Satan and Adam
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Satan and Adam, a blues duo consisting of Sterling "Mister Satan" Magee (born May 20, 1936; Mount Olive, Mississippi) and Adam Gussow (born April 3, 1958; New York City, New York), were a fixture on Harlem's sidewalks in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Magee sings in a style that fuses blues with elements of soul and rap, plays electric guitar with withering intensity, and uses both feet to stomp out polyrhythms on a homemade percussion setup that includes hi-hat cymbals topped with tambourines and maracas. Gussow plays amplified harmonica in an equally fluent and original way. Together, Satan and Adam have, as journalist Richard Skelley noted, "redefined and shaped the sound of modern blues so much that 'I Want You' from their Harlem Blues debut was included on a Rhino Records release, Modern Blues of the 1990s.
Born in Mount Olive, Mississippi on May 20, 1936, Magee was raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he came of age dabbling as a piano player in local churches and suffering his parents' ire when he drifted into the blues. As a young man he worked local blues clubs under the moniker Five Fingers Magee and was billed as "the fastest guitar player in the world." After a stint in Germany as a U.S. Army paratrooper in the 1950s, Magee was demobilized in New York and ended up settling in Harlem. A sometime-songwriter for Jesse Stone, Magee recorded several near-hits on Ray Charles's Tangerine label in the early 1960s, including "Get in My Arms Little Girl." His proficiency on guitar earned him gigs with a number of rhythm-and-blues performers, including James Brown, King Curtis, Big Maybelle, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and a transvestite duo known as The Illusions That Create Confusion. In the mid 1970s he played sessions with Paul Winley and the Harlem Underground, a loose-knit unit that included George Benson.
In the late 1970s, after the death of his wife, Magee gave up guitar, roamed widely through Mississippi, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and returned to Harlem reborn, refusing to be identified by his birth-name and demanding that his associates call him Satan. His longtime friend and business manager, Harlem producer and record-store owner Bobby Robinson (of the Fire and Fury R&B labels), rented him an apartment and put a guitar in his hands. Soon Magee was strolling the streets, playing for what he later referred to as his "wino buddies." By 1983 he had added a hi-hat cymbal to his mix and begun to perform as a one-man band on 125th Street in front of the New York Telephone Company office, sometimes accompanied by drummer Pancho Morales and other musicians.
Around this time Gussow, a Princeton graduate and English M.A. student at Columbia University, first saw Magee and his trio performing on the corner of 114th Street and Broadway. (Gussow relates the story in his 1998 blues memoir, Mister Satan's Apprentice.) Gussow, a guitarist and harmonica player whose performing experience had previously been limited to a handful of high school and college bands, was galvanized by the encounter. After dropping out of grad school, Gussow spent several years as a part-time street performer in New York and Europe. Gussow's transformation from an academic to a blues player was facilitated by lessons he took from his mentor, New York harmonica virtuoso Nat Riddles, who had performed and recorded with Larry Johnson, Odetta, and others, and by his acculturation into the jam session life at Dan Lynch, a storied East Village juke joint.
In October 1986, Gussow encountered Magee again, purely by chance, this time at Magee's regular stretch of sidewalk near the Apollo Theater. Gussow, a semi-seasoned street performer by this point, sat in. The two musicians—one older, Black, and southern-born; the other younger, White, Ivy-educated, a New York suburbanite—hit it off.
What began as a streetside encounter ended up blossoming into a twelve-year success story. The duo's initial notoriety accrued in the summer of 1987, when the members of U2 wandered by Magee and Gussow with a video crew in tow, capturing the Harlem duo at work. Thirty-nine seconds of Magee's original composition, "Freedom for My People" were ultimately included in the Rattle and Hum documentary.
Gussow left New York several times over the next year to play harmonica with a touring production of Big River, but always returned to Harlem. As Magee refined and developed his one-man band sound with the addition of a second hi-hat cymbal and wooden sounding board, Gussow was forced to evolve an equally innovative sound, one in which traditional amplified Chicago harp was cross-fertilized with funk-guitar licks and jazz sax phrasings. Magee and Gussow made the streets their only venue until 1990, when they recorded a demo at Giant Sound in New York, opened for Buddy Guy at a Summerstage concert in Central Park, and began to play club gigs at a restaurant called Chelsea Commons (24th St. and 10th Ave.) That summer they traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia and participated in the International Busker Fest. After three and a half years of relative anonymity, they finally had a calling card, and a name: Magee and Gussow were now "Satan and Adam."
1991 marked a major turning point in the duo's fortunes. After being discovered during a steady gig at a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village, they signed with major management, went on a tour of the UK with Bo Diddley, and released their first album, Harlem Blues. The album, which captured the raw, explosive vitality of their streetside sound, caused a minor sensation. Quint Davis, the founder of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, told their manager, "I don't know where you found them, but I'm going to make them stars."
Between 1991 and 1998, Satan and Adam toured widely, including Italy, Switzerland, Finland, and Australia and countless club gigs in the eastern half of the U.S. They recorded two more albums: Mother Mojo (1993) and Living on the River (1996). They performed at blues, jazz, and folk festivals in Philadelphia, Chicago, Newport, Saratoga Springs, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and many other locations.
After a charmed rise, the duo's fortunes took a disastrous downward turn in 1998 when Magee, who had recently relocated from Harlem to Brookneal, Virginia, had a nervous breakdown and, after briefly resurfacing, dropped completely out of sight. Satan and Adam effectively dissolved as a partnership.
After a long silence, Magee has recently come back into view. He is currently living at the Boca Ciega adult care facility in Gulfport, Florida, a small community next to St. Petersburg. His guitar skills, which vanished with his breakdown, have partially reconstituted themselves with the help of harpist T. C. Carr and other Tampa-area blues performers who have dedicated themselves to furthering his comeback. In late 2005 and early 2006, Satan and Adam played several comeback gigs in Gulfport and Oxford, Mississippi, where Gussow is currently an associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Beginning in the summer of 2007, the duo has begun to play occasional road dates and has added a drummer, Tampa resident David Laycock (a.k.a., "Dave on Drums"). A feature-length documentary on the duo entitled Satan and Adam, directed by award-winning filmmaker V. Scott Balcerek, is currently in post-production. A new book by Gussow entitled Journeyman's Road, collecting magazine columns and other of his writings, was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2007 and further detailed the Satan and Adam story. In 2008, Gussow released a double CD of early work by the duo entitled Word on the Street: Harlem Recordings, 1989, for download on his Modern Blues Harmonica website (see below).
In 2011, the duo released a new album, Back In The Game.
On May 5, 2013, the duo performed at Jazzfest in New Orleans, their first appearance there since their debut in 1991. At 55, Adam said that he was the same age as Satan was then.
- "Hill Country Harmonica". Retrieved 2011-05-20.
- Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir Adam Gussow (New York: Pantheon, 1998)
- Gussow, Adam. Mister Satan's Apprentice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.