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Bluesman keeps doing what he does best

A mild evening accompanied the chatter of about 100 people sitting on the patio of the Peninsula Inn in Gulfport.

The breeze off the bay swirled the sound into a buzz that did not cease as the opening act played a couple of tunes.

But the mood quickly became upbeat when Sterling "Five Fingers" Magee hit a few licks on his guitar, prompting a woman to get up, get into the groove and sway to his rhythm.

He was playing his weekly gig there, but this time it was special.

It was the 72nd birthday celebration for Five Fingers, who earned the nickname because of his machinelike quickness of hitting notes on the guitar.

And he only gets faster, say some of the family, longtime friends and fellow musicians who showed up for his birthday celebration.

Between the hugs, smiles, jokes and even during Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes' proclamation declaring May 20, 2008, as Sterling Magee Day, Five Fingers never stopped patting his feet and snapping his fingers.

"That's the part I feel all the time," Magee said of his music just before stealing pieces of hearts with every flicker of his guitar while performing at the Peninsula Inn. "It's a part of me. It's a part of my act to put on a show. I need the guitar, and I make it do what it is supposed to do."

A decade ago, the tune of a guitar did not sound so good.

In 1998, Magee got sick and was taken to the Boca Ciega Center nursing home in Gulfport, where he still resides. He largely turned his back on music until an insightful staffer and others took action.

Magee was born in Mount Olive, Miss., and later moved to St. Petersburg, where he started his blues career in local clubs in the 1950s and early 1960s. He then found his way to New York, where he backed up renowned artists like Bo Diddley, Etta James and James Brown.

In 1986, as a street performer in Harlem, he was joined by Adam Gussow.

Magee with his guitar and Gussow with his harmonica made the Harlem sidewalks their stage and performed there until 1990.

The two left the streets to rock out New York nightclubs, perform at blues festivals and record three albums. They were featured on the cover of Living Blues magazine in 1996. Then Magee's health became an issue.

That is when Kevin Moore, who at the time was the activities director for the Boca Ciega Center, met Magee.

"All he had was a dusty guitar being used for a clothes rack more than anything else," said Moore, who recalls that some other residents told him that Magee had some connection to blues music. "I did a Google search and found all this stuff. It became my primary mission to get him back from just snapping his fingers and patting his feet."

He did, eventually.

At first, Magee did not want to touch a guitar. To persuade him to play again, Moore and some others around the center tried to find some Gulfport blues musicians whom Magee had performed with before his years in New York. They found harmonica player T.C. Carr, the two instantly connected, and Magee starting playing again about four years ago, Moore said.

Alice Janisch, whose mother was also a resident at the nursing home, said the reconnection was "a beautiful moment" filled with tears of joy.

Janisch then reached beyond Gulfport and contacted Gussow, who is now an associate professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. She has become one of Magee's biggest fans.

"He just gets better and better every time I hear him," Janisch said.

Gussow attended Princeton University and earned a doctorate in English after the duo split. He flew in from Mississippi for the birthday celebration, and it made for a special reunion performance.

"I continue to be surprised," Gussow said. "It just keeps growing. He is by far the greatest one-man blues band musician ever."

Gussow said the duo released a new album, Word on the Street, this month, which consists of the original Harlem street recordings. This summer, Magee, Gussow and the Harlem Blues Band, a group of local blues musicians, are expected to tour in Mississippi and Arkansas.

Until then, Moore, who serves as Magee's promoter, said Five Fingers and the Harlem Blues Band can be seen performing at the Peninsula Inn at 2937 Beach Blvd. in Gulfport every Tuesday at 7 p.m.

"When (people) go into a nursing home, the only thing that changes is the address," Moore said. "They still can and want to do the things they like to do. And Sterling still wanted to play the guitar."

Eddie R. Cole can be reached at

ecole@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Bluesman keeps doing what he does best 05/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 12:53pm]
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