Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
A Night For Magic – A Tribute To Magic Slim
March 28, 2013
Mayne Stage Theater, Chicago
By Bill Dahl
Photos: Dianne Dunklau
It was a magical night at Chicago’s Mayne Stage.
One of the most prodigious lineups of local blues stars in recent memory gathered March 28 to pay tribute to their departed friend Magic Slim by doing precisely what they do best: playing tough, no-nonsense blues in front of a packed, highly appreciative house. There were so many luminaries in the venue that each set ran no more than two or three songs, allowing everyone a chance to contribute.
A road warrior to the very end, Morris “Magic Slim” Holt died February 21, 2013 in Philadelphia in the midst of a tour. He and his Teardrops were no longer based in Chicago (having relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska nearly two decades earlier), but the treetop-tall Slim made his reputation as leader of one of the Windy City’s most powerful blues bands. Two guitars, bass (Slim’s late brother, Nick Holt, held down that slot for decades), and drums were all Slim ever needed to crank out the meanest electrified blues in town. Slim’s repertoire was unfathomably huge; it was rare indeed to request a blues song he didn’t know.
“A Night For Magic” commenced in true torch-passing fashion with Slim’s guitar-wielding son, Shawn “Lil’ Slim” Holt, leading a second-generation lineup of Teardrops that proved conclusively he has what it takes to maintain the family legacy. Clearly, Shawn picked up plenty from his treetop-tall father; the roiling shuffle “It’s Alright” and an easy-surging treatment of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” were loaded with biting guitar from the Les Paul-wielding Holt, also an effective vocalist over drummer B.J. Jones’ pounding backbeat.
Emcee duties over the course of the evening were split between WGN-TV newsman Steve Sanders, an avowed blues fan, and WXRT-FM deejay Tom Marker. The duo introduced another hard-driving devotee of Slim’s sound, guitarist Nick Moss, who tore up Jimmy Reed’s “Down In Virginia” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Think” utilizing a mean tone that came strikingly close to the Magic Man’s trademark sound. Two of Moss’ own bandsmen, Michael Ledbetter (who provided second guitar and harmony vocals) and bassist Matthew Wilson, were joined by drummer and blues deejay Steve Cushing, who played and recorded with Slim during the ‘70s.
Next up was guitarist Linsey Alexander, who raised the volume level noticeably during his three-song slot (three guitarists on one stage, their posse also including out-of-towner Zac Harmon, will definitely have that effect). Alexander was particularly effective vocally on a revival of Little Junior Parker’s smooth “Stranded,” pianist Marty Sammon making his presence felt as he would for much of the evening.
Nattily attired in a dazzling pale blue suit and matching hat, affable southpaw axeman Eddy Clearwater brought his red Gibson to the party and tore up his own romping “Find You A Job” and a grinding “A Good Leavin’ Alone” with Dave Specter providing crisp second guitar on a Fender Jazzmaster—Slim’s own lethal weapon of choice for many a year. They were then joined by feisty chanteuse Grana’ Louise for a lowdown reprise of the Willie Dixon-penned “Little Red Rooster,” Specter digging deep on his slashing two-chorus solo. After the set ended, Marty Salzman, Slim’s manager for 21 years and one of the organizers of the star-studded event along with Dave Katzman and Michael Blakemore, introduced Slim’s wife of more than half a century, Ann Holt, seated at a prime booth at the back of the attractive, spacious room (complete with a balcony).
No one knows Slim’s singular style better than guitarist John Primer. He stood beside him as a Teardrop for more than a decade, the two developing an uncanny musical ESP that saw their guitars interlock in a thick, driving blend that defined superior electric blues ensemble playing. With Shawn Holt now standing beside him to provide a similarly slashing guitar foil, Primer torched Bo Diddley’s snarling “Before You Accuse Me” and Lefty Dizz’s ominous downbeat anthem “Bad Avenue” (“One of Magic Slim’s favorite songs—he would always do this song,” noted Primer in his introduction), providing the evening’s best pure evocation of Slim’s blistering guitar attack and earning one of the crowd’s most enthusiastic responses.
Primer stuck around to immaculately play behind ageless harpist Billy Boy Arnold, who harked back long before Slim’s generation to rip through Little Walter’s houserocker “You’re So Fine” and his own mentor John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s “Sugar Mama Blues,” inserting delicious unamplified harmonica solos. Surprisingly, he finished his segment with Chuck Berry’s “Back In The U.S.A.,” which offered plenty of room for Holt and Sammon to stretch out.
Speaking of second generation bluesmen, guitar-toting brothers Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks carried on their dad Lonnie’s noble tradition during their tandem set; Ronnie delivering a hard-hitting medley of Little Walter’s “Everything Gonna Be Alright” and Junior Wells’ “Little By Little” before Wayne grabbed hold of Muddy Waters’ immortal “Long Distance Call.” Naturally, the two displayed more than a little of their own ESP on their respective axes, somehow soloing simultaneously without stepping on one another’s toes. Wayne sang a rocking “It Don’t Work Like That,” each Brooks brother peeling off a solo that complimented the other.
