake Michigan. Later that same year, Magic Sam was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Sam did not adapt well to the Army and deserted after a few weeks. He was arrested and served six months in jail. Many who knew him said that once he was released, he was never the same again. With his confidence shaken, the next few years were a bit of disappointment for Sam. His had signed to the Chief label and had been releasing what amounted to tame blues, limited rock and outright novelty records. However he was back in the clubs and rediscovering his raw and wild guitar talents. Despite repeated attempts to reclaim his recording career, including recording 4 tracks for the German L+R label.
Sam took a two year hiatus from further recording and essentially retired to the clubs in and around Chicago, fronting his own band and popping in on live gigs with Otis Rush and his band as well. In 1968, Sam cut a record for Al Benson's Crash label. With Otis Spann (Muddy Waters long-time piano player) backing him, Sam cut "Out Of Bad Luck" and "She Belongs To Me". Aside from being a rather rare 45 rpm record, this disc reveals that Sam had developed his singing voice from the early days in his career to a more harsh urban blues delivery. The disc also set the stage for the work that he was to do in his next and perhaps best release of his short career.
"West Side Soul" was recorded in 1968 for the Delmark label and aside from launching Sam from a favorite amongst blues purists in Chicago to a wider audience, it also clearly established the West Side sound as a solid sub-genre in the blues. Borrowing material from artists as diverse as Freddie King and J.B. Lenoir to Otis Rush and Robert Johnson, Sam took traditional blues and amped them up for the time and injected a healthy dose of extended and searing solos. In an interview supporting the disc, Sam said "I am a bluesman, but not the dated blues – the modern type of blues. I am the modern type of bluesman. But I can play the regular stuff, and also I am a variety guy. I can play the soul stuff too."
His follow up, also on the Delmark label, "Black Magic" was well received in the industry and provided Sam with two hits that became staples for his live shows. "I Need You So Bad" and his blistering, jump version of "Sweet Home Chicago" stand the test of time. If you listen to "I Need You So Bad" from this disc, it will still send chills down your spine – the vocals are tight and raw and the guitar is heavy and distorted underneath. This is the sound of the urban blues of the late 1960's. "Sweet Home Chicago", originally penned and recorded by Robert Johnson, who 'borrowed" the song from it's originator, Kokomo Arnold who recorded is as "Sweet Home Kokomo", was perhaps the longest standing legacy from Magic Sam. The way we've all heard the track played and the way we all learn to play it now, is the Magic Sam version. His version has become a blues standard and a necessary part of any blues bands repertoire.
With his reputation for his live performances and two positively reviewed albums under his arms, Magic Sam was on the verge of superstardom. Offers were pouring in from around the country including a $30,000 offer from Columbia Records that he had to turn down as he was still under contract to Delmark. His highwater mark turned out to be at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. Although the festival included Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, T-Bone Walker, Luther Allison and Son House, it was Magic Sam's performance that is still talked about. He left the audience screaming for more when he left the stage that day.
He continued on with some additional gigs after the festival but it was becoming apparent that there were some medical issues clouding the future for Sam. After fainting at a gig in Louisville, Kentucky, Sam returned home to Chicago to rest. After recovering, he went on to Europe and circled around back to California for a tour. After the tour ended, he returned to Chicago. On the morning of December 1st, 1969, Sam complained of heartburn and headed towards his bedroom to lie down. He collapsed before reaching the bed. Magic Sam was dead at age 32.
It's impossible to tell what sort of trajectory Magic Sam's career would have taken but when you see the list of blues and rock guitarists who cite him as an influence, it becomes clear that even with a relatively short arc, his impact will be around for a long, long time.