Chicago’s south side is one of the key locations for electric blues in the second half of the twentieth century and so it proves on this stunning album from Magic Sam, his second and last for the Chicago-based Delmark label. If ‘West Side Blues’ will remain his undoubted creative high point (the only blues album of that year to receive a five star rating in the prestigious Downbeat magazine), then ‘Black Magic’ is only marginally less essential and by any other objective analysis is a masterwork in its own right. The previously re-issued album in 2008 is now augmented by several alternative takes, plus two unreleased songs that did not make it onto the original album release back in 1968. Magic Sam possessed one of the most distinctively soulful voices imaginable and his sudden and untimely death aged just thirty-two in December 1969 was doubly tragic. Not only was the blues-loving public deprived of a true master of his craft, but a wider audience never actually got to hear him in a different setting. Days before his passing, Magic Sam has signed a contract to work for up and coming soul-blues label Stax in Memphis and one can only wonder with the tight instrumental backing that the studio house musicians would surely have provided, what Sam might have sounded like in that altogether funkier environment. Certainly, Albert King never sounded better than when recording on Stax.
That said, some of the Stax flavour is conjured in parts on this album and Sam could easily have graced a late 1960s classic gritty Atlantic or Stax soul album. The funkier backbeat is in evidence on the opening number, ‘You belong to me’, which is notable for some soulful horns and JB style guitar riffs. A personal favourite is the R & B influenced ‘Easy baby’, originally a Willie Dixon composition and Magic Sam was a supremely gifted interpreter of other writers songs. What makes this song so appealing aside from Sam’s voice is the totally relaxed groove generated on blues-inflected piano and the warm tone of the tenor saxophone. This is what Chicago blues is all about: funky and yet laid back simultaneously. A top studio line-up included Lafayette Leake on piano and the superb R & B tenorist Eddie Shaw. Call and response horns are in charge on Lowell Fulsom’s, ‘It’s all your own fault’, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of a relationship in crisis. Something of a B.B. King feel permeates the opening to ‘Same old blues’ with fine accompaniment on guitar and piano. One of the elements which singled out Chicago blues musicians from the rest was the amount of time they had to hone their craft in nearby clubs and the sixteen page booklet sheds informative light on the profusion of clubs that existed at the time such as 1815 club and Eddie Shaw’s place, both on the south side of the city. Like many African-Americans who made Chicago their home, Magic Sam was part of a large-scale exodus from the southern states and in Sam’s case, more specifically from Mississippi. Magic Sam had a genius for hearing a good tune and then interpreting in his own fashion and that is illustrated on Roscoe Gordon’s, ‘What have I done wrong?’
It is something of a cliché to state that ‘they don’t make them like this any more’, but with hindsight one can argue with some conviction that this album is representative of a golden era of the blues and never likely to be repeated.
All the more reason to investigate the music of Magic Sam. Original line notes are reproduced in full with new notes from producer and label owner Bob Koester.