Salzman came back out to read some glowing quotes about Slim that he’d culled from the reams of press clippings the guitarist generated over the decades. But not for long; too many more musicians waited in the wings. Though renowned more as one of the Windy City’s greatest living soul men, Otis Clay can sing the blues—and proceeded to do so on a melismatic medley of Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” and Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” with Ronnie Baker Brooks back on guitar. “We’re gonna miss him,” said Clay of his departed friend, noting that no matter what mood his fans was in when they saw him perform, “Slim would make you smile.”
Otis had the crowd grinning with an improvised rendition of Al Green’s soul gem “Love And Happiness,” not an easy piece to pull off without rehearsal (yet the band did anyway). Midway through, Big Time Sarah ambled out onstage, followed by Grana’ Louise, to engage in some musical banter with Clay. Gospel-trained Otis must have felt a little uncomfortable with the direction the give-and-take was going, pointing out a fresh-faced lad upfront in the audience to rein in Sarah’s R-rated repartee before it went too much further.
Not only did tenor sax blaster Eddie Shaw have a two-piece horn section in tow when he hit the proscenium, he was blessed with a three-guitar section as well comprised of his fleet-fingered son Vaan, Harmon, and Daniel Ivankovich of the Chicago Blues All Stars. He counted off a scorching “Rock This House” that opened with several choruses of his wildest honks and wails before he hit the mic vocally; most of his sidemen then made their own high-energy statements. An excursion through Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” was no less torrid. “Wherever you are, man, you know I love you,” said Eddie to his departed pal before exiting.
The evening’s oddest moment came when a gray-haired gent, Nalle from Denmark (who was said to have journeyed from overseas to attend the festivities), came out and did a respectable job of singing Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” in front of Holt, guitarist Mike Wheeler, bassist Andre Howard, and drummer Willie Hayes. As Jimmy Johnson awaited his cue to come on, the guy unexpectedly decided to do another one and segued into Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” complete with singalong crowd interaction.
That out of the way, Jimmy strolled out and lit into Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” as always belying his 84 years on earth with mile-wide string-bending and soaring vocals. Specter was back on the other axe (the two have long played gigs together), sharing the solo space and finding some room for Sammon’s rippling 88s too. Johnson has always been at his best on slow, tortured blues; “When My First Wife Quit Me” has long been one of his favorites, rendered especially poignantly this night (Jimmy went back longer than most with Slim; he noted that they shared the bandstand at the Seeley Club during Johnson’s second gig ever in Chicago).
Running short of time, the show’s organizers sent guitarist Jimmy Burns out in the middle of Johnson’s performance, forcing guitarist Mike Wheeler, who had just contributed a dazzling solo, to unplug so Burns had somewhere to attach his axe. Burns sang Elmore’s “The Sky Is Crying”—an apt anthem for the evening—and then “Stand By Me,” his soulful tones doing the Ben E. King standard full justice. After its conclusion, Specter testified to Slim’s heavy influence on his musical and personal development, noting Slim bought the then-young guitarist his first shot of Wild Turkey, a libation Slim was known to indulge in from time to time!
The parade of Chicago blues luminaries continued with the introduction of harp master Billy Branch, reunited with his longtime Sons of Blues guitarist Carl Weathersby. They were joined by bassist Melvin Smith (rock-solid all night on several sets), Hayes, and the omnipresent Sammon. They launched into Sonny Boy Williamson’s rollicking “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” and the party kept rolling. The show ran an amazing six hours with no more than a five-minute break in the music at any time (alas, that didn’t leave much time to venture into the adjoining Act One Pub, where Moss and his perennially tight band were holding forth).
The finale began with mercurial guitarist Lurrie Bell (another second-generation bluesman whose late father Carey remains a Chicago harmonica legend) and harpist Matthew Skoller utilizing much the same rhythm section that Branch had. Lurrie unleashed his gravelly pipes and stinging licks on a reprise of Muddy’s “Honey Bee,” Skoller riffing prominently in response. Before the show came to a conclusion, the cast shifted a bit. Vocalist Zora Young and guitarist Billy Flynn joined in the fun, engaging in the second “Dust My Broom” of the evening and then a rendition of Little Walter’s deliberate “Just A Feeling” tailor-made for Skoller and Flynn to cut loose on. Zora’s funky “Til The Fat Lady Sings” provided a witty closing salvo.
It’s hard to imagine a more heartfelt, expansive tribute to one of Chicago’s most beloved blues giants.
Bill Dahl has been writing about blues, postwar R&B, and soul music for 35 years. He specializes in producing, compiling, and annotating CD reissue collections and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines (his Reissue Roundup column appears in Blues Revue). His website, www.billdahl.com, contains features and reviews covering a wide range of vintage music genres.