I don't often read music magazines anymore. At one time I had subscriptions to several, including Downbeat, Cadence, and Living Blues. I'm not sure why they don't interest me anymore; I know that I no longer try to keep up with up with the latest news and latest new names in the kinds of music I like. (Sometimes this is to my detriment - I'm a year or two behind the curve concerning saxophonist Steve Lehman, whom I heard about just a few days ago. I've got some catching up to do there.) But I was in a bookstore yesterday and took a look at the music magazines; there, smiling up at me from the new Living Blues, was my favorite living bluesman, Magic Slim.
Well, you know how it is. In a couple of days, I might name someone else as my favorite living blues musician - Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, or even Corey Harris. But Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim, is certainly up at the top of the list. Magic Slim and the Teardrops play straight, unadorned Chicago blues - the kind of Mississippi blues overlaid with big city energy that you might have heard in the Windy City back in the fifties or sixties. But I hope that doesn't give the wrong impression - there is nothing "retro" or nostalgic about the Slim and the Teardrops. Even if they are playing a 50-year-old variant of a 110-year-old style, they play it with a strictly contemporary energy. This is music for tonight!
Slim is 72 now, but is still hitting it as hard as ever. He was born in Grenada, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta, and took up guitar when he lost a finger on his right hand in a cotton gin accident, putting an end to his budding piano career. After playing local juke joints and house parties, he moved to Chicago when he was in his early twenties and apprenticed with Magic Sam Maghett, who gave him his nickname. About 15 years ago, tired of the crime in his Chicago neighborhood, Slim settled his family into the least bluesy spot on earth - Lincoln, Nebraska. Except that in Lincoln you can find more than just rabid Nebraska Cornhusker fans and the Penis on the Prairie (as the irreverent call the Nebraska Capitol building); you can find the Zoo Bar, one of the country's great blues bars.
I've been lucky enough to hear Magic Slim and the Teardrops at the Zoo Bar and another one of America's great blues bars, Blind Willie's in Atlanta. Slim (who hasn't lived up to the second half of his nickname in years) is pretty unprepossessing until he climbs onto the bandstand and plugs his Fender Jazzmaster directly into the amp - no pedals or effects for him, thank you. His guitar sound is as raw as you might expect, his vocals are strong and basic, and the Teardrops rock the Chicago shuffle like no other band around. The resulting sound isn't fancy, but it sure is strong. Slim's music has a directness and purity that make "revivalist" blues bands sound phony.
There are quite a few recordings by Slim and the Teardrops out there. I can't claim to have heard them all, but my favorite out of the ones I am familiar with is Black Tornado, on Blind Pig. Two tracks, "Wake Me Up Early" and "She's Got Bad Intentions," could serve as a two-part primer in Chicago blues grooves. "Early" is a perfect Chicago shuffle - intense, yet relaxed, while "Intentions" has a groove that the blues guys call a "flat tire shuffle" - the last triplet of every beat is accented. The result is a loping groove that is incredibly laid-back, yet at the same times moves forward like a freight train.
Magic Slim is a treasure. I hope he stays around for a long time.