Although racial tensions dominated headlines in late-20th century New York, an unlikely musical duo by the name of Satan & Adam offered a different glimpse of America’s great melting pot.
The duo paired veteran African-American blues guitarist Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee — who had once played with such stars as James Brown and Etta James — with young half-Jewish white harmonica player Adam Gussow.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Satan & Adam found success on the streets of Harlem, in clubs and at music festivals — until Mr. Satan disappeared and subsequently moved into a nursing home in Florida.
Now, they are the subject of a new documentary, “Satan & Adam,” by filmmaker V. Scott Balcerek. It premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will be screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival November 17-18. Reflecting the duo’s real-life complexities, the film took an incredible 23 years to make.
“Certain times, years, I seriously doubted it would ever see the light of day,” Gussow marveled in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel. “Thank god it’s done. How wonderful is that?”
Produced by the powerhouse Kennedy/Marshall Company, the film is a cinematic tour of both New York City and musical histories, featuring interviews with such personalities as The Edge of U2, the Rev. Al Sharpton and musician/comedian Harry Shearer.
Gussow has seen the film “five or six times, and each time, I see something a bit different,” he said.
Gussow says he has three specific takeaways: “Number one, I’m grateful to have it done. Number two, it’s the whole moment, the sense, that ‘Yes, we’re immortal.’” And thirdly, the film “honors him [Mr. Satan]. He is an extraordinary musician.”
Running almost an hour and a half, the film shares the extraordinary music Satan & Adam made together, which Gussow calls a compendium of “blues melodies, jazz harmonies, funk rhythms and soul vocals.”
It was good enough to attract the interest of U2 for their album “Rattle & Hum” in 1988, as well as to open for Buddy Guy in Central Park before several thousand fans. And it was good enough to unite two talented individuals from different backgrounds.
The film shares details about both performers’ life stories. Gussow’s father, the late Alan Gussow, was a Jewish-American artist and environmentalist whose family has Russian and Lithuanian roots. His grandfather, Don Gussow, was reputedly a tailor to the Russian imperial court, while his grandmother, Betty Gussow, was “the prototypical Jewish grandmother,” Gussow recalled.
His mother is author Joan Dye Gussow, a Dutch Reformed Protestant and a professor emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she chaired the nutrition education program. Gussow said that he grew up without religion in “a typical socially progressive mixed family.”
Magee, who is about two decades older than Gussow, attended a black church while growing up in Mississippi. In church, he played the piano and experienced a musical style that would end up having a lifelong impact.
But the tragedy of losing his beloved as a young man led to his adopting the name Mr. Satan.
That was the name of the performer whose music caught the ear of then-28-year-old Gussow in Harlem in 1986, at a moment when he might have been particularly susceptible to the blues, coming off a breakup.
“I turned to a guy and asked, ‘Who is that?’” Gussow said. “He looked at me as if I should know better, but was friendly. ‘Him? Oh, that’s Satan. Everybody in Harlem knows Satan.’”
Gussow recalled feeling self-conscious at being a young white man in Harlem during a time of racial tension in New York, but curious to hear the music played by the performer who advertised his unusual name on a shopping cart. Curiosity won out, and a day later he returned to not only listen, but to join in on the harmonica.
“About two minutes in, a crowd suddenly filed in,” Gussow said. “Everyone was waiting for the big kickoff, to see what he would do with me. The show was going to happen. Can the white boy keep up?”
As he remembered, Gussow said, “I hung on for dear life … I got my solo. He thrashed to a close, projecting musical energy. People were cheering. They loved it.”
That included Mr. Satan, who encouraged the crowd to give Gussow a round of applause and welcomed him back the next day.
“What a way to start,” Gussow said.
It was an auspicious beginning to a partnership that saw significant success over the next few years, including a performance of “Freedom for My People” on U2’s “Rattle & Hum”; their first studio album, “Harlem Blues,” released in 1990; and opening for Buddy Guy in Central Park.
Gussow described the experience of recording half of their first cassette in one day in the studio: “We got a sound. We got it. It’s there. It’s bigger and better than even we know.” That day, he said, was “the greatest day of my life.”
But the city around them was experiencing a tension between African-Americans and whites that threatened to tear it apart.
“It was a rough time surviving those four years,” Gussow said. “Yusuf Hawkins was killed in Brooklyn, there was the Howard Beach incident, Spike Lee came out with ‘Do the Right Thing.’ There was a lot of antagonism out there.”
One moment in the film shows what happened when the antagonism affected the duo directly.
“The one time I was hassled in Harlem,” Gussow said, “[it was] the summer of 1989, a real crisis,” when an African-American audience member accused him of being “one more white man coming to rip off the black man’s music.”
Gussow said that he is aware of historical injustices against African-Americans in music, such as blackface minstrelsy, and that he tried to engage the audience member in dialogue, calling Mr. Satan “the best gig I could have.”
Mr. Satan himself yelled at the audience member, telling him to leave Gussow alone. However, an older man in the audience “reminded me in a very pointed way that nobody could protect me, not even Sterling,” said Gussow, who ended up staying away from Harlem for a week.
“I could have left after three good years, said it was time to go,” Gussow said. “Falstaff, in ‘Henry IV, Part I,’ says, ‘Discretion is the better part of valor.’ You can go. But why should I let them? That’s part of the movie. Why should I let them drive me away? Satan and I worked really hard.”
What ultimately fractured the duo was not racial hostilities but the complexity of life: in 1998, Mr. Satan disappeared.
“Basically, he fell off the grid,” Gussow said.
Filmmaker Balcerek, who had faithfully chronicled the duo since 1995, now played a vital new role. He found Mr. Satan in St. Petersburg, Florida, and got Gussow back in touch with him.
“I was very grateful to Scott for finding him,” Gussow said.
Yet it would take longer than expected to reunite the partners. Traveling to Florida, Gussow suffered a heart attack and was set back “at least a year,” he said. He would not see Mr. Satan again until 2002.
By then, the bluesman was in a nursing home, so weak that when he dropped his guitar pick, Gussow had to reach down and pick it up for him.
“I’m very grateful to Scott,” Gussow said. “He helped pull us together. He paid the way down through to see him to get our reunion. We had that.”
Things have improved for the duo in the past two decades. Magee has started playing again thanks to the local music community and to aficionado Kevin Moore, a former activity director at his nursing home. Gussow, who wrote a memoir, “Mister Satan’s Apprentice,” in 1998, left New York for the University of Mississippi, where he is now a professor of English and Southern studies. He has also become a husband with a family.
Satan & Adam have even played together in recent years — including at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013. And thanks to the film that chronicles their story, the duo has a new way to connect with audiences.
“We both followed our bliss, let our passions direct the choices we made at a critical period of our lives,” Gussow said. “If I hadn’t taken a risk, it’s a lesson for people. You can’t live a risk-free life walking forward, even when you’re not sure where you’re going to go and there’s fear in your eye. It can lead you into a whole other story. It can be a real good story.”