June 23, 2007

Sterling Magee can’t remember where he left his guitar.

He is sitting in a lawn chair on the patio at the Boca Ciega Center nursing home in Gulfport, Fla. He taps his feet to an inaudible rhythm and fingers phantom chords in the air.

“Where’s my guitar?” he asks. His voice is slow and gravelly, and he pronounces it “gee-tar.”

Magee, 71, can’t remember many things these days. He forgets pieces of his weekend. He can’t always answer questions about his youth. He hangs his head for long stretches of time.

But put a guitar in his hands and he gets the best part of himself back. He belts out vocals, and the notes fly from his fingertips, as if his hands hold what his mind no longer can.

Blazing over the strings, those hands tell the story Magee can’t -– the story of his life as a famed blues musician, playing the streets of Harlem, jamming with the likes of James Brown and Marvin Gaye. They riff past the four years he sat unknown in the nursing home, silenced by dementia, before he was discovered by an employee there.

And they wail the song of a lost performer who is finding his way back through his music. Since being handed a gee-tar in early 2004, Sterling Magee –- aka Mr. Satan, aka Five Fingers Magee -– is once again claiming center stage, playing the blues.


***

Magee came to the Boca Ciega Center in 1998, his memory failing. He lived there quietly, occasionally going out for visits or holidays at his sister’s house in St. Petersburg.

He had been there five years when Kevin Moore joined the nursing home as activities director.

As part of his job, Moore tried to determine what activity might engage each resident at Boca Ciega. As time went on, he noticed that Magee often tapped his feet and twiddled his fingers as if he were playing guitar, and he learned from other staff members that Magee had once been a blues musician.

Intrigued, Moore jumped on the Internet. He discovered that his patient was once heralded as one of the greats in blues music. Some fans called Magee the world’s greatest one-man band. During performances from New York to Florida to France, he would play guitar and sing while he worked cymbals and percussions with his feet. Some say he earned the nickname Mr. Satan because his fingers moved over the strings with unholy speed. One of his former musician-partners has lobbied for Magee to be enshrined in the Blues Hall of Fame.

The man Moore met could neither play guitar nor sing.

Moore found an old acoustic guitar in Magee’s room. It was draped with clothes and coated with dust. Moore pulled it out and coaxed Magee to play. The progress was slow, but Magee seemed to find small moments of his old self inside the music. Word got around, and local musicians began stopping by the nursing home. Gulfport’s T.C. Carr showed up to play his harmonica. Dave Laycock came around with his drums. Magee would fall behind in sets, and never sang, Moore says. The local musicians kept coming back.

Moore and Laycock went back to the Internet, this time to find the particular type of guitar Magee had wielded in his prime as Mr. Satan. Laycock says he lurked on eBay for months before landing the 1974 Ampeg Super Stud for $450. He bought the guitar and loaned it – permanently – to Magee.

“When I handed it to him, he lit up like a Christmas tree,” Laycock says. “He hugged it like an old friend. That’s when he first started coming back around.”


***

Mount Olive, Miss., population 900, couldn’t hold the restless young Magee.

His sister, Janet Gammons, 54, of St. Petersburg, says their hometown moved too slowly. He ran away often and eventually joined the military. He worked as a paratrooper in Germany. And although Magee usually can’t tell you the big details of his life –- how often he was married, why he came to Florida –- he can still order a beer in German.

Gammons is almost a generation younger than her brother, so she knew him mostly through stories. She remembers talk of him playing guitar and singing in church. Years later, the family wasn’t all that surprised when they heard he had released an album, or opened a concert for B.B. King or Bo Diddley, or shared the stage with Etta James.

“The deal was, Sterling was going to New York City and he was going to be a big star,” Gammons says.

The family moved to St. Petersburg after Magee had gone to New York. He came to Florida often, turning visits into continuous live concerts.

“That’s all he’s ever done is music,” Gammons says. “He’s slowed down a lot with the medication and all. He’s good now, but he was magnificent before.”


***

Adam Gussow had a job in publishing, a live-in girlfriend and a proper Brooks Brothers suit when he first saw Mr. Satan play blues guitar on the streets of New York. It was 1983, and Gussow was 25, a graduate student at Columbia University, a professor’s kid from upstate New York. Mr. Satan was 46 at the time, bearded, accompanying a guy playing drums on a metal tub, supporting himself with tips.

“He was sitting there with a 40-ounce bottle, pouring it down and just playing this incredible stuff,” Gussow remembers. He felt nervous and out of place. He had played in college bands, but that didn’t prepare him for Harlem. “The music seemed like it was coming from a different world.”

Four years passed. Gussow’s girlfriend left him. He dropped out of publishing and graduate school, and threw himself into harmonica. Into the blues. He lived off money from his grandparents, and gave private harmonica lessons on the side.

He joined a duo and played a blues festival in Europe. Brimming with confidence, he returned to New York and ran into Satan, still playing the streets. This time the blues musician was playing solo, juggling his guitar, cymbals and a tambourine. The music felt less foreign to Gussow now. He had paid his dues. He was ready for blues in Harlem.

“He asked me, ‘Can I sit in?’” Magee remembers. It is a good day for Magee, and his memory has cleared for a while. “I told him, ‘Come on up.’ He was up there for 10 years.”

They dubbed their band “Satan and Adam.”

The origins of the Satan moniker are uncertain. Some say it came from the blaze of Magee’s fingers. Others say he had suffered some sort of mental breakdown and started calling himself “the dark Lord.” Still others said he was traumatized by the death of his wife.

The truth is buried somewhere in Magee’s memory. All Gussow knows for sure is that Magee was a Christian who quoted Scripture and debated holy men.

Any real fire was saved for Magee’s music. Gussow struggled to keep pace with the indomitable guitar man’s powerful play. But Gussow’s harmonica made an impression on Magee, one deep enough to endure through the haze of dementia.

“There was other guys around, but they was all bull-skeeting,” Magee says. “Adam picked up the harmonica and he blew the music.”

Though the pair grew close, Gussow learned little of his partner’s past. Magee never spoke his real name, introducing himself exclusively as Mr. Satan. He scoffed when Gussow showed him albums by Sterling Magee. The only explanation came secondhand.

A friend told Gussow that Magee once had a beautiful young wife, and had nursed her through a fatal cancer. Gammons, Magee’s younger sister, remembers her brother introducing many women as his wife. She is unsure if he was ever married. Today, Magee simply says he is single.

But the specifics of Magee’s life seemed to matter less than the emotion he put in his music.

“He always said, ‘I had so many wives die on me, I was thinking about opening a funeral parlor.’ ” Gussow says. “That to me is what blues is all about.”


***

In 1998, Satan and Adam canceled a full summer of tour dates. Gussow says it seemed like the band had played its last gig. He doesn’t really know why his partner suddenly dropped from the duo. He guesses it was a nervous breakdown.

Gammons says she visited her brother in the hospital around that time. He was released into her care, and she brought him to live at Boca Ciega Center. When Gussow paid a visit in 2002, he found his old partner medicated, withdrawn and without music.

“He was pretty out of it,” Gussow says.

Two years later, Gussow got a call from Moore, the center activities director. Magee had a guitar back in his hands. He was playing music again.

Gussow now teaches English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He comes to Gulfport when he can, to play with Magee. They started playing reunion shows in Gulfport in 2005, and have done gigs in Tampa and Ocala. The first weekend in June, Magee visited New York for the first time in nine years; Satan and Adam played the Terra Blues Club in Greenwich Village, where their picture has hung on the wall since the mid 1990s.

Not that it’s quite the same. Where Gussow once struggled to keep up with Magee’s speeding chords, he now must be careful not to outpace him. And Laycock has joined them on drums to compensate for Magee’s degenerated guitar work.

“We’re obviously not doing what we used to,” Gussow says. “He was unstoppable.”


***

A filmmaker who had been following Satan and Adam back in the 1990s, before Magee was lost to the nursing home, has picked up their story again. The documentary may premiere at film festivals next year. Concert organizers in Germany have invited them to play there next summer, if Magee is still able.

Gussow first wrote about Magee’s music in “Mister Satan’s Apprentice,” a memoir he published in 1998 (Pantheon Books). His second book, “Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York,” was published this year (University of Tennessee Press) and includes passages about the breakup of Satan and Adam.

He recently gave a copy of “Journeyman’s Road” to Moore, the activities director at Boca Ciega, with this inscription: “Thanks for helping put Satan and Adam back together.”

Moore has worked in nursing homes for almost a decade. He says many elderly people have passions, like Magee’s, that can be tapped to help keep them vital.

But few were ready for the dramatic turnaround Magee has made through his music.

“A miracle is in progress,” says Keith Stillwagon, a Gulfport harmonica player. “Since I first met him three years ago, he’s gotten stronger mentally, physically and musically.”

It may be more science than miracle, says Christian Leeuwenburgh, chief of the biology of aging department at the University of Florida. He says the return to music may have awakened dormant cells in Magee’s brain.

As for Moore, he says he was just doing his job when he dusted off that old guitar and put it in Satan’s hands. He has since turned into something of a roadie for the bluesman, spending his own money to drive Magee to gigs and rent sound equipment, and burning CDs of Magee’s old recordings, hoping to introduce his music to a new audience.

“Let’s give the devil his due now,” Moore says. “Before there comes a time he can’t get on stage anymore.”


***

Sterling Magee hobbles on stage one Thursday night in June at H.T. Kane’s Restaurant and Bar in Gulfport. Dark glasses cover his eyes. A baseball cap hides his braided, silver hair. He takes his guitar and perches on a stool. Adam Gussow picks up the harmonica. Dave Laycock settles in behind the drums.

The music starts.

“Ain’t nobody gonna make my baby cry,” Magee sings.

Magee plays hard. He mugs for the crowd, smiles at fans and thanks the people after every song. He drinks beers and smokes cigarettes. He laughs and lets women kiss him on the cheek. Gussow tells the crowd he has come to town to celebrate Magee’s return to music.

Magee’s vocals sound clear, powerful and full of blues. The crowd sways to the music. Magee – Mr. Satan – blasts the refrain again and again.

“I got my mo-mo-mo-mojo working,” he sings. The crowd sings along. “I got my mojo working.”

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Zack Quaintance, a native of the Chicago suburbs, graduated in May 2007 from Southern Illinois University with a degree in journalism and a minor in…
Zack Quaintance

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