Sunday, March 13, 2011
Works of Magic
On many lists as one of the Top 10 greatest Chicago Blues--even General Blues--albums of all time is the Delmark LP (and CD ever after) titled West Side Soul, presenting guitarist Magic Sam Maghett--recorded in late 1967, released early in '68, and pretty much available in some form ever since. West Side was a perfect time capsule of that era of soul-influenced electric Blues, as well as the relocation/expansion west of Chicago's South Side Blues clubs, and it was an immediate success, acclaimed by critics and Blues fans as a modern classic. Magic Sam followed it up a year later with an excellent encore titled Black Magic, but then died unexpectedly--a brilliant young Bluesman with a tragically weak heart--before a third album could be completed.
Delmark has issued some concert tapes and collections of session outtakes over the years since, eager to "Magicmize" record company profits, but none of the posthumous CDs is really essential. To be specific, the live albums suffer from poor sound, no matter how sharp and energetic Sam's performances. So, while the 2002 release Rockin' Wild in Chicago has a very apt title, Sam really working his magic on the cheering crowds, too much of both volume and nuance has been lost. The Magic Sam Legacy, on the other hand, is all studio outtakes and alternates, and Sam and his band play with fire and feeling, but any serious fan knows a few other versions of nearly all of these songs already. I admit to still wanting to hear the Delmark CD titled Give Me Time, which consists of informal at-home tapes, just Sam and his guitar, noodling around, trying out other performers' songs, working up a few new ones of his own. But fans and critics alike complain that the small tapedeck Sam used was not really up to the challenge.
And that brings us back to West Side Soul, the original LP having an absolute killer first side and a damn fine second, just eleven numbers total but nary a one you'd want to omit, from the high-test opener, a career-defining Maghett original called "That's All I Need," to the closer, Sam's houserocking (homewrecking) version of J.B. Lenoir's slip-shufflin' hit, "Mama Talk to Your Daughter." (The later-issues addition of a twelfth track, an alternate take of "Don't Want No Woman," proved largely superfluous.) It's likely that all the digital mastering and remastering, changing formats and reissues streaming forth over three-plus decades caused deterioration to the original album master, though Delmark doesn't mention it specifically. The company does proudly boast that this 2011 issue has gone back to recording session engineer Stu Black's original tapes and mixes to create a new analog master. Well, it was definitely worth it, the music not just catchy but compulsory now--crisp, clean, loud, and proud of it.
On the plus side too is the new and improved, tri-fold "digipak" presentation. Brief new-info liner notes along with the first LP's biographical ones; a half-dozen added photos of Sam and related club-appearance ephemera; and a tasteful color version of the original cover photo, which was printed early on in a sickly green-and-white, to match the other psychedelic colors of some art director's concept. Now, rather than a fledgling record company's garish attention-grabber jacket, the West Side Soul package sports a somewhat more studied and steady look--one befitting a Blues genre release that history has deemed a classic.
But greatness is in the grooves. Ably aided by a quartet of Blues pros (the personnel fluctuating a bit), including guitarist Mighty Joe Young and the Odie Paynes (father/son drummers), Sam updates the Chess/Checker Chicago standard, chuckling quietly as he speeds and aerates-some the heavy, Delta-drenched sound favored by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Though the young guitarist had come up the river from Mississippi too, his heart was lighter and his fingers faster, so the tempos set and solos sent forth tend to be upbeat, whether the tunes be as soul-specked as "Feelin' Good" and "Don't Want No Woman" (both lifted from Duke Records and reworked, Sam grinnin' in your face), or as sturdy and locally subsidized as "My Love Will Never Die" and "Sweet Home Chicago."
The back of the Rockin' Wild CD offers a sound assessment of Sam's technique (written by the album's liner notes writer Dick Shurman): "His finger-plucked fleet-fingered long lines, screaming bends and squeezed chords, hand vibrato, driving rhythms, dynamics, and trademark tremolo added up to an explosive package.... The quavering melisma in his voice and its counterpart guitar tremolo combined to give his music an ethereal undulating quality. Nobody rocked the blues any wilder..."
At the time of his Delmark debut, after years of apprenticing in the clubs and on indie-label 45s for Cobra and Chief, Magic Sam in late 1967 was poised like the nation, though we didn't know it yet, on the brink of major change--Stax Records was at its peak; the Black Power and Vietnam anti-war movements were seething and setting the pace, the lives of Civil Rights workers and Dr. King himself continued to be threatened across the South... Murders and riots, drugs and disenchantment, lay ahead. On that momentary cusp Sam Maghett seemed to embody the momentous excitement and optimism, the growth and strength of Soul and Rock music, the reworking of older Blues into something newer, still Black, still deep and true. West Side Soul hit the music scene like Bob Dylan's second album a few years earlier, and then Sam's own second LP secured the field. Maybe all things were still possible...
The forces of repression made sure they weren't. King and Kennedy were cut down. Nixon and new greed carried the day. Turning-on and dropping-out took over. And Sam died suddenly in 1969.
But for a time there was Magic.