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Mr. Satan had seen better days. Having suffered a stroke, he was convalescing in a nursing home in Gulfport, Florida, unrecognized by the folks around him. Those who knew him as a super-funky, high-octane Harlem street performer, or before that, as the gifted session guitarist and Brill Building songwriter Sterling Magee, had no idea where he was — including his former duo partner, harmonica player Adam Gussow. Their touching reunion is captured on the new documentary, Satan & Adam, which tells the tale of a most unlikely partnership.
Gussow, who’s white and more than 20 years Magee’s junior, first encountered Mr. Satan playing on a stretch of sidewalk near the Apollo Theater. He was blown away. “I saw this guy who’s an incredible guitar player and a great bluesy singer with an unusual style,” Gussow relates by phone in April. “He could really play jazz, too.” Gussow, who took his rhythmic orientation from bluesy saxophonists such as Houston Person and Hank Crawford, asked to sit in. The pair bonded as they forged a sound that combined blues, jazz and funk in what the harmonica player describes as a “typical New York mish-mosh.”
There were obstacles to the Satan & Adam partnership, including racial tensions in Harlem in the late ’80s, but Gussow toughed it out. A brief but memorable appearance in U2’s 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum raised their profile considerably. The duo’s first recording, 1991’s Harlem Blues, netted them a W.C. Handy Award nomination, and they toured throughout the United States and Europe. However, Magee’s troubles caught up with him. He had a querulous wife who Gussow says made both of their lives miserable, and he eventually moved to Virginia, driving up to New York to tour with Gussow and frequently sleeping in his car. Eventually, Magee fell off the grid, thwarting Gussow’s attempts to contact him.
Gussow accepted a faculty post at the University of Mississippi in 2002, where he continues to teach English and Southern Studies, including a blues literature class. Eventually, he learned of Magee’s residence at the facility in Gulfport, and their reunion was an emotional one. Gussow was saddened by Magee’s deterioration, but says he rallied in subsequent years. The pair recorded a new album in 2011 and did some touring. “The dazzling guitarism disappeared,” Gussow says. “But his singing was still really good.”
Magee, who turned 83 in May, no longer performs. Gussow, 61, plays in a duo called The Blues Doctors. The lessons he learned at Mr. Satan’s side are indelible. “The blues ethos, the sort of blues philosophy of life, I got a lot of that from him,” he explains. “He’d always say, ‘You’ll live through it’ when I’d complain about something … and I realize now that that was the blues ethos. Allow things to change. What looks bad now might not be bad always; it probably won’t be.” —Bob Weinberg