The Early Days of a Unique Soul/Blues Duo


Satan and Adam: Word on the Street: Harlem Recordings, 1989 (Modern Blues Harmonica)

Adam Gussow and Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee were a fixture in New York City in the late '80s and early '90s: a young, white, Princeton-educated harmonica player and a black, experienced Mississippi-born blues/soul veteran who sang while simultaneously playing electric guitar and percussion. They eventually got club gigs, but they started out playing on the streets of Harlem, where Magee had been playing regularly and Gussow sat in one day in 1986 and, after a good response from the crowd (the tip bucket got filled), they became a team.

This two-CD set on Gussow's Modern Blues Harmonica label captures them in that environment, playing on the street. As Gussow explains, "these recordings were made on a $79 Radio Shack boom-box that I set down on the sidewalk." A modern field recording. The vocals aren't always as upfront as on the duo's later studio recordings (next decade they made three fine albums), and there's plenty of extraneous noise (a jackhammer can be heard in the background of the first track, and it doesn't matter a bit), but the strong grooves are unaffected. Hearing the pair really stretch out those grooves -- six tracks are between 10 and 16 minutes long -- is among the biggest rewards of this set, though of course the duo's usual merits pertain. Gussow's agile riffing is invigorating, and Magee's guitar tone is so richly distinctive that the first time I played their debut I immediately remembered having heard them at Broadway and 113th Street a few years before. Even non-New Yorkers get that I've-heard-this-before feeling, thanks to the duo's 38-second cameo in U2's 1988 documentary Rattle & Hum and on the accompanying soundtrack.

Another reward is that only on one song, "CC Rider," does the repertoire here overlap with their studio albums. Blues and soul standards are given new twists ("What'd I Say," "Big Boss Man," "Every Day I Have the Blues"), and plenty of previously undocumented originals are finally heard. As a bonus, Noah Adams's 1991 NPR interview is included at the end, catching Mr. Satan in rare preaching form.