Blues guitarist Magic Slim dies at age 75

February 22, 2013

The Associated Press

In this 2009 file photo, Bluesman Magic Slim performs with his band "The Teardrops" on the final day of the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore. Slim, a contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who helped shape the sound of the Chicago blues, died Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.

Updated at 4:58 p.m.

Magic Slim, a younger contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who helped shape the sound of Chicago's electric blues, died Thursday. He was 75.

He died shortly after midnight Thursday at a Philadelphia hospital, said his manager, Marty Salzman. The musician had health problems that worsened while he was on tour several weeks ago in Pennsylvania, Salzman said.

Magic Slim and his backing band, the Teardrops, performed a no-holds-barred brand of Chicago-style electric blues, led by his singing and guitar playing, and were regulars on the music festival circuit.

To Chicago musician Billy Branch, who had played gigs with him, Slim represented the last of what he described as raw, no-nonsense Chicago blues.

“He was such an entertainer as much as he was a musician. And his personality was just so humorous and upbeat,” Branch said. “It was always a fun time when Slim was around.”

Branch said Slim was so funny, he could make people laugh until they cried.

Slim's given name was Morris Holt. The Mississippi native established himself in Chicago's thriving blues community in the 1960s, but more recently lived in Lincoln, Neb.

Holt's story was one of persistence. Like many bluesmen from rural Mississippi, his early life revolved around the cotton fields, which he fled for Chicago in 1955.

But competition on the South Side was fierce in those days, and he moved back home after failing to establish himself.

He honed his skills to a fine edge by playing plantation parties and small gigs with his brothers, Nick and Douglas, as his backing band. They returned to Chicago, where they formed the Teardrops and refused to be dismissed.

Younger than many of the renowned bluesmen in Chicago, he maintained a career well into the 21st century. Magic Slim and the Teardrops won blues band of the year at the 2003 Blues Music Award, and he released a record of covers last year.

"If you were going to take somebody who'd never seen blues to one of their shows, it would be like putting them in a time machine and putting them in 1962," Marty Salzman said. "No frills, no rock 'n' roll. It was just straight-ahead, real-deal blues."

Holt came by the sound authentically. Born in Torrance, Miss., in 1937, he grew up in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. His first love was piano, but he lost the little finger on his right hand to a cotton gin and switched to guitar. Like many of his contemporaries, he started out on a one-string instrument he made by nailing a piece of wire stolen from a broom to the wall.

He moved to Grenada at age 11 and met Magic Sam, an older guitarist and influential blues figure. Sam taught him about the instrument and gave him his first job as a bass player years later when he first moved to Chicago.

Holt didn't make his first recordings until 1966. He released his first album, "Born Under A Bad Sign," on a French label in 1977. He put out his last album just a year ago on Chicago’s Blind Pig records.

Jerry DelGiudice, Blind Pig co-owner, said that as Slim got older he was concentrating more on his guitar playing and was at the top of his game.

“He was getting better and better and better,” DelGiudice explained. “He seemed to be enjoying it more. He seemed to be getting the recognition he deserved, finally.”

WBEZ's Diana Buendia contributed to this story.