Chicago Fun-Times: a benefit for bluesman Nick Holt | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chicago Fun-Times: a benefit for bluesman Nick Holt 

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The driving, intense sound of Magic Slim & the Teardrops is in its ascendancy as one of the most exciting on the contemporary blues scene. Integral to this sound is the musical tension between Slim's fierce, upper-register leads and the booming strength of Nick Holt's bass patterns. Nick is Slim's brother, but aside from his height--both men tower at about six foot eight--he's as different from the flamboyant lead guitarist as a brother can be. Slim stalks the stage like a prizefighter, guitar slung over one shoulder with a nonchalant arrogance, and pours over 300 pounds of intensity into wrenchingly endless, screaming solos from his long-suffering guitar strings. While this is going on, Nick stands silently toward the back of the stage, looking solemn and vaguely distracted as he walks his fingers across his fretboard with deceptive ease. During the break, while the gargantuan figure of Slim takes command at the bar or on the street outside the club, leading the between-sets party with raucous laughter and ribald humor, Nick sits quietly at a table with friends. He says very little, but occasionally breaks into a shy smile as he accepts a compliment for his playing. His taciturn, self-effacing personality belies the strength with which he plays, and it's a reason why he remains one of Chicago's best-kept musical secrets.

Born in rural Mississippi in 1940, Nick moved to Chicago in the mid-50s as Slim was first attempting to break into the highly competitive blues scene here. It took a while; Slim had to return to Mississippi to hone his style before finally coming back around 1960 with fresh confidence and a vastly improved technique. At that time, Slim played bass, but in 1960 he taught Nick the instrument and went on to take over the lead guitar chores in various south-side aggregations, using his brother consistently on the club dates that were now coming with increasing frequency.

In the mid-70s, Magic Slim & the Teardrops took over Hound Dog Taylor's Sunday afternoon sessions at Florence's Lounge, 55th and Shields. These matinees soon became famous throughout Chicago--later, throughout the world; Florence's was an exacting venue for a band that was nailing down its own rowdy, exhilarating brand of Chicago blues. Here Nick blossomed into his full musical maturity, learning to apply his unerring rhythmic sensibilities to Slim's traditional blues shuffles and the blues-funk fusion of guest artists, as well as gaining the confidence to do some singing. The ballad "As the Years Go Passing By" became Nick's signature; its gentle, melancholy melody line and introspective lyrics seemed to fit the serious, almost mournful demeanor Nick presented both onstage and off.

Since the days at Florence's, the band has gone through several rhythm guitarists and drummers, but the Magic Slim sound without the instinctively empathetic backing of brother Nick would be unthinkable.

It's been an extremely difficult year and a half for Nick. Last summer, just as the band was entering into some important new recording contracts and securing a series of high-visibility, well-paying jobs, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured bleeding ulcer. "We almost lost him," Slim remembers; it was months before the tall, lanky figure of Nick Holt again loomed over the Teardrops from his position at the far end of the stage.

Longtime friends noticed that Nick continued to look gaunt and tired; his personality seemed more subdued than ever, and it was only occasionally that he'd step to the microphone and lead the Teardrops with his satin-voiced rendering of "As the Years Go Passing By."

Early this summer, again on the eve of some important gigs--a pre-Chicago Blues Festival appearance and a series of record-release parties for a new LP--Nick again fell ill. The problem, this time, was a serious throat infection that put Nick out of circulation for over two months and will prevent him from resuming a full-time role with the band for the foreseeable future. Slim reports that his brother has been sitting in occasionally on the Teardrops' Sunday afternoon gigs at the Cuddle Inn on South Ashland, but his voice is still very weak and there is no thought of hurrying him back into touring.

Although Nick worked for years as a welder in Chicago before becoming a full-time musician, the two serious illnesses have been financially devastating. There will be a benefit to help cover his medical expenses on Sunday, August 23, at B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted, beginning at 5 PM. The cover charge is $5; call B.L.U.E.S. at 528-1012 for further details. The backyard patio will be open to accommodate the overflow crowd that's expected as Chicago's blues community comes out in force to support one of our most respected and best-loved musicians. Music will be provided by Slim & the Teardrops, with another bassist sitting in for Nick. Don't be surprised if Nick shows up, however, along with the scores of other musicians who usually drop in on occasions like this. Slim and Nick's friends and admirers are legion; more than one musician got his first taste of playing before an audience, with a professional band behind him, at those legendary Sunday jams at Florence's.

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