Born: February 14, 1937 in Grenada MS
Died: December 1, 1969 in Chicago IL
In an overcrowded field that includes such stalwarts as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, and Otis Rush, Chicago blues guitarist "Magic Sam" Maghett is often overlooked. It's not for lack of talent, though, as Magic Sam once lit the West Side on fire with his innovative fretwork, over-the-top guitar solos, and emotional vocals. Tragically, Sam died of a heart attack not long after a memorable performance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, his flame extinguished while his career was still on the rise.
Good Rockin' Sam
Sam Maghett was born in Grenada, in the Mississippi Delta. He learned to play on a homemade guitar, listening to the country bluesmen that performed at fish fries and house parties in the area. Maghett moved with his family to Chicago in 1950 and, influenced by artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, decided to pursue a career in the blues. One of his first musical experiences was playing guitar behind Homesick James, but he soon formed his own band.
Spurred on by his uncle, blues harpist Shaky Jake Harris - who would play with the guitarist then and again - Maghett began to make a name for himself as Good Rockin' Sam in Chicago's West Side blues clubs. Signed to Eli Toscano's Cobra Records label in 1957, Maghett was re-christened "Magic Sam," a name thought up by his childhood friend and long-time bass player Mack Thompson.
Maghett's first side for Cobra, "All Your Love," became a local favorite, and along with subsequent singles like "Everything Gonna Be Alright" and "Easy Baby," helped to define the slash-and-burn West Side style of Chicago blues. Overseen by label artistic director Willie Dixon, Magic Sam was part of a roster that included fellow West Siders Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. Cobra always had cash flow problems, however, and the label folded when founder Toscano's body was pulled out of Lake Michigan in early 1959.
Maghett was drafted into the Army in 1959, and found difficulty in adhering to the military life after experiencing the bright stage lights of Chicago's blues clubs. Maghett went AWOL and was later charged with desertion, and was sentenced to six months in the brig. Upon his release, he was given a dishonorable discharge, and he returned to Chicago in 1961 to resume his career.
Attracting The Rock Music Audience
Magic Sam signed with Mel London's Chief Records after arriving back in Chicago, but it was his live performances that put bread and butter on the table. A fiery guitarist and passionate performer, Sam's Chief singles didn't sell well, but he was packing them into the clubs. As his reputation grew, Sam began venturing outside of his West Side comfort zone, and would become particularly popular in the San Francisco Bay area, playing rock-oriented venues like the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom; his schedule soon expanded during the mid-1960s to include blues and rock festivals.
A one-off single, "That's Why I'm Crying," brought Magic Sam to the attention of Delmark Record's Bob Koester, who included the song on his label's landmark Sweet Home Chicago album in 1966. Sam was soon signed to Delmark, and the guitarist would record two seminal, highly influential albums for the label - 1967's West Side Soul and 1968's Black Magic. His performance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Michigan blew away the audience, and larger labels, like Stax Records, were sniffing around the guitarist at the time of his unexpected and tragic death in December 1969 at the too-young age of 32 years.
Recommended Albums: Magic Sam's recorded output is slim, but both of his Delmark Records albums are essential, with Black Magic in particular foreshadowing the contemporary soul-blues style with its fusion of 1950s-styled urban blues and '60s-era soul. For fans of an earlier blues sound, The Essential Magic Sam collects better than two-dozen of Magic Sam's recordings for the Cobra and Chief labels. The Live In Ann Arbor & In Chicago set includes the aforementioned Ann Arbor Blues Festival appearance; personally, I'd shy away from any other Magic Sam titles, many of which are of questionable provenance.
Magic Sam Discography
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