The blues world lost one of its elder statesmen yesterday when Morris Holt--aka "Magic Slim"--passed away at the age of 75 at a hospital in Philadelphia. He had been under medical care since late last month, when breathing problems caused him to suspend a tour with his longtime band the Teardrops.
Born the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Holt first got hooked on the blues after hearing John Lee Hooker's “Boogie Chillen” on the radio. His first love was the piano, but after he lost the little finger of his right hand in a cotton-gin accident he took up guitar.
I interviewed Holt once, back in 2009, and asked him whether he'd ever trade his current fretboard skills for a life spent with all 10 fingers, but he sloughed off the importance of pinkies. “It don't bother me none,” he said of the missing digit.
When Holt was 11 years old he became close friends with schoolmate Samuel Maghett, who would become famous as blues legend Magic Sam and eventually bestow a similar moniker on Holt, due to his lanky physique.
A fierce guitarist best known for the much-covered '57 classic “All Your Love”, Maghett would also play the role of Holt's musical mentor. “I learnt a lotta licks from him,” Holt explained to me.
Holt followed Maghett's lead and moved to the electric-blues hotbed of Chicago, where, in 1967, he formed his own group, Magic Slim & the Teardrops, and became a fixture in the juke joints of the city's South Side.
In '77 he recorded his first album, Born Under a Bad Sign, which was also the title track of a 1967 album by Albert King. “That's what my record company wanted to name it,” recalled Holt. “I went, ”˜Okay, that's a pretty name.' ”
I remember that, when I contacted Holt at his Chicago motel, it was after 10 pm, and he chided me for the late call. "Well, I was damn well asleep there!," he said.
I also recall that our conversation took place mere hours after word of Michael Jackson's death had started to spread. The passing of the troubled King of Pop wasn't exactly tearing him apart, though.
"Michael was all right," he told me, "but you know he didn't play no blues."