Legendary Blues Musician Magic Slim Lands in Lincoln

Story and photos by Dylan Guenther, News Net Nebraska

Legendary blues musician Magic Slim playing with his son Lil’ Slim at the Zoo Bar.

When legendary blues musician Magic Slim decided it was time to leave one of the meccas of blues, Chicago, he wound up in Lincoln, Neb., thanks to some special friendships and a little blues bar.

The rather small Zoo Bar with a capacity of 100 people has booked such legendary performers as Luther Allison, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Magic Slim. Numerous live albums have been recorded there. In 1993, the Zoo Bar won the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Club of the Year. So how did a small bar in Lincoln, Neb., become such an important part of the national blues music scene?

With a deep love for the blues and some luck, the Zoo Bar’s founder Larry Boehmer got the bar off to an incredible start. After booking his first band in 1973, Boehmer caught his first big break after a chance meeting in Chicago. He and his wife were on their way to Connecticut to visit family, when they stopped in Chicago to stay the night.

“We popped into Chicago knowing that was the center for urban blues,” Boehmer said.

Boehmer and his wife went to a show featuring Chicago piano player Bob Riedy. On a break, Boehmer asked Riedy if he would play a weekend at the Zoo Bar. He agreed and Boehmer had booked his first national blues artist. On top of booking his own band, Riedy also represented some other blues artists in Chicago in the ’70s. He represented many blues artists who weren’t working much outside of Chicago. One of those artists was Morris Holt, who went by the stage name Magic Slim, and his band The Teardrops. Since those years, Magic Slim and The Teardrops have received much acclaim, including winning the 24th annual W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2004 for Blues Band of the Year. Magic Slim and the Teardrops played for the first time at the Zoo Bar in January 1975.

Magic Slim at the Zoo Bar.

“The place just fell in love with him,” Boehmer said. “It was unique to see guys that tall playing blues.”

The Zoo Bar was the first white club Magic Slim had ever played in. He wasn’t known outside of Chicago at that point, Boehmer said.

“It was a unique experience for him to leave Chicago and come out and play to a largely college audience,” Boehmer said.

On their way back home, Slim and his band got caught in a 40-car pileup in a snow storm. The band lost most of their equipment.

“The Zoo clientele loved him enough that they got some money together and sent him the money to help replace the equipment,” Boehmer said, “and that was probably the start of a real bond between him and the Zoo Bar.”

Journalist L. Kent Wolgamott has covered music and entertainment for 25 years in Lincoln.

“None of this would have happened if Larry hadn’t decided to start a blues bar in Lincoln at a time that that wasn’t exactly the thing that someone would’ve started out doing,” said Wolgamott, a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star. “You have to give Larry as much credit as anyone for getting Slim here.”

Boehmer and Slim have had a very good relationship since the snowstorm. Boehmer recalls being able to book Slim on any night and having people turn out like it was a weekend night.

“Because he wasn’t in Lincoln all the time, we could bring him in for a week at a time and every night looked like Saturday night,” Boehmer said. “The place was just jumping six nights a week.”

But the bond between them is more than professional. Slim is the godfather to both of Boehmer’s sons, Jeff and Tim, and Larry Boehmer is the godfather of Slim’s son, Shawn Holt. Jeff Boehmer now co-owns the bar with Pete Watters.

“When our first son was born in ’76, Slim said, ‘Here’s a dollar, I wanna be the godfather,’” Larry Boehmer said. “He was making the first contribution to Jeff’s bank account, and that sealed it I guess. The dollar sealed it.”

Slim thought so much of the Zoo Bar and Lincoln that when he decided it was time to move from Chicago, he moved to Lincoln in 1994.

“He lived in pretty much a war zone,” Larry Boehmer said, “a very tough neighborhood in the south side of Chicago.”

It was an easy decision in Magic Slim’s eyes.

“I just got tired of Chicago, tired of looking over my shoulder all the time,” Magic Slim said. “It’s a lot quieter here.”

As Slim’s son Shawn got older, he was getting more and more pressure to join a gang.

“A lot of it was I think to get his son Shawn out of the inner city of Chicago,” Jeff Boehmer said. “They had been friends with my parents for that long and the Zoo was here so they came to live here.”
Magic Slim,an award winning blues musician.

Slim still tours with his band, The Teardrops, but usually stays in Lincoln during the winter. Slim’s son Shawn, who goes by the stage name Lil’ Slim, has been playing guitar with Slim while he has been back in Lincoln.

“This winter, he’s been here a few months and so we’ve played him quite a few gigs,” Jeff Boehmer said.

Magic Slim means more to this community than just the shows he does or the music he plays. Since Slim doesn’t have his touring band The Teardrops with him, he plays with many local blues artists. He plays with them and lends a hand to these local blues players.

“I don’t think you can overstate the influence of being able to just get up and play with him,” Wolgamott said. “Every blues guy in Lincoln has probably played with Slim one time or another.”

Slim’s willingness to play with anybody has made him a big asset to Lincoln’s local blues artists and has improved the quality of the local blues scene with his presence alone.

“You’re going to get better if you end up playing with one of the best living blues guys,” Wolgamott said.

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