The shuffle done right

Magic Slim was a contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who helped shape the sound of the Chicago blues.
AP file photo
Magic Slim was a contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who helped shape the sound of the Chicago blues.

DO YOURSELF a favor. Go to YouTube and search for “Magic Slim Goin’ to Mississippi Blind Pig 2011.” The video shows blues fundamentalist Magic Slim recording a song with his band, the Teardrops, in the warehouse of his record label two years ago. He was still going strong then at age 73, despite chronic heart and lung ailments. In the video he plays a straight blues shuffle, the kind of thing played every day by millions of musicians all over the world. But it’s a shuffle done right, a form lastingly codified in the 1950s during the golden age of Chicago blues and perfected by Magic Slim over the course of a musical lifetime. And a shuffle played right is a truly satisfying — and deceptively rare — thing.

A little rarer now, I’m sad to say. Funeral services for Magic Slim, whose given name was Morris Holt, will be held Saturday in Lincoln, Neb. His longtime manager, Marty Salzman, reports condolences “from Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Israel, Argentina; Brazil, where he was a big star; from all over.” With his gruff vocals and vibrato-heavy guitar in perfect balance, and his signature rattletrap groove like a reliable old engine running loud and smoky, Magic Slim raised a journeyman’s fidelity to his trade to an order of accomplishment so advanced that it became a kind of virtuosity.

Memorial musical tributes are being planned in Lincoln, his adopted hometown, and in Chicago, the city that shaped him as a blues craftsman. These events will inevitably feel like a next-to-last stand of old-school electric blues orthodoxy. Younger players who learned from Magic Slim will pay homage to a master of the genre, as will the handful of his surviving contemporaries who can still mount the stage and bring it with even a shadow of the power they commanded in their prime. There aren’t many left in his cohort, those who came up from the Deep South in the 1940s and 1950s and fashioned out of their encounter with northern industrial cities the electric blues that would become an essential element of human musical DNA.


Among the usual biographical details cited in the obituaries — he was born in Torrance, Miss., in 1937; his first instrument was a single broom wire nailed to the wall; he lost his right pinky in a cotton gin accident — there’s one that I think of as the key to understanding the workmanlike greatness of Magic Slim. He first came to Chicago in 1955, but the competition among blues musicians was so intense at the time that he couldn’t cut it, so he went back to Mississippi for a few years to practice.

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“It’s true; he couldn’t keep up,” Salzman said. “The guys in Chicago back then were fearsome, and he didn’t think he was good enough. Slim would say, ‘So I went back and learned my chops until I was able to hold my own and take care of my business.’ ”

This story points to virtues that we tend to underrate in our virtuosos: diligence, patience, sustained apprenticeship to a tradition’s conventional forms. It’s an antidote to the mythology of mysterious lightning-strike inspiration offered in stories like the one about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a Delta crossroads to acquire guitar-hero technique.

What Magic Slim mastered in those years of practice and thousands of gigs over the half century that followed was the blues shuffle, the elemental grinding groove known in Chicago as “lump-de-lump.” He played almost every song as a shuffle, cranking up the lump-de-lump rate for good-times tunes and down for slow-blues introspection.

And no matter who was in the Teardrops, his band always sounded pretty much the same, because Magic Slim knew exactly what he wanted — a driving, churning sound entirely lacking in fuss or flash. He made shuffles sound perpetually fresh and purposeful, countering the increasingly common tendency to reduce them to a mere backdrop to solo over. That’s because he played party music — substantive and emotionally complex party music founded on the bedrock principle that his kind of blues was made with and for others.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’