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April 2001

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Magic Sam
The Essential Magic Sam - The Cobra and Chief Recordings 1957-1961
Varese Sarabande Records

Magic SamMagic Sam Maghett's untimely passing, in 1969 at the age of 32, left a huge void in the brand of Chicago blues known as West Side blues. For many people, Sam epitomizes the West Side sound, which was a combination of the rural electric blues that Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimmy Reed were playing, and the slick, urban blues being played by B. B. King. There were many artists playing the West Side sound during the late 50s and early 60s, notable among them were Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Mighty Joe Young, Freddy King, and Syl Johnson. But Magic Sam's sound stood out. His mixture of vibrato-soaked guitar and, just as vital, his pleading, soulful vocals, captured the sound perfectly. 

Varese Sarabande Records has reissued Sam's early efforts from the late 50s and early 60s (as they recently did with Otis Rush and Junior Wells) in The Essential Magic Sam - The Cobra and Chief Recordings 1957-1961. Sam's first release, the hypnotic "All Your Love," became an instant standard. Its unusual melody would become familiar to blues fans due to Sam's regular recycling of it over his career. Familiar though it was, it seemed to work most of the time (particularly on "Easy Baby"). 

Sam wasn't just limited to that melody though. Some other standout tracks include "Love Me With A Feeling," "Look Whatcha Done," the wild rockabilly "21 Days In Jail," and "Every Night About This Time." Also worth noting is a two-part instrumental with Sam and Earl Hooker called "Square Dance Rock," which has a kind of West Side hoedown feel to it, and "Do The Camel Walk," which uses the same melody as Freddy King's "Hideaway." According to the informative liner notes by noted blues scholar Bill Dahl, Sam was playing this theme on the West Side before Freddy was, although Freddy recorded it earlier. Dahl also states that Hound Dog Taylor is the actual creator of the Hideaway melody, with Sam and others latching onto it, adding their own touches. 

Although this is an excellent reissue, the title is somewhat misleading. It really shouldn't be considered the essential Magic Sam release. After all, in the late 60s, Sam released West Side Soul and Black Magic, which are considered two of the best blues albums ever committed to wax, and the apex of the West Side blues sound. 

Unfortunately, Sam's popularity was just reaching his peak, after a phenomenal appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, when he succumbed to a heart attack, leaving blues fans to wonder "what if?" There's no telling what modern blues would sound like if Sam had lived.

--- Graham Clarke

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