Magic Sam: West Side Story

Besides the fact that he was one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, “Magic” Sam Maghett never caught a break in his life. His story is an agonizing parade of close calls, near misses, and bad luck, which he endured with a blistering talent and a kind, self-effacing nature. In the years since his death, his influence has grown beyond anything he could have imagined during his short, hard life. But while he was alive, he never got the recognition he deserved. A pioneer of Chicago’s West Side sound, Sam helped bring screaming electric guitar to the forefront of blues, and his distinctive, powerful attack can be heard echoing through the first generation of white blues guitarists, who rode his style to fame and fortune.

Born with a gift for music into a sharecropping family near Grenada, Mississippi, Sam made guitars out of anything—cigar boxes, diddley bows, bailing wire. He would sit entranced watching local bands at the fish frys and house parties near his home, but his love of blues didn’t serve him well in the fields. He caught whippings from his father when he couldn’t plow the fields, and when the abuse worsened, neighbors called his relatives in Chicago to intervene.

Rescued by his aunt Lily and her husband—harmonica powerhouse “Shakey Jake” Harris—Sam was just 13 when he arrived in Chicago, and already an accomplished guitarist. It was the early 1950s. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf ruled the South Side, packing tough clubs like Pepper’s and the Checkerboard Lounge, playing the pounding, electrified Delta blues that would come to be recognized as the sound of the city.

A generation younger than the first wave of Chicago’s blues legends, Sam was still a teenager when he went professional, guided and encouraged by Harris. He plunged head first into the Chicago scene, competing for gigs not just with Wolf and Waters, but Elmore James, Little Walter, Freddie King, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, and countless others, all cutting heads, from the Maxwell Street market to the notoriously violent bars of the city’s poor neighborhoods.

Sam was different, though. Perhaps it was the fact that he was younger, soaking up music like a sponge, and so clearly gifted. His music somehow sounded like nothing and everything that had come before him, all at once. Sam took the starkness of the Delta, and the pounding Chicago beat, and added elements of Memphis: stinging, single-string B.B. King leads, and pleading, emotional Bobby “Blue” Bland vocals. Then he stripped it down to its purest elements, drenched it in reverb and tremolo, and played it with all his heart. With sliding 9th chords and popping bass lines, Sam wrenched a unique and distinctive blues from his cherry Epiphone Riviera.

It was the birth of the West Side sound, and along with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, Sam brought the expressive screams and restrained whispers of electric lead guitar to the forefront of the blues. Where the howling harmonica of Little Walter or Junior Wells would handle lead with Muddy Waters, and the stuttering, driving guitar of the brilliant Hubert Sumlin would dart between Howlin’ Wolf’s huge vocals, the West Side innovators took blues guitar to dizzying new heights.

While over-the-top showmen like Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker had blazed the trail earlier, nobody had ever brought such soulful power and drama to the music before. It was the sheer emotional potential of the instrument laid bare. There was desperation and passion in the crying overbends and pleading vocals of the West Side guitarists. The great Albert King sounded like he could bend a wound G-string three steps in his sleep. When Sam did it, it sounded like it was breaking his heart. Rush and Guy were flashier, but nobody could touch the gut-wrenching feeling that Sam summoned in his songs. A short decade later, Sam, Rush, and Guy would have a profound influence on guitarists like Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, and Dickey Betts, among others.

Meanwhile, Sam’s luck was going from bad to worse. Discovered by Willie Dixon, the main songwriter for Chess Records, Sam was passed over by the Chess brothers, who didn’t know what to make of his sound. He found a home at the Cobra label, founded by small-time professional gambler Eli Toscano. Playing off of “Maghett,” Toscano christened his new artist Magic Sam, and recorded him fast and quick, capturing the energy of Sam’s live performances. At Cobra, Sam recorded the foundation of his legacy—11 blazing singles and b-sides, including the classic “Everything Gonna Be Alright,” the lightning-fast, proto-rockabilly “21 Days in Jail,” and the ironic “Out of Bad Luck.” (“I’ve been down so long”, Sam cries. “But I am on my way back up again.”)

In fact, Sam’s bad luck was just beginning. The Cobra singles lit up Chicago, but failed to find an audience outside the city. Still, momentum was building in the last years of the 1950s. But as word started to spread about Sam, he was hit by two devastating blows: Cobra folded and he was drafted. Within weeks, Sam went AWOL from the Army to record for Chief Records. The Army caught up with him, and sent him to prison for deserting. The sentence took its toll on Sam emotionally, and when he was released in 1960, rock ’n’ roll’s popularity had taken a toll on the Chicago blues scene. It was before the mid-60s folk revival—which would pass up Sam in favor of more acoustic artists—and good gigs were scarce. Sam struggled for years.

Enter Bob Koester. The founder of the legendary Delmark label, Koester is an unsung hero of the blues in his own right, and as tough and passionate as the artists he has recorded. Riding high on the unexpected success of Junior Wells’ masterpiece Hoodoo Man Blues—featuring West Side-style guitar workouts by Buddy Guy, credited as Friendly Chap to avoid label conflicts—Koester recognized Sam’s brilliance instantly. “I first heard Magic Sam on one of the great Cobra 45s,” Koester recollects in the liner notes of the Delmark release The Magic Sam Legacy. “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.”

Sam reestablished his reputation in Chicago through relentless, grueling nightclub shows, but it was an uphill battle. He was constantly hounded by the union, and exploited and ripped off by shady management. Guided and supported by Koester, Sam recorded the flawless West Side Soul for Delmark. Backed by the great Mighty Joe Young on second guitar and Odie Payne on drums, Sam poured his heart and soul into some of the most powerful blues ever recorded. From the soul swing of “That’s All I Need” to the chilling “My Love Will Never Die,” West Side Soul is an artistic triumph. The album received glowing reviews in national press. Cream, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, John Mayall, and Janis Joplin had prepared the public’s ears for raw blues, and for a moment it looked like Sam’s time had come. Delmark’s distribution was getting stronger, and Sam was earning invitations to large festival gigs around the country. He was plagued with bad management, though, and suffered a gun shot wound to the leg that left him performing his Los Angeles debut in a full cast.

Sam persevered, though, and performed a now-legendary set with Charlie Musselwhite at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He returned to the studio and cut the incredible follow-up Black Magic for Delmark. Sam not only felt it was the best album he had ever done, he called it “the best album I’ve heard.” He was not alone—the two Delmark releases were cementing Sam’s reputation as one of the true blues greats. Wishing him the best, Koester made plans to release Sam from his contract with Delmark so he could record for Stax. It seemed the world was finally ready for the powerful sounds of Magic Sam.

Sadly, on the morning of December 1, 1969, Sam complained of pain in his heart, and collapsed on his way to his bedroom. He was rushed to a Chicago hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 32.

In the years since, Koester and Delmark have painstakingly preserved Sam’s legacy. Three must-have releases—West Side Soul, Black Magic, and The Magic Sam Legacy—offer a hint of Sam’s stunning talent, and a glimpse of what might have been.

-Ari Surdoval

Magic Sam performing “Magic Sam’s Boogie” in Germany, 1964

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2 responses to “Magic Sam: West Side Story

  1. I’ve only just discovered Magic Sam’s album ‘West Side Soul’. Great sound!

  2. Pingback: Gregg Allman: The Long Rider | The Big Get-Even

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