Gene Maghett is a name you will not likely know
until we unveil him as Magic Sam,
then maybe you’ll have some idea as to who he was and the impact he had on the
Chicago blues scene in the late 50s and 60s. So here’s the story...
Born into a sharecropper's family in February 1937 in Grenada County, Mississippi, he showed an instant knack for music, and when he wasn’t toying with a guitar, he was making them. He’d make them out of anything, cigar boxes, diddley bows, bailing wire,... you name it, and why? Because the boy was transfixed on the sounds of his first heroes, Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
He left home for Chicago at 13 years of age and before he turned 20 he was playing his guitar at blues clubs on the city’s West Side, dueling with the likes of Southside biggies, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Freddie King, Bo Diddley,and ‘Homesick’ James Williamson to mention a few. Not bad for a kid who escaped the whippings of a violent father because of his lack of interest in farm work, fled north to live with his aunt Lily and her husband, harmonica giant ‘Shakey Jake’ Harris, who guided and encouraged him with his obvious talent. His tremolo driven staccato picking was something very fresh in those days and it landed him a contract with Cobra Records, run by Eli Toscano in 1957. His debut single All Your Love was instantly a hit in the blues community, and the encores Everything Gonna Be Alright, and Easy Baby gave Westside Chicago a name and gravitas that is still emulated by bluesmen today. His unique style was forged between the darkness of Delta blues and a swinging, pounding Chicago sound, with a sprinkling of Memphis on top; the pointed picking, single-string leads ala B.B.King, and then he just drenches it in reverb and tremolo, or on sliding 9th chords and slapping bass lines, he managed to sculpt his own sound on his cherry Epiphone Riviera.
It was truly the birth of West Side Chicago blues. Other Cobra artists Otis Rush and Buddy Guy were right there with him, blazing new riffs and licks for future electric blues guitarists. His single 21 Days in Jail highlights his dexterity with prickly solos that is essentially a rockabilly smoker with Willie Dixon plucking thunder on bass, and is a tasty bit of work in just 2 minutes.
Then Cobra folded and instead of following Rush and Guy over to Chess Records, he got drafted into military service, (Vietnam), went AWOL, (absent without leave) got caught, and thrown in prison for 6 months. This took Sam down hard emotionally. When he was let out in 1960, the Rock & Roll scene was moving towards acoustic guitars and the Chicago electric blues set was fading. Nonetheless, he signed with Chief Records and adapted a Fats Domino song Every Night About This Time into a hard-hitting Chicago blues number, but it wasn’t as compelling as his earlier material. And with the ‘flower power’ hippy scene budding on pale harmonies and pastel acoustic arrangements; the gigs were few and Sam hit near rock bottom. He still had some work at local clubs but the recording opportunities dwindled. On top of this, the union’s hounded him for fees, and he was constantly ripped off by sleazy management types.
His bad luck got better when Bob Koester, founder of the Delmark label, and an avid blues promoter, (after having inked the likes of Junior Wells, who put out the masterpiece Hoodoo Man Blues, with West Chicago style guitar work by Buddy Guy), recognised his abundant gift. “I first heard Magic Sam on one of the great Cobra 45s. Later in person at the original Alex Club at Roosevelt and Loomis on Chicago’s West Side in 1962. It was a spectacular entrance-- Muddy Waters called him up to the bandstand, Sam tripped on an electric cord and sparks flew! His playing and singing were even more electrifying”.
Under Koester, he recorded the fabled West Side Soul, (1967) with Mighty Joe Young on second guitar, and Odie Payne on sticks. The album lays bare the passion and breadth he represented in his West Side blues style, from the soulful tracks That’s All I Need and I Feel So Good, to the wicked instrumental Lookin’ Good and of course Sweet Home Chicago. It got raving reviews nationally and fellow artists Paul Butterfield, Cream, John Mayall, Canned Heat, and Janis Joplin, were already showing clear signs of his influence.
Riding the wave of success, he did a torrid tour of gigs all over the U.S.. He was on top of his game. The encore to West Side Soul was Black Magic which featured Eddie Shaw blowing a raspy tenor sax on the funky You Belong to Me, the heartfelt What Have I Done Wrong, and Sam’s personal ‘hands on’ treatment of Freddie King’s San-Ho-Zay. Sam later said he not only thought it was the best work he’d ever done, but was “the best album I’ve ever heard”. These two Delmark releases vaulted him to international recognition as one of the blues greats, with shows in Britain and Germany, accompanied by blues harp wizard Charlie Musselwhite and drummer Sam Lay. In 1969 he brought the house down at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and was ready to sign with Stax Records after his contract ended at Delmark. However his heart troubles persisted and were taking a toll on his body. He died of a heart attack 48 years ago today, in 1969, at the age of 32.
A benefit concert for Magic Sam was organised by the Butterfield Blues Band some weeks later at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and featured admirers such as Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Musselwhite and Nick Gravenites. He even reached Hollywood in the film The Blues Brothers where Jake Blues dedicates Sweet Home Chicago to “the late great Magic Sam”.
Since then, his legacy has been prized and preserved, his perseverance admired, his style adored and everlasting; he is the one and only, Magic Sam.