Featured Intervew – Adam Gussow

Cover photo © 2022 Bruce Newman

imageAdam Gussow is, quite simply, one of the most intriguing individuals in the blues world. He has not only had an extremely successful career as a musician (first as a blues harmonica player, then as a one-man band), but he also earned his doctorate and has dual appointments as a university professor teaching both English and Southern Studies (with a specialty in blues literature and culture). In addition, he was the subject of a documentary film, was featured in the U2 documentary (Rattle and Hum), has created numerous harmonica tutorial videos, and has authored several exceptional books with blues-related themes.

Gussow was born in New York and while his parents were not musicians, he traces his musicianship to his father, who was a record collector with wide tastes but a special fondness for jazz recordings. He noted that in the collection were 78’s of Cab Calloway and Bessie Smith, along with works by Artie Shaw and various boogie-woogie selections. He described how after feeling somewhat alienated due to being the only ‘townie’ in a local private day school he decided to transform himself. He purchased Tony Glover’s books along with albums by Paul Oscher, Paul Butterfield, the three “Kings” of the blues, and Eric Clapton, and taught himself to play both harmonica and guitar.