In his brief lifetime, Magic Sam (Samuel Maghett) established himself as a top blues performer (1937-1969). Born in Grenada County, Mississippi, he learned to play the blues by listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter’s albums. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, young musicians like Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Freddie King breathed new life into the Chicago blues genre.
Like most of his blues contemporaries, Magic Sam grew up in a place where traditional African American music, such as hoedowns and square dances, was more popular than the blues. Famous black fiddler Roy Moses in Grenada County was not only the go-to guy for dance calls but also a major influence on the next generation of artists in the area. In 1950, when he settled in Chicago, Samuel Maghett brought these musical inspirations with him. Syl Johnson, a future famous soul singer and blues guitarist, reported that Sam was playing in “a hillbilly style” when he first met him and that Johnson promptly began teaching Sam the blues and boogies. Sam created a blues style that rocked the house like no other, likely influenced by the dance tempos of the reels and breakdowns he heard in Grenada.
Magic Sam’s blues recordings from 1957–1958 for the Cobra label in Chicago, including “All Your Love” and “Easy Baby,” were produced by Willie Dixon and included the drumming of another native of Grenada, Billy Stepney. Another early influence that may be heard in Sam’s singing is that of the church. Returning to Grenada frequently to perform during the ’50s, he is said to have had a role in spreading the blues there. Sam and his duo were able to compete on a show in Memphis hosted by WDIA radio because they won a local talent contest at the Union Theater. He tried out several aliases before settling on “Magic” Sam, chosen because it sounded like his last name in reverse.
Sam was one of the first to lead a blues revival on Chicago’s West Side. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums on Delmark Records and giving renowned festival performances in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Europe, he was on the cusp of a breakthrough when he collapsed and died of a heart attack on December 1, 1969. Blues, R&B, and rock performers of subsequent generations have acknowledged his music as an important influence.
Sam’s fame was rapidly expanding. It was stated that once his contract with Delmark was up, Stax was ready to sign him because of his performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969, which drew a capacity crowd. Sam’s health, however, was rapidly deteriorating due to cardiac problems. He complained of heartburn, fainted, and died on December 1, 1969.
Magic Sam is still supreme over Westside blues even after more than 50 years since his untimely death. As long as interest in the genre is strong, that is unlikely to change.