A Gulfport living legend, Sterling Magee, has died.
“The thing to understand about him…at his height he was a singular, kind of brilliant, one-of-a-kind blues guitar player, and an instantly identifiable vocalist,” said Adam Gussow, long-time musical partner of Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee. “And everybody called him Mr. Satan. Nobody called him Sterling.”
The details of his life are hazy as a smoke-filled blues bar, but this much we know about Mr. Satan: he was a ferocious blues musician, and a beloved performer in the community.
Sterling passed on September 6, 2020.
Born May 20, 1936 in Mount Olive, Mississippi, Sterling grew up in St. Petersburg, where he played piano in church, according to his Facebook story. As a young man, he joined the military and served in Germany as a paratrooper. By all accounts, music was Sterling’s first passion, but the details of his life – his loves and struggles – are a bit of a mystery.
According to his younger sister, St. Petersburg resident Janet Gammons, one of his favorite sayings was, “I’ll always tell you the truth, even if I have to lie to do it.”
“Sterling lived in the present, with little interest in the past or the future,” wrote close friend and Gulfport resident Douglas Hudson. “What mattered was today.”
After he left the military, Sterling moved to New York, where his musical career took flight in Harlem. He played guitar and wrote the occasional song, performing alongside James Brown and R&B artists King Curtis and Big Maybelle.
Tragedy struck Sterling in the 1970s when his wife died.
“Magee gave up guitar, roamed widely through Mississippi, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and returned to Harlem reborn,” his Facebook story says, ”refusing to be identified by his birth-name and demanding that his associates call him Satan.”
(The origin of Sterling’s preferred moniker isn’t fully known, although local legend says it came from the “unholy” speed of his fingers over the strings.)
The story of how Sterling came to play again in Gulfport, however, is almost stranger than fiction.
According to a Poynter.org article from June 23, 2007, Sterling first came to the Boca Ciega Center in Gulfport in 1998. He’d been at the assisted living facility five years, was no longer playing, and suffering from dementia when Kevin Moore began working as activities director.
Moore proved to be instrumental in bringing Sterling back to music – and to the world.
“One gentleman that was there would just sit in the hallway and didn’t talk to too many people,” Moore told the Gabber in 2018.
Moore noticed that man 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.
Soon after, Moore pooled resources to get Sterling the same type of guitar he played 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.
Slowly, Sterling came back to life.
Moore paired Sterling up with local musician TC Carr and a harmonica player. Sterling started to play weekly at The Peninsula Inn.
“He became a whole new person,” said Moore. Moore helped Sterling take shows on the road and, eventually, Sterling formed his own band, Sterling Magee and the Harlem Blues Band, playing regularly at the Peninsula from 2007 to 2010.
Sterling also played at other local gigs, including performances at the Gulfport Casino and H.T. Kane’s Restaurant and Bar (now Neptune Grill), among other spots, drawing crowds lucky enough to see the legend’s second act in Gulfport.
“He was real and he was true,” said Hudson. “He loved people and so many adored him. He touched many lives and brought people together.”
“Satan & Adam,” a 2018 documentary about the titular duo from filmmaker V. Scott Balcerek, explored the extraordinary musical partnership that started when Adam Gussow met Sterling playing on a Harlem street corner in the 1980s. The movie, 23 years in the making, made the rounds of film festivals and won the Music Films/Music City Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival in May 2018.
“He was not concerned with fame or recognition,” Hudson wrote of his friend. “I sat with Sterling and musician George Benson, and listened as Benson called him one of the greatest guitar players he had ever known. I walked the red carpet with him when the film ‘Satan & Adam’ premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and I’ve sat with him many times when he played and sang just for me. He was always the same person.”
In 2019, Sterling celebrated his 83rd birthday surrounded by family and friends at a public screening of “Satan & Adam” at Gulfport’s Catherine Hickman Theater on May 18.
Gammons told the Gabber that Sterling contracted COVID-19 several months ago. Though he had recovered from the virus in the hospital and was sent home to the center, it did its damage to the legend. He passed in hospice care, suffering from kidney failure and pneumonia, according to Gammons.
She said that he was still making music up until his illness.
“He played guitar until a few months ago,” she said. It was a passion only briefly forgotten, and once rekindled, was unstoppable.
His sister remembered another of Sterling’s sayings: “I’m going to live forever or die trying.”
Services through Lawson Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, 727-623-9025.