Sterling Magee, the blues singer and guitarist who rode waves of resurgence from recording with legends to busking on a sidewalk for change before being rediscovered in his 50s as half of the unlikely duo Satan and Adam, died Sept. 6 in Gulfport. He was 84.
Mr. Magee’s family said he died in Hospice care of complications from COVID-19.
The blues man’s final musical rebirth, taking him from down-and-out at a Pinellas County nursing home back to the stage at a major festival, was captured in the acclaimed 2018 documentary Satan & Adam.
After the red carpet premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mr. Magee went back to Harlem and played a few songs at his old busking spot. It was one of his final public performances.
Mr. Magee was born in Mount Olive, Miss., and played piano at an early age, mostly in church.
“But because my mother was a Christian, it was a sin to play the blues,” Mr. Magee said in Satan & Adam, currently streaming on Netflix.
He moved to St. Petersburg and played the city’s blues venues in the ’50s and ’60s. The St. Petersburg Times in 2005 called it a “limited, segregation-days circuit” stretching from the Robert James Hotel in Methodist Town to the clubs of 22nd Avenue S. He played the Manhattan Casino in its heyday as “Five Fingers Magee.”
He later recorded the R&B track Oh She Was Pretty and several others for Ray Charles' Tangerine Records label, backed up James Brown at the Apollo and worked as a professional songwriter in New York.
Adam Gussow, who went on to record and perform with Mr. Magee for over two decades, didn’t know any of that backstory when he encountered the magnetic older man playing guitar and singing on a Harlem sidewalk in the late 1980s.
“People said, ‘That’s Mister Satan, everybody in Harlem knows Satan’,” Gussow told the Tampa Bay Times.
Gussow, a harmonica player, asked Mister Satan if he could sit in, and soon they were playing together regularly on the sidewalk.
Mr. Magee adopted the name Satan, the story goes, after losing his first love to cancer and becoming critical of organized religion.
“Many blues musicians came to think of Christianity as hypocritical,” said Gussow, now a professor at the University of Mississippi and author of Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and Blues Tradition, and Mister Satan’s Apprentice, a memoir about his time with Mr. Magee.
Gussow eventually started to learn, from other people, that the stranger he was playing with once had a serious career. He sang on records that were played on British radio. He played with Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Little Anthony and the Imperials. He recorded with King Curtis and was in a band with George Benson.
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Despite the devilish nickname, Mr. Magee was known as a generous man who gave away much of his earnings to people on the streets, didn’t like cursing in his presence and spread a gospel of joy.
In the documentary, he talks about living in the moment rather than waiting for heaven, and dispels the idea that the blues have to be dark or depressing, saying, “Blue is one of the most beautiful colors in the world. The sky is blue, you got a clear day, people go out to the beach, the water’s blue. How do you associate blue with such a sad, slumped down state of unhappiness? That’s not the blues. Those are the clouds.”
Mr. Magee was a master guitarist, who managed to achieve something few musicians do: create a signature sound. He used normal tuning, but played funk chord progressions with droning open strings.
“He was very proud of the fact that he’d invented a new way to play guitar,” Gussow said.
Doug Hudson, a close friend in Gulfport, remembers taking Mr. Magee to see legendary jazz guitarist George Benson at the Capitol Theatre in 2018. Backstage, Hudson said, “I listened as Benson called him one of the greatest guitar players he’d ever known."
Propelled by Mr. Magee’s virtuosity — Gussow says he was just trying to keep up — Satan and Adam built a following, playing bars in New York, playing Mr. Magee’s Freedom For My People in U2′s 1988 concert film Rattle and Hum and eventually signing a record deal under which they’d record several albums.
Gussow said he believes Mr. Magee, who would sing while playing guitar and percussion, was “the greatest one man blues band of all time." He hopes he’ll be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
People were struck by the oddness of their pairing at the time. Gussow was white, Ivy League educated, decades younger than Mr. Magee and playing on the street in an all-Black neighborhood at a time before Harlem had gentrified. New York in 1989 was reckoning with racial injustice and the city’s modern segregation in a way that wasn’t dissimilar to what’s happening in 2020.
“We were always aware of what was happening culturally around us, and there was some tension with other people because of that,” Gussow said. “But there was never any tension because of race between me and him.”
Mr. Magee had grown wary of the traditional music business, which is partly why he wound up playing on the streets. Then suddenly in the early ’90s, Satan and Adam’s records were charting, and Mr. Magee found himself touring the U.S. and Europe and opening for Bo Diddley.
Then, Mr. Magee just stopped. Gussow lost contact. Mr. Magee disappeared from the music scene and returned to Florida. After a series of medical issues, he landed at the Boca Ciega Center nursing home in Gulfport around 2000.
Mr. Magee thought he couldn’t play anymore. At one point he was too sick to even hold a guitar pick.
People at the home didn’t know his musical history, or much about him at all, but a staffer named Kevin Moore did notice the acoustic guitar in his room, mostly being used to hang clothes on.
After looking up Mr. Magee online and discovering who he was, Moore and others enlisted the help of local musicians such as harmonica player T.C. Carr. First they played for Mr. Magee. Then they slowly coaxed Mr. Magee into playing with them.
As his guitar skills returned, so did his health. He started playing regular shows on Tuesday nights with other local musicians on the patio at Gulfport’s Peninsula Inn. He became a beloved local fixture, who had a way with compliments and a straightforward philosophy that Hudson described in a tribute in the Gabber.
“He knew what he knew, and expected that same conviction from those around him,” Hudson wrote. "He did not like the word ‘believe’ and did not want it used in his presence. If I slipped, he’d scold me and tell me that ‘believe’ was just a big ole word with a ‘lie’ in the middle of it. He’d say, ‘Don’t believe, but know what you know’.”
Eventually, Satan and Adam were able to reunite for some touring in the 2010s. The big one was the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013. Last year, Gulfport’s Catherine A. Hickman Theater was packed for an 83rd birthday celebration for Mr. Magee that included a screening of Satan & Adam.
Mr. Magee is survived by a brother, Guy Magee, Jr., and sisters Janet Gammons, Mary Latortue and Martha Travis. A memorial will be held Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Royal Palm South Cemetery.