Magic Sam (Samuel Gene Maghett) was born on Feb. 14, 1937 in Grenada, Mississippi and moved to Chicago with his family at the age of fourteen. He learned to play guitar mostly from listening to records, sang in a gospel group, later did a stint playing behind Homesick James. Soon was making a name for himself playing clubs on Chicago’s West Side, he would be identified with the West Side for the entirety of his short career.
Another good ‘un.
In the mid-fifties Sam came to the attention of Willie Dixon who brought him to Chess Records who passed on the youngster. Dixon, then working as a producer and arranger at Chess was also eager to record Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, and when Chess and their main rival Vee Jay passed on all three singers, Dixon approached record store owner Eli Toscano about starting a label. In 1956 Cobra Records was born, and Dixon spent the next two years there, mostly cutting sides with the three aforementioned acts. Cobra, like Sam would come to be identified with what became known to blues fans as the West Side Sound. Cobra achieved it’s earliest success with Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby which was a minor R&B hit in ’56.
Magic Sam cut his first session for Cobra in June of ’57 . From that session came his first two singles All Your Love b/w Love Me With A Feeling and Everything Gonna Be Alright b/w Look Watcha Done, along with the tremolo laden instrumental Magic Rocker that would not be issued until the 1970’s. He was off to a good start. Although he would never have a chart record, All Your Love did well around Chicago, and he was building a solid following in the clubs. A second session for Cobra in 1958 produced two more singles– All Night Long b/w All My Whole Life and Easy Baby b/w 21 Days In Jail, his best outing yet.
21 Days In Jail, a wild rocker is probably his best known number these days. A third session, also in ’58, found Magic Sam backing up Shakey Jake (James Harris) on the single Roll Your Money Maker b/w Call Me (If You Need Me). It was issued on Cobra’s Artistic subsidiary, and re-issued soon after on Vivid. Unfortunately, Cobra Records didn’t last long, and by 1959 it was dead in the water, finally closing its doors in 1960. While Buddy Guy and Otis Rush were both picked up by Chess, Sam ended up cutting a few sides for the tiny Chief label in 1960. The Chief sides are a mixed bag, the best of which being Every Night About This Time and Blue Light Boogie.
Sam was soon drafted by the U.S. Army, a life he was not cut out for, not at all. After a few months he deserted, he was eventually arrested and thrown in the brig then given a dishonorable discharge. 21 Days In Jail had become a reality.
Discharged from the Army and back in Chicago, in the early sixties he seemed to be treading water, he cut a 45 for Scout, and recorded behind Eddie Shaw and Shakey Jake.
It was not until 1967 that Magic Sam got a break. He was signed by Bob Koester’s Delmark Records, and cut his first LP– West Side Soul, the record that introduced Sam to the growing legion of white blues fans. One need only look at the cover with its goofy psychedelic graphics to understand who Delmark was marketing to. A smart move, since Delmark had little money to work with and was supported by the Jazz Mart record store. West Side Soul is truly a classic, a perfect album from the opening That’s All I Need, some of its highlights include a rampaging version of Little Junior Parker’s Feelin’ Good and the thundering instsrumental Lookin’ Good. I think you can find the whole thing here. Sam’s guitar playing, always brilliant, had gotten even better in the ensuing years since his Cobra debut. As Willie Dixon pointed out, Sam was very much into the use of harmonic overtones. At a time when most blues guitarists were trying to play like B.B., Freddie or Albert King, Sam had a sound all his own.
Magic Sam lived hard and drank plenty. He cut a second LP for Delmark– Black Magic, a fine disc but not quite up to the standard of West Side Soul. Sam toured a bit, playing at the Filmore West, Winterland and other hippie venues in addition to the usual West Side blues clubs like Sylvios and Peppers, even touring Europe near the end of his life. In 1969 he appeared at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, showing up late without a guitar or drummer, he borrowed a Stratocaster and drummer Sam Lay and knocked ’em dead. You can take a listen here. The Ann Arbor gig, with over 100,000 in the audience should have been a turning point for Magic Sam. There were rumors that Stax was interested in signing him.
Imagine Magic Sam recorded with Booker T. & the M.G.’s behind him, and a real radio promo team pushing his records. Stardom would have been assured, but it was not to be. On December 1, 1969, Magic Sam dropped dead of a heart attack, he was only 32 years old.
Magic Sam is one of those guys who doesn’t easily fit into a category. His music never strayed far from the blues, but he made records that could be considered rock’n’roll, R&B or even soul.
Which just goes to show you how pointless these labels often are. Lots of collectors think of 21 Days In Jail as a rockabilly record. I bought one of his Chief singles off a list of discs titled “Belgian Popcorn” (when you think about it, isn’t it all Belgian popcorn?) Had Magic Sam lived he probably would have been a star. He was young, good looking and had all the talent in the world. If he were alive today, he’d still be younger than Ian Hunter (who is still singing All The Young Dudes). Damn shame, ain’t it?
Addendum: The complete Cobra and Chief Recordings of Magic Sam were last seen here.
The link is in the comment section, as is the password.