Some songs, when performed live, are like a salve for the soul. They make worries evaporate and time stand still, and they never fail to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.
One song that belongs on that list for me is “Mustang Sally” in the hands of Magic Slim and the Teardrops.
Magic Slim – born Morris Holt in 1937 near Grenada, Mississippi – was a towering man who never achieved the fame and fortune of other bluesmen from the Delta. But his talents seem to come together perfectly when he grooved into his rendition of “Mustang Sally”, a song originally written and recorded by Mack Rice in 1965 and popularized by many other artists, most notably Wilson Pickett in 1966.
The song had plenty of room for Slim to show off his voice and his guitar chops, as this video clip demonstrates. Now take the energy of that performance and cram it inside a classic Chicago blues club like the basement at Theresa’s or the small room of the Checkerboard Lounge, the club established by Buddy Guy in the early 1970’s.
Nestled between a garage and a storefront along 43rd Street on Chicago’s south side, the Checkerboard had a stage that barely held a four-piece band. Throw in a small bar, a jukebox, and an array of tables and chairs, and that was pretty much it. That pressure-cooker atmosphere took “Mustang Sally” and magnified the intensity of its contagious sing-along chorus, creating an indelible pleasant memory.
“Mustang Sally” was the centerpiece of the set that Magic Slim and the Teardrops performed countless times at the Checkerboard. In 1985 I also saw him perform at the new incarnation of Theresa’s, the one that owner Theresa Needham opened along 43rd Street after she lost her original space at 4801 South Indiana. I went with my father that night, and we shared a table in the back with Ralph Metcalfe, Jr., the son of the former Illinois congressman and Olympic medalist. The volume was a little too loud for my father, whose musical tastes are more at home in the 1930’s and 40’s. But even he recognized and appreciated the rendition of “Mustang Sally.”
Blues is like a river that has flowed all around the world from its roots in the Mississippi Delta, and an original branch of that river used to flow mightily along 43rd Street in Chicago. In the 1980’s, it was still possible to swim in that river and absorb some its energy. My friends and I used to do that almost weekly. We would pick up the latest issue of The Reader, find the listings for blues music, and see who was playing at The Checkerboard. The list usually included B.B. Odom, Buddy Guy’s brother Phil, Dion Payton and the 43rd Street Blues Band, and, of course, Magic Slim and the Teardrops. My guess is that we opted for Magic Slim most often.
That blues river along 43rd Street has almost dried up. The Checkerboard is long gone. Its location is the vacant lot in the photo above. But the memories live on. Whenever I hear “Mustang Sally” on the radio, it is almost always the Wilson Pickett version, but my mind still longs for the roaring magical waters of 43rd Street and the energy that Magic Slim and his band evoked.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and the author of the book Blues Flashbacks: The Legends In Their Own Words. That book includes several stories about nights at the Checkerboard. Also check out the “Blues Flashbacks” playlist on Spotify!