ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
One day, taking a shortcut through Harlem, I passed the most amazing blues guitar-player
I’d ever seen. He was keeping time on a hi-hat cymbal, stomping and crashing.
His singing was terrifyingly intense. Amazed, I got out of my car . . .
Satan and Adam albums
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By Adam Gussow
I grew up in a small town called Congers, about 25 miles north of New York City. Apple farms and vacant lots, a backwater. I raised snakes, hunted for butterflies, thought of myself as an ugly duckling. At the age of 16, after years as a “good” kid who did all his homework, I suddenly fell in love with the sound of blues harmonica and got Evil. I smoked pot, drank beer. The J. Geils Band was everybody’s favorite at The Rockland Country Day School; my big triumph, as valedictorian, was to step away from the lectern after giving the required speech and blow “Whammer Jammer” through an amplifier, backed by the blues band I’d just formed. Dazed and confused is putting it mildly. But I was determined to master my instrument.
Princeton was next, class of ’79. I majored in English–a survivor of remedial writingand found a Great Love. In 1984, after five stormy years, she left me for a guy I knew. The three of us were English grad students at Columbia at that point. I went nuts. Dropped out, flew off to Europe, blew harp in the street, came home and poured out a Kerouackian road-novel to console myself. (I was a terrible fiction writer.)
In 1985, still dazed, I ran into Nat Riddles, a New York blues harmonica player who took me under his wing. I followed him around all summer as he worked Astor Place and Wall Street with a small combo he called “El Cafe Street.” He showed me how to tongue-block and warble, how to get a smooth rich vibrato instead of the wimpy white-boy sound I had. I’d never heard of Big Walter Horton before Nat got a hold of me.
After my apprenticeship with Nat, I busked the streets of New York for about a year with a couple of manic young guitar players.
In June of ’86 I flew over to Europe with one of them, worked the Beaubourg in Paris, the festival in Avignon, cafes on the Riviera. Drank wine, chased fun. I put away my harmonicas when I got back to the StatesI’d finally gotten the whole street thing out of my system–and got a straight job tutoring writing at a community college in the South Bronx.
One day, taking a shortcut through Harlem, I passed the most amazing blues guitar-player I’d ever seen. He was keeping time on a hi-hat cymbal, stomping and crashing. His singing was terrifyingly intense. Amazed, I got out of my car, stood awkwardly as people flowed by, helplessly drawn into his groove. Finally I asked somebody who he was. “Who, him?” the guy said. “That’s Satan. Everybody in Harlem knows Satan.”
I came back the next day with my stuff and sat in. Satan and Adam. Pretty soon we were a team.
Mr. Satan and I worked this spot on 125th Street next to the Studio Museum for three or four years, season after season. Summer brought the lemonade man, hauling his wheeled dolly with the sloshing ten-gallon drum; he’d ladle us large sweet Styrofoam cups for a dollar apiece. (We’d pay him with crumpled dollar bills and change people had thrown into Mr. Satan’s tip bucket.) In winter we’d bring along a broom and sweep the snow away before setting down our amps. We were crazy about making music outdoors.
Harlem loved us right back. Mr. Satan was a legend–the Mississippi-born guitarist who’d backed up Marvin Gaye and Etta James in a former life. “Go ‘head on, devil!” people would yell. I waswell, the white boy who played with Satan. People knew me, and were amazingly friendly. The guy with the sunglasses in this picture is Mr. James Gants, a freelance blues singer who sometimes sat in with us. He’d sing “I Feel Good” and throw in all of James Brown’s fancy moves.
New York City was a tense place, racially, during the late 80s. White punks attacked three black men in Howard Beach, chasing one of them onto a highway where he was hit by a passing car.
A black kid named Yusuf Hawkins was shot by Italian hoods in Benson Hurst. Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” upped the ante, with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” as its soundtrack. Mr. Satan and I managed to forge our highly public interracial relationship in the midst of all this mayhemoffering ourself as the in-your-face alternative, the tension-releasing black-and-white musical frenzy
There was certainly money to be made. We’d work Times Square, Morningside Heights. Sometimes we’d work streetfairs: four long hard sets in the hot sun. This was [during the time] after Yusuf Hawkins was gunned down. We made $150 apiece. Harlem was raging at the time; I was beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to call it quits on 125th Street. “Hell no,” Mr. Satan barked. “We gonna get bigger than you know, Mister.”
Just as our street days began winding down, success came calling. In June 1990 . . . we opened for blues guitarist Buddy Guy in front of 5,000 people in Central Park. “We are stars, Mister!” Mr. Satan cried, showing me the necklace he’d made. (He’s a remarkable artist, salvaging bits of wood from trash cans, cutting them with a jigsaw, assembling them into brightly-colored mandalas and medallions.)
We went into the studio, finally, and recorded a demo that later became our first album, “Harlem Blues” (Flying Fish, 1991). Then Bo Diddley’s manager discovered us one night at a women’s bar down in Greenwich Village, where we had a Sunday night gig. Next thing I knew we were a featured attraction at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, touring England and Scotland with Bo. On the road to success at last.
We’ve been all over the world by this point: Finland, Australia, Winnipeg, the Mississippi Delta. Released two more albums, made the cover of Living Blues magazine. Nothing quite matches those old Harlem street-days, though. Making money is fine, but having people throw money at you because you’ve touched them is something special
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Adam Gussow, shattered by failed love at twenty-seven, dedicated himself to blues music in an act of creative desperation. When he met Nat Riddles (“harmonica-man for all occasions”) he got what he was longing for: initiation into the New York “harp”-playing demimonde and a headlong plunge into a Dionysian lifestyle that ended when Riddles’ near-murder and flight compelled Adam to find a different mentor.
Mister Satan was that man. Born Sterling Magee in Mississippi, Satan played guitar and various percussion instruments simultaneously, ferociously.He was also a soapbox preacher and environmental philosopher, an African American genius of Shakespearian immensity.
Defying cultural and generational divides, Adam and Mister Satan became fellow street musicians, would-be racial redeemers, and, eventually, an acclaimed performing duo. This is their remarkable story: at once the author’s own coming of age and his account of the vicissitudes and tenacity of a friendship realized through a shared love of the blues.
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Mister Satan’s Apprentice is a rare musical history because, not only can Gussow play, but he can also write. The writing is good enough to bring the music to life.The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Mister Satan’s Apprentice is a lyrical and heartfelt account of a remarkable friendship born out of blues music. For Adam Gussow playing blues harmonica is an escape. And one evening while still reeling from a recent breakup, he meets Nat Riddles, a self-described “harmonica-man for all occasions” who recognizes in Adam a kindred musical spirit, offering him an entrée into the blues scene. When Nat flees the city after surviving a near-fatal shooting, Adam turns to a philosophical Mississippi native known as Mister Satan, a brilliant Harlem street musician who plays guitar and percussion simultaneously.What begins as an apprenticeship evolves into a unique collaboration, one that not only wins the performing duo critical acclaim, but also demonstrates their ability to transcend generational and cultural divides. At once a remarkable coming of age story and a fascinating tale of the redemptive nature of the blues, Mister Satan’s Apprentice is also the story of how two muscians form a unique friendship based on a shared love of the blues. Gussow arrives at a kind of profundity that eludes many more serious scholars and commentators.The Washington Post Book World
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It’s a good deep book, more than the story of a musical journey…. Mr. Gussow’s prose is full of long, twisted, roaring, rollicking sentences that are not unlike his blues lines.The Wall Street Journal
Source: Random House
Adam Gussow is assistant professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir and has been a professional blues harmonica player for many years, touring widely in the 1990s a s part of the Harlem-based duo Satan and Adam.
MR. SATAN is Sterling Magee, legendary Harlem guitarist and songwriter who has performed and recorded with James Brown, King Curtis, Etta James, George Benson, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, and others.
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By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 January 2012