CHICAGO — When Magic Slim thundered at the microphone — his voice rough and ragged, his guitar riffs tough and punchy — listeners heard classic Chicago blues as it was conceived in the 1950s.
Not nostalgic or dated, but simply unconcerned with latter-day musical fashion or commercial considerations.
That approach, which Slim clung to throughout his career, made him a symbol of Chicago blues around the world and an upholder of its noblest traditions.
Slim — who was born Morris Holt in Torrence, Miss., on Aug. 7, 1937 — died Thursday in a hospital in Philadelphia at age 75, after undergoing surgery for a bleeding ulcer, according to his son, Shawn Holt.
“He never sacrificed what his music was about," said Jerry Del Giudice, co-owner of Blind Pig Records, which began recording Slim in 1990 and continued to do so through his final release, last year’s “Bad Boy."
Slim’s music, added Del Giudice, “was Mississippi mud. ... He electrified Mississippi blues. And he stuck with it. He was no rock ’n’ roller."
Said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, “Magic Slim was a true Chicago blues man through and through. He gloried in the rough edges of the music. He never tired to make it slick."
Like generations of Southern bluesmen who migrated to Chicago in the mid-20th century, Slim lived the hard life he sang about. As a child working the cotton fields of the rural South, he couldn’t afford a guitar, so he made one by taking baling wire from a broom, nailing it to a wall and coaxing a primordial music from it. He tried the piano, but when he lost the pinkie finger on his right hand in a cotton-gin accident, he focused on guitar, playing gigs when he wasn’t working in the fields.
In Grenada, Miss., where he moved at age 11, he met another future star of Chicago blues: Magic Sam.
“We went to school together," Slim told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “We played acoustics, on a Sunday up under a shade tree, after we’d go to church and come back."
By 1955, Slim figured he was ready to make his move and came up to Chicago. Magic Sam anointed him Magic Slim, a reference to his towering height of more than six feet, but Slim quickly realized he couldn’t compete.
“They wouldn’t let me sit in," Slim said in the Tribune interview. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t play nothin’."
Slim agreed and went back to Mississippi and hunkered down.
“I went back home, and I stayed down there five years," he told the Tribune. “Then I came back: ‘All right, I’m ready for y’all now!’"
Indeed he was, recording his first single, “Scufflin’," in 1966; forming the soon-to-be-celebrated Magic Slim and the Teardrops (with his younger brothers) in 1967; and taking up residence at Florence’s, a South Side club, in 1972. His rough-and-ready style suited the rambunctious atmosphere of the place and helped make Slim a Chicago institution.
So did his recordings. He cut his first album, “Born Under a Bad Sign" (1977), for a French label and in the next decade recorded regularly for Alligator, Rooster Blues and Wolf Records.