Chicago bluesman Magic Slim dead at 75

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Magic Slim

Guitarist Magic Slim, a mainstay of the Chicago blues scene who followed in the footsteps of such greats as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, died on Thursday, Feb. 21, at age 75, his manager said. (Miguel Vidal, Reuters)

When Magic Slim thundered at the microphone — his voice rough and ragged, his guitar riffs tough and punchy — listeners heard classic Chicago blues as it was conceived in the 1950s.

Not nostalgic or dated but simply unconcerned with latter-day musical fashion or commercial considerations.

That approach, which Mr. Slim clung to throughout his career, made him a symbol of Chicago blues around the world and an upholder of its noblest traditions.

Mr. Slim — who was born Morris Holt in Torrance, Miss., on Aug. 7, 1937 — died Thursday, Feb. 21, in a hospital in Philadelphia at age 75, after undergoing surgery for a bleeding ulcer, according to his son, Shawn Holt.

"He never sacrificed what his music was about," said Jerry Del Giudice, co-owner of Blind Pig Records, which began recording Mr. Slim in 1990 and continued to do so through his final release, last year's "Bad Boy."

Mr. Slim's music, added Del Giudice, "was Mississippi mud. … He electrified Mississippi blues. And he stuck with it. He was no rock-and-roller."

Said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, "Magic Slim was a true Chicago bluesman through and through. He gloried in the rough edges of the music. He never tried to make it slick."

Like generations of Southern bluesmen who migrated to Chicago in the mid-20th century, Mr. Slim lived the hard life he sang about. As a child working the cotton fields of the rural South, he couldn't afford a guitar, so he made one by taking baling wire from a broom, nailing it to a wall and coaxing a primordial music from it.

He tried the piano, but when he lost the pinkie finger on his right hand in a cotton-gin accident, he focused on guitar, playing gigs when he wasn't working in the fields.

In Grenada, Miss., where he moved at 11, he met another future star of Chicago blues: Magic Sam.

"We went to school together," Mr. Slim told the Tribune in 1996. "We played acoustics, on a Sunday up under a shade tree, after we'd go to church and come back."

By 1955, Mr. Slim figured he was ready to make his move and came to Chicago. Magic Sam anointed him Magic Slim, a reference to his towering height of more than 6 feet, but Mr. Slim quickly realized he couldn't compete.

"They wouldn't let me sit in," Mr. Slim said in the Tribune interview. "They'd say, 'Oh, you can't play nothin'."

Mr. Slim agreed and went back to Mississippi and hunkered down.

"I went back home, and I stayed down there five years," he told the Tribune. "Then I came back: 'All right, I'm ready for y'all now!'"

Indeed he was, recording his first single, "Scufflin'," in 1966; forming the soon-to-be-celebrated Magic Slim & the Teardrops (with his younger brothers) in 1967; and taking up residence at Florence's Lounge, a South Side club, in 1972. His rough-and-ready style suited the rambunctious atmosphere of the place and helped make Mr. Slim a Chicago institution.

So did his recordings. He cut his first album, "Born Under a Bad Sign" (1977), for a French label and in the next decade recorded regularly for Alligator, Rooster Blues and Wolf Records.

"Gravel Road" (1990), his first recording for Blind Pig Records, took its title cut from one of the songs he played in childhood on his self-made guitar.

"The well-traveled Chicago blues singer/guitarist is near the top of his form on this delightful album, which comes close to capturing the late-night ambience of Slim's live set," observed Billboard magazine.

Mr. Slim would maintain that high level for more than two decades, earning critical accolades for albums such as "Scufflin'" (1996), "Black Tornado" (1998), "Snakebite" (2000) and "Raising the Bar" (2010), which marked his 20th anniversary on Blind Pig.

Magic Slim & the Teardrops won the Blues Music Award for Blues Band of the Year in 2003, one of several Blues Music Awards it aced.

More important, his work won the admiration of his peers.

"He was a genius at what he did," said veteran Chicago blues musician Billy Branch. "Nobody did it like Slim.

"It was just raw, unadulterated Chicago blues."

Survivors include his wife, Ann Holt; four sons; and one daughter.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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