Featured Interview – Magic Slim

It has been an integral part of helping to shape and define what we now call the modern blues sound.

And it’s probably been around even longer than the blues have.

It was the thing that elder statesmen, from Son House to Muddy Waters, along with the younger generation of stars like Terry “Harmonica” Bean and beyond, first learned to play on.

It’s not a Fender Stratocaster, a National Steel Resonator or a Gibson Les Paul.

It’s something that is far less sexy, far less sleek than a Strat, a Resonator or a Les Paul.

It’s an ordinary, average corn broom.

And like Son House and Muddy Waters – along with about every family that lived around him when he was growing up in the early 1940s in Mississippi – young Morris Holt’s family had one of those ordinary, average corn brooms.

And it was that particular corn broom helped transform Morris Holt into Magic Slim.

“Well, I made my first guitar upside the wall with a strand of wire off a broom,” Slim recently related.

While the rest of his family was in town one Saturday afternoon, Slim liberated the bailing wire from his momma’s broom and nailed it to the wall of their home near Granada, Mississippi. “You’d really be surprised at what sound two bottles and a piece of wire can make,” he said.

And while Slim was suitably impressed with his homemade instrument, the first lady of the house was not.

“When momma and them came back, I was playing it. And then she whipped me for tearin’ up her broom,” Slim said. “But she said one time that if she’d known what I’d be into later, she wouldn’t have whipped me.”

What Magic Slim is into, is keeping the sounds and traditions of textbook Chicago blues alive – the kind that was favored at spots like Florence’s Lounge and on Maxwell Street – back in the day.

And although young Morris Holt would grow up and find his fame in Chicago, playing in and around places like those, his formative years in rural Mississippi have not been pushed to the side by any means.

That’s why Pinky Holt Taylor would certainly be proud to know that her son was recently the recipient of one of the Mississippi Blues Commission’s newest markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Magic Slim’s marker stands on Union Street in Granada, not too far from Queen’s Eat Shop, a restaurant that was operated by his mother.

“I’m 73 years old and I love what I do,” Slim said when asked about the marker. “I’m just thankful that I can do what I do.”

The names of Nick Holt and Douglas “Lee Baby” Holt also adorn Slim’s trail marker, especially fitting since they both played alongside their brother as members of The Teardrops. Nick was a longtime bassist for the group, while Douglas held down the drum throne.

It’s also very fitting that another one of the Mississippi Blues Commission’s Blues Trail markers can also be found in Granada, not too awful far from Magic Slim’s.

That marker bears the name of Slim’s one-time schoolmate – and later on – one-time bandmate – Samuel Gene Maghett – aka the late, great Magic Sam.

In fact, it was Magic Sam that dubbed Morris Holt as Magic Slim.

Slim left Mississippi for the big city of Chicago in 1955, five years after Magic Sam’s migration to the Windy City.

And it wasn’t long before Slim had made his way into his old friend from back home’s band, playing bass.

“Man, I was just slim and tall and he got to calling me Magic Slim,” said Slim. “And right before he died, he told me to keep that name … that it would make me famous some day. So I did and here I am.”

But it wasn’t quite that easy.

When he really began concentrating on the guitar, Slim realized that he had a ways to go until he caught up with the other six-string slingers on the scene in Chicago.

“Well, a lot of them guys said I couldn’t play, so I went back to Mississippi,” he said. “And then when I got back there (to Chicago in 1965), I was ready for ‘em.”

It wasn’t too long before brother Nick, who would eventually lead a band of his own, joined Slim in the big city, jump-starting a 40-year career of playing in The Teardrops.

While the lineup has changed a few times over the past decades, one thing has remained steadfast – the way that Magic Slim and The Teardrops, who are six-time winners of the Blues Music Award’s (BMAs) Blues Band of Year, deal out mega helpings of authentic Chicago blues.

With several hundred songs to pull out of their trick bag, no two shows by Magic Slim and The Teardrops are ever the same.

And that’s just fine with the countless fans that have seen the big man in action.

There’s certainly no shortage of bands traveling across the globe playing the blues in 2011.

But how many of them can say that they have recorded for the same record label for 20 straight years?

Not many.

But Magic Slim has managed to show remarkable staying power in this category, and he recently celebrated his 20th year of recording for the Blind Pig record label.

And with Raising the Bar, his eighth release on Blind Pig, Magic Slim and The Teardrops continue to do just that, setting a lofty standard for all practitioners of the blues to follow.

However, Slim’s journey to the top of the mountain in the Chicago blues world might have taken a bit of a different path had it not been for an accident at a cotton gin when he was a mere lad of 13.

His right hand got caught on a wire in the gin and quick as lightning, Slim knew he was in trouble. “It liked to have chopped my whole hand off. It didn’t, but it sure messed it up,” he said. That accident in the cotton gin may have ended up halting Slim’s budding love affair with the piano, but it sent him full-bore into the arms of the guitar.

“I was trying to play the piano when I got hurt. I was starting to mess around on guitar then, too. But after I got hurt, I couldn’t play the piano cause I didn’t have a pinky finger,” he said. “So I really started messin’ with the guitar.”

And several decades later, Magic Slim continues to “mess with the guitar.”

His earth-shaking vibrato and chunky riffs harkens back to another time without ever once sounding old-fashioned.

“Well, I feel like I need to do it (play Chicago blues),” he said. “It seems like there’s nobody else doing it, so I feel like I should be doing it. I like to do it and I want to do it.”

Like a lot of other musicians who grew up in the Magnolia State just after World War II, listening to the radio was an important part of the Holt household.

That is, on Saturday and Sundays when the kids were allowed to take a brief break from work and entrain themselves by tuning in to WLAC out of Nashville.

“We listened to the radio. That was practically all we had down there (for entertainment) at that time,” said Slim. “And when I first started, I used to play county-and-western and bluegrass. But I heard John Lee Hooker when he put out his first record, “Boogie Chillen,” and that inspired me to start playing the blues. And I went from there.”

Slim’s days of playing a homemade Diddly-Bow nailed to the side of the house are long in his rear-view mirror.

These days, he prefers something with a little more “punch,” a little more “pizzazz,” to it.

“I like a Super Reverb (amp) and a Jazzmaster or a Les Paul,” he said. “The way I have my amp turned, I get that dull sound and my guitar has switches on it and I work them switches. But all I do is just play, man. I just try to do my best. I feel good doing it, because I do it with feeling.”

Just because Magic Slim is like a walking, talking encyclopedia of Chicago blues, that doesn’t mean that he’s tuned out anything that was created after 1950.

Quite the contrary.

Slim had enough of an open mind to leave his old stomping grounds and set up camp in New York, letting Popa Chubby produce and play on his 2002 release, Blue Magic, giving the CD a “Chubbified” feel to it.

Then there’s the whole new generation of young bucks fighting to make a name for themselves these days and Slim is paying particularly close attention to one of those “young ‘uns.”

“There’s some good young players out there these days,” he said. “I got a son named Lil’ Slim and he’s really comin’ on. He’s got his own band and he ain’t playing nothing but the blues.”…

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