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Magic Sam: Sliding Back to the Past

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FLASHBACK TO 1968

I have a passion for music. Some people may find that unusual … After all I am only seven years old.

You could always hear music playing in our house. No one really spoke too much; they seem to express themselves by either listening to music or playing different instruments.

I grew up listening to all kinds of tunes, but it was the blues that I first remember as it was played in my bedroom since my early days in the cradle. I shared my bedroom with my brother who was a musician. He played his guitar all night every night till the wee hours in the morning. Guitar licks have been laced into my earliest memories.

My brother is in a blues band, and our parents allow him to rehearse with his friends in the basement on Saturday afternoons. There were other things I could have been doing, but I loved hanging out during rehearsal. They have a fully staged setup down there. And this gave me the opportunity when no one was around to fool around with all the gear …

In the basement we also had our main turntable/sound system and my brother kept his album collection down there. Of course touching the LP's or any of the instruments was strictly forbidden, but I had trouble understanding this notion. I couldn’t help it. Something inside of me needed to experiment with them.

There are too many LP’s to mention, but just to give you an idea there were albums such as East West from Paul Butterfield, A Hard Road by John Mayall and The Blues Breakers, Truth by The Jeff Beck Group, Wheels of Fire by Cream, and A Man and the Blues by Buddy Guy… Just to name a few.

I have a secret to tell you … The past few weeks whenever my brother isn’t home I’ll grab his guitar, cue up the turntable, sit down, and plug his axe into his Champ Amp. One of the songs on an album in my brother’s collection compelled me. The album is entitled West Side Soul and the song is called "All Your Love." Something about the song grabbed a hold of me and it was bigger than any of the warnings I received telling to me to stay away from the stuff. I started to play …

Samuel Maghett

…was born near Grenada, Mississippi, on February 14, 1937 into a sharecropping household. Even though his family had no musical background, the youthful Sam
was intrigued by the sounds he heard playing at local parties and picnics.

He would create his own makeshift guitars from cigar boxes, and by the time his family relocated to Chicago in 1950, Sam was already quite proficient playing the guitar. Soon he began to play professionally, first with the gospel group The Morning View Special and then with the popular Homesick James Band.

Sam's tone and finger-picking style was an entirely original concept when he premiered it on Eli Toscano’s Cobra label in 1957. The guitarist had been gigging as Good Rocking Sam, but Toscano wanted to change his nickname. Eventually he would become known as Magic Sam; a play on words based on his real last name.

His Cobra debut single, "All Your Love," was an instant local hit. "Everything Gonna Be Alright" and "Easy Baby" borrowed much the same melody but still remained powerful.

Cobra achieved local success, but they didn’t find much recognition outside of Chicago, and by 1960 the company closed its doors. After Cobra folded, Magic Sam didn't follow his label mates Otis Rush and Magic Slim over to Chess. Sam’s life took a different turn as he was drafted into the Army. Several weeks after being drafted, he deserted and returned to Chicago and recorded some tunes for the Chief label. The Army would eventually catch up with Magic Sam and sentenced him to a military prison. Six months later he received a dishonorable discharge in 1961.

Returning again to Chicago, he renewed his work with Willie Dixon and recorded a cover of "Hi Heel Sneakers" for CBS and a few selections for Crash Records. Sam grew tired of just releasing singles and wanted to do a full-length album.

In 1967 he finally caught the attention of Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records. Koester was enjoying the success he obtained with Junior Wells’ "Hoodoo Man Blues" and signed Magic Sam to a contract, giving him the opportunity to do his first album.

Magic Sam created two landmark albums for Delmark Records; 1967's West Side Soul and then Black Magic the following year. Both of these LP’s showcased Sam's immense talent and will go down as some of the finest blues ever recorded.

Back In The Basement

I believe in my mind I came pretty close to nailing the song. It really didn’t matter. I wasn’t playing for anyone but my own imagination. It wasn’t the technique of playing the guitar that excited me. It was the expressive tone of the strings as they resonated from the speakers … My father was right … music is the universal language of expression. And although at that moment, I wasn’t interested in being a musician, something inside of me knew music was going to represent a big part of my life.

This Valentine’s Day would have been Magic Sam’s 71st birthday. People who know me or read some of my past articles realize when I reflect back and think how tragically Magic Sam died; it just gives me a cold shiver.

Sam's reputation was sky rocketing, and at the height of his career, he would amaze an overflowed crowd at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. As he headed for international stardom, heart problems took their toll on Sam's health. On the morning of December 1st of 1969, he complained of heartburn, collapsed, and passed away of a heart attack. He was only 32 years old …

What an awesome talent and major inspiration he was. West Side Soul will always be one of those albums that will forever hold a very special part of my early memories. It is an absolute must-own for anyone interested in the blues. Magic Sam knew how to blend all the right ingredients into one tasty soulful package. Rest in peace Sam …

Do you have a favourite Magic Sam moment or song you love or remember? If you do, please feel free to comment. What a great man to reflect back on …

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