J.B. Lenoir (who originally wrote this song), George Thorogood, Johnny Winter, and everyone else who have ever recorded this song deliver the first line as follows: “Mama, Mama, please talk to your daughter for me.” Then what follows is a pretty typical 12-bar blues, shrugging through a few verses, a guitar solo, etc. But now listen to Magic Sam’s version.
For whatever reason, when he went to record he delivered the line totally different, cramming in four repetitions of the word “Mama” before the band thumps in behind him. And I think it’s those two extra repetitions that make Magic Sam’s version pulse with life while the other versions plonk along.
Because his take begins with that bare vocal track, it starts the recording with a very exciting moment of vulnerability. Sam sounds frazzled—right on the edge or even a little past it as he stumbles over the words. Johnny Winter and George Thorogood sing like they’re only in it for the chance to take a guitar solo, which is the problem with about 75% of blues records. A charismatic vocalist (Mike Mattison, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thorton among others) is essential to good blues music. But Magic Sam has charisma, and he has passion—or at least does a better job faking it.
Now we’re going to get a little more abstract. I have a feeling this level of thought didn’t go into Magic Sam’s decision to say a word four-plus times instead of just two, but regardless, the repetition does a very clever thing. There’s a powerful motion in stillness, in repetition; listen to Bill Withers on “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The trick is that if you repeat something enough times, like the “toy boat” tongue twister, you begin to disassociate the sounds from the words, which creates a great abstract sound. In Magic Sam’s case, singing high and close so that he overloads the mic a bit, those first four words come across as a blast of sound not unlike the guitar breaks at :54 and 1:55, which are also made up of the same lick repeated again and again. J.B. Lenoir’s original uses this guitar lick too, but in his case it sounds uncreative rather than intentional—because Lenoir’s vocal doesn’t mirror the guitar in the same way Magic Sam does. That repetition strips away all other elements leaves rhythm and groove, super-charging Magic Sam’s version and justifying his sobriquet.