Magic Slim: Electrifying blues singer and guitarist

 

Ever since musicians like Alexis Korner, John Mayall and the Rolling Stones introduced the baby boomer generation to Chicago blues, originators and perpetuators of the genre have found a ready market for their talent in Europe. The Mississippi-born singer and guitarist Magic Slim was one of the last links to legendary performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, whose physical presence he recalled.

Indeed, though he was born Morris Holt in 1937, his friend and mentor Magic Sam – né Samuel Maghett – nicknamed him Magic Slim because of his towering height. "We went to school together. We played acoustics, on a Sunday up under a shade tree, after we'd go to church and come back," recalled Slim, who followed Sam to Chicago in 1955 and backed him on bass, before returning South to hone his craft when he realised he wasn't quite good enough to make the grade as a frontman.

In the 1960s he came back to Chicago and eventually recorded his first single – the self-penned "Love My Baby", b/w "Scuffling" for the Ja-Wes label – before taking over the residency at Florence's Lounge, a South Side of Chicago club, when "Hound Dog" Taylor began gigging further afield and internationally.

Slim's progress was slow but steady and mirrored that of Luther Allison, a bluesman whose move to France in 1977 paid dividends. Having enlisted his younger brothers Nick and Douglas as the rhythm section of his backing group the Teardrops, Slim finally issued his debut album, Born On A Bad Sign on the French label MCM in 1977. Recorded at Ma Bea's Lounge in Chicago, it included a storming cover of "Born Under A Bad Sign", the Albert King signature song written by William Bell and Booker T Jones

The next year,he followed it up with Vol. 2 Let Me Love You, also for MCM, and Highway Is My Home, made in a Paris studio for another French label, Black And Blue. The album contained Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson covers, as well as the odd Slim original, and set the pattern for the next 35 years and nearly as many live and studio recordings for the specialist companies Alligator, Wolf Records and Blind Pig.

He was best experienced in the flesh, where his electrifying, rough-and-ready take on the blues made the most of a vast, ever-changing, repertoire that seemed to be part of his DNA. "I see what kind of crowd it is, I play a few songs and see how people react, and just see if they are a dancing crowd or an older crowd, and go from there," he said about the touring that took him to Brazil, Japan and his beloved France as recently as November 2012.

Slim enjoyed the late flourishing of his talent all the more because as a 13-year old he had lost the little finger on his right hand after an accident with a cotton gin machine. This forced him to abandon the piano, his first instrument, and switch to guitar. Ever resourceful, he started by using baling wire from a broom, which he nailed to a wall. This, along with Magic Sam's advice to develop his own style, and the use of picks on both the thumb and index finger of his right hand, accounted for his distinctive, ringing, vibrato, achieved without artifice or gimmick. "I slide with my finger," Slim explained. "I use nothing on my finger. A lot of players try to get a sound like me but I play the same guitar everybody else plays. The blues is a feeling. You have to feel the blues to play it. I like to make the people happy."

Pierre Perrone

Morris Holt (Magic Slim), guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Torrance, Mississippi 7 August 1937; married (two sons); several other children; died Philadelphia 21 February 2013.

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