The tall lumbering frame. The slight stutter in his sweet, graveled voice. The playfully mischievous smile. The guttural screams and sweet melody of his guitar work. No one can match Magic Slim’s character and unique voice in the history of the Blues. Slim, aka Morris Holt, passed away last Thursday in a Philadelphia hospital. He had fallen ill in Harrisburg, Penn., after what would be his last performance. The sold out crowd left Slim with a raucous standing ovation.
Far away from the adoration and applause, Slim’s beginnings were much more modest. Born in Torrance, Mississippi in 1937, Slim was raised with his three brothers and sister in a sharecropping family on the J.B. Keaton plantation. At age 8, he began working the cotton fields. As they grew older, the siblings were expected to work longer and harder. Slim said it wasn’t so bad; “We didn’t go hungry.”
At this same early age, Slim’s interest in music began to blossom, singing in the church choir and playing piano. However, after losing his pinky finger in a cotton gin accident, Slim became interested in guitar. His sister, Lucinda, said he would tear up all the brooms to make guitars by nailing bailing wire to the porch, strung to a broom handle. After telling a woman at church this was his talent, she bought him his first 4-string guitar.
In his late teens, a tall and husky Slim labored for 3 years on a Federal Corp of Engineers project that would build a dam that eventually flooded his home town of Torrance. The dam stands 256 feet tall, and Slim worked every machine but one in helping build it. Playing music on the weekends, Slim decided in 1955 to move to Chicago to pursue his dream of being a professional musician.
Initially, the Chicago scene was too competitive for the up-and-comer. But, childhood friend mentor and namesake, “Magic Sam” Maghett, imparted a piece of wisdom that ultimately led to Slim’s great success as a Bluesman: “You have to find your own sound.” He returned to the thick pine-covered hills of Grenada, Mississippi, woodshedding for several years to find his sound. Just like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Slim’s unique voice is immediately recognizable upon a short listen. His approach to melody is sweet and simple, but played with a brute force that at its climax would stir a crowd into frenzy. Known for his vicious vibrato, his lump shuffles and slow blues are some of the most searing recordings ever released.
Upon returning to Chicago, Slim maintained his hard-working, no-nonsense approach to life. He worked construction for seven years as a jack-hammerer and gigged at night. Joined by brothers Nick and Lee Baby Holt as The Teardrops, Slim slowly worked his way up the Chicago Blues echelon. No matter the night of the week, you could find him gigging all over town, slowly becoming one of the best-loved and busiest bands in town.
Around this same time in his early 30s, Slim married long-time friend Ann Jackson. He took in her six children from a previous marriage and raised them as his own. Slim’s one and only child with Ann, Shawn, aka Lil’ Slim, said the family never wanted for anything and his mother Ann never had to work a job since their marriage. This loyalty, dedication, love and work ethic is the depth of Slim’s sound. There are artists that can play, and there are artists that live their music. Slim is the latter.
According to his long-time label, Blind Pig records, Slim first gained attention outside of Chicago in 1989 when he toured Brazil with Buddy Guy, Etta James, Jr. Wells and Albert Collins. Slim was the only artist booked for return performances. In the following years he would play for crowds all over the US, Europe, Asia and South America. He has met with the Prime Minister of Japan and been on huge billboards in Asia and Europe. He has won seven Blues Music Awards, including 2003’s “Blues Band of the Year.” In 2011, Slim was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Grenada. Standing at the podium surrounded by friends, fans and officials, he said: “I am a happy man. I’m 73 years old and I’m a happy man!”
In a career that spanned over 50 years, Magic Slim has played all over the world. The Nebraska connection started in 1975 when ZOO Bar founder Larry Boehmer booked Slim and The Teardrops for their first-ever show outside Chicago’s Southside Black clubs. They would return to play weeklong stints that were standing-room only every night. Their budding friendship became a catalyst for Lincoln’s Blues scene. Slim’s fondness for Boehmer, the ZOO Bar and Lincoln, coupled with worries over his family’s nearness to Chicago’s gang violence, eventually brought the Holt family to call Lincoln home in the early 90s.
When not on tour, Slim and his brother Nick humbly shared their love of Blues with countless players in town. As well as influencing Lincoln musicians throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Slim also mentored a new generation of players including his son, Lil’ Slim, godson, Jeff Boehmer, Ryan Larsen, Jake Weise, Kris Lager, Levi William, Emily Bass and Josh Bargar. It is these players that will push Nebraska Blues well into the future. Often participating in jam sessions at Duggan’s Pub, The Roadhouse, J.R.’s Down Under and of course, the ZOO, he educated young players as to how Blues should be played — from the heart. As the ZOO Bar’s unofficial ambassador, he regularly sat in with hundreds of national touring Blues acts, further establishing Lincoln’s legitimacy as Blues town. In 2010, he participated in a Lincoln musicians photo shoot, proudly surrounded by punkers, folkers and rockers alike.
Anyone that had met Slim knows just how full of life he was. Whether it was obliging a fan with a song request or a picture, when you came to a Magic Slim show, you left knowing you had made a new friend. Magic Slim was a genuine Blues man. Due to all his hard work, Slim accomplished what he set out to do, and died doing the thing that he loved. He will be remembered as one of the greats. As he would tell it, “And you know that, man.”