Remembering Magic Slim
Magic Slim taught me one of the most valuable lessons about the blues I've ever learned. The towering and powerful vocalist and guitarist first came to Chicago in the '50s, honing his craft with Magic Sam, whom he borrowed his name from. But it wasn't until the late '80s that I first started seeing him regularly, when Magic Slim & The Teardrops were one of the house bands at the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street.
Though the club's name implied a mixed-race clientele, drawing the white squares (so to speak) from the nearby University of Chicago, that balance was usually reserved for the lively weekends. On week nights it was more of a sparsely attended neighborhood joint, with most of the Teardrops' sets performed as background music to a semi interested gaggle of Old Style sippers. And it was awesome. Slim's booming voice was powerful even when he seemed distracted, and on nights when he decided to keep his seat at the bar instead of joining his band onstage his supremely gifted guitarist John Primer fronted the band magnificently.
I saw this laid-back set dozens of times, so the night I caught Slim at one of the North Side's Halsted Street blues clubs playing for an all-white crowd of tourists I was genuinely shocked to see an animated, histrionic performance, playing to the cheering crowd as skillfully as a veteran circus performer. He was fantastic, but I couldn't help but feel that the music I heard on the nights he half-assed it sounded better—a warm, well-worn vinyl 45 compared to a cold, pristine, hard-edged digital file. Slim passed away yesterday at the age of 75, but to the thousands of Chicago blues fans who caught him at his highs and lows in North and South Side joints, he'll live forever. And for me, personally, he will be immortalized as the man who taught me that sometimes putting on your best show is overrated.