A new film now touring national film festivals celebrates local musician Sterling Magee. Magee was a Gulfport staple and favorite for years, playing weekly gigs at The Peninsula Inn and shows at the Gulfport Casino. Known as a talented local legend, Magee is now getting national recognition through a documentary titled “Satan and Adam.” During his heyday on the blues circuit, Magee was primarily known to audiences and musical friends as Mr. Satan.
The documentary follows Magee and his musical partner harmonica player Adam Gussow, capturing different angles of Magee and Gussow’s music career as a duo. The documentary, titled after the blues group’s name, details the history of Magee and Gussow from their meeting in Harlem, New York in 1968 through their performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013.
“The thing to understand about him but at his height he was a singular, kinda brilliant, one-of-a-kind blues guitar playing, and an instantly identifiable vocalist,” said Gussow, of his admiration for Magee. “And everybody called him Mr. Satan. Nobody called him Sterling.”
During the filmmaking process in 2001, the film’s main subject, Magee, disappeared. Magee’s disappearance threw filmmaker V. Scott Balcerek for a loop, but he persisted with his search, eventually ending in Florida.
“When he disappeared after I had been filming for about three years, I was completely distraught. At a certain point, no one knew where he was,” said Balcerek. “I mean what do you do when the subject of your film just completely disappears?”
After a year of searching, Balcerek connected with a cousin of Magee who told him that the musician was staying in St. Petersburg with his family.
“I called and got ahold of him. I asked him if I could come on down for a visit and he was like, ‘Come on down Mr. Scott!’ I was elated!” said Balcerek. This was in 2001. He soon told Gussow that he’d found Mr. Satan.
In 2003, Adam Gussow went to Florida to visit his old musical partner only to find that musical legend “Mr. Satan” was no longer playing, singing or tapping.
“There’s a scene in the movie where I see him for the first time when he can barely play a note and I’m shocked,” said Gussow. Soon, a helping hand came along, gathering community members and resources in Gulfport to help Magee to play the blues again.
Kevin Moore was the Activity Director at the Boca Ciega Center from 2006 to 2013, where Magee was – and still is – living.
“As a brand new director I was getting used to visiting residents and one gentleman that was there would just sit in the hallway and didn’t talk to too many people,” said Moore. Moore noticed that Magee would stomp his foot and keep rhythm with his hands while listening to music, so he asked around about “the man in the hallway.” After a Google search, Moore said he was surprised to find pages and pages about Sterling Magee.
“That was the beginning of my dealings with Sterling,” said Moore.
Soon after, Moore pooled community resources and gathered people together to get Magee the same type of guitar he played when he lived in New York. He also got him a stomping box and a set of high hats, all the tools the one man band had used in the past to hone his talents and wow crowds on the street and on the stage.
Next, Moore paired Magee up with local musician TC Karr and a harmonica player. Magee started to play weekly at The Peninsula Inn. He blossomed.
“He became a whole new person,” said Moore. Magee eventually formed his own band, Sterling Magee and the Harlem Blues Band, and played regularly at the inn from 2007 to 2010.
Moore (affectionately called Satan’s Roadie) even took Magee on tour at one point, traveling to Mississippi and Massachusetts, and eventually headlining at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival with Gussow in 2013. The festival in New Orleans is where the film leaves the duo.
“2000 people were in the tent and gave him a standing ovation,” said Moore. “It was the perfect ending to the film.”
Altogether, Balcerek worked on the film for 23 years, following Magee and Gussow’s career from his initial meeting with them at a Pittsburgh performance in 1995 through 2013. When Sterling and “Mr. Satan” met in 1986 on a street corner in Harlem, the two were an unlikely duo, challenging expectations in what the film’s website describes as a time of “racial tension” in New York City. The age difference set them apart too. At the time, Magee was 50 years old, Gussow 28.
After documenting their meeting in 1986, the film shows viewers Magee and Gussow as they play shows, sign a record deal, and reunite after Magee’s disappearance in 2000. And though the film has roots in the past, Gussow says it still has a valuable message about race and privilege that’s worth learning from today.
During his time playing on the street with Sterling in Harlem, Gussow says he was threatened by two men who asked his why they were in their neighborhood, a primarily Black neighborhood.
“Once I get threatened, I realized Sterling couldn’t protect me,” said Gussow. He said that moment also made him think a lot about privilege, as it applies now and then.
“I had the privilege to crawl off in a different world, but Sterling wanted me to stay. So I went back to play on the street with fear in me for the first time ever,” said Gussow. “I could have gone back to that neighborhood; I had another world I could retreat to.”
Director Balcerek spoke about the element of race in the film as well.
“Even more than ever it’s important for us to push past our fear of ‘the other,’ to not hide behind social media, to get out there and make a real human connection with someone other than from your own ‘tribe,’” he said. “There are increasing divisions and I’d like the film to be a reminder that we have more in common with each other than we may realize.”
Today, Mr. Satan lives in Gulfport and is retired. Adam Gussow is a professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and has written several books, including a book titled “Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.” Kevin Moore is partially retired and lives in Connecticut.
The film was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 and took home the Music Films/Music City Grand Jury Prize from the Nashville Film Festival in May 2018. Currently the film is touring film festivals – Moore says it’s been selected for a showing in Ireland – in hopes that someone will buy the film.
“It is making it’s festival rounds in hopes of finding a buyer who can help give the film the theatrical life it deserves,” said Balcerek. Once the film is sold, the team plans to do a showing of “Satan and Adam” at the Hickman Theater in Gulfport.
For regular updates about the film, Balcerek invites fans to stay connected via Facebook (facebook.com/satanandadamfilm/) or Twitter (twitter.com/satanandadam). For more information on the film, visit satanandadamfilm.com.