Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story
Peter Carlson, producer & director
Sagebrush Productions, Inc., 2013
The new documentary Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story provides as thorough an overview of the life and achievements of Morris Holt as you are likely to find. Among those interviewed are Magic Slim himself; his sister, Lucinda; his manager, Marty Salzman, and his road manager, Michael Blakemore; and fellow musicians like Lonnie Brooks, Dr. John, and Koko Taylor.
The film covers Slim’s entire career, beginning with his early years in Torrance and Grenada, Mississippi, including his introduction to music in church; the cotton mill accident that put an end to his piano-playing; and his first attempts at learning to play a home-made one-string diddley bow guitar. Slim’s friendship with Magic Sam and his abortive first move to Chicago in the 1950s are discussed, along with his subsequent return to Mississippi, where he assembled a band by teaching his brothers Nick and Lee Baby to play. His friend and bandmate Sam Wooden recounts stories of gigging around Greenville, Itta Bena, and Tchula with Magic Slim’s Night Rockers.
Slim tells of his return in the 1960s to Chicago, where he worked day jobs while developing a sound of his own; recounts how he inherited both the Teardrops (from Robert “Mr Pitiful” Perkins) and a regular gig at Florence’s on the South Side of Chicago (from Hound Dog Taylor); and talks about the dangers of the violent club scene. He and Salzman discuss how Slim’s popularity grew internationally, including his key role in introducing the blues to South America, and his numerous honors, including multiple Blues Music Awards. It is instructive to hear Slim break down the blues he plays into two basic styles–uptempo blues (“You can swing dance to it”), and slow blues (“The barrelhouse blues”)–and to demonstrate them on his unamplified Fender Jazzmaster guitar.
None of this information will be newsworthy to anyone who has followed Slim’s career, and certainly not to anyone who has read the in-depth profiles of Magic Slim in Blues Revue or Living Blues. But it is most enjoyable to watch him tell the stories in his own words during two sessions that appear to have been conducted perhaps six and twelve years ago. His immense warmth and humor are very much apparent, as he is obviously at ease with his interviewer. This is an up-close look at the real Magic Slim that not every club-goer would have had the chance to see. (Be sure to watch to the end, when Slim really lets down his guard.)
I would have liked to hear Slim talk about his close relationship with the Teardrops’ first guitarist, Daddy Rabbit. It also seems odd that Slim’s lengthy association with the Zoo Bar, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived for many years, goes unmentioned. Interviews with some other individuals close to the man, such as Jim O’Neal or Dick Shurman, both respected blues historians who produced records on Slim; Edward Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice of Blind Pig Records; Steve Cushing, host of Blues Before Sunrise and the Teardrops’ drummer in the 1970s; or Slim’s longtime bandleaders, John Primer and Jon McDonald, would perhaps have provided additional insight. Musician and club owner Bob Corritore and label head Hannes Folterbauer have also written eloquently on the record about the importance and beauty of Slim’s art, but are not heard from here. Carlson’s use of archival photographs is good, but it is a truism that in the internet age, rare or unseen images are hard to come by. The four or five live numbers included provide a respectable sampling of Magic Slim’s work, from a show in Brazil circa 1990 where he plays the introduction to a Jimmy Reed song on harmonica (!), through a raw (slightly out-of tune), rare solo performance of Muddy Waters’s “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival, to a couple of songs from the Teardrops’ triumphant performance at the Blues Music Awards later in the decade. While these songs are presented in their entirety, this is a documentary, and so inevitably during the performances, the visual cuts away to a talking head and the sound is brought down to background level. It would have been nice to have the unedited footage included as bonus material (there is none).
Of course, those are wishes, not complaints, and I am grateful to have the relatively comprehensive portrait Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story gives us. As the film winds down, Slim says he would like to be remembered as a man who went to work every day of his life playing the blues–“a bluesman.” Superimposed on the screen are various quotations included in his press materials, including the often-recycled line from my own review of Scufflin’ in Blues Revue: “Whoever the house band in Blues Heaven may be, even money says they’re wearing out Magic Slim records, trying to get that Teardrops sound down cold.” Of course, since February of this year, Slim has been there to rehearse them himself. Just Magic is a worthwhile and welcome tribute to the man, one that his many fans will want to own.
I purchased this DVD from Sagebrush Productions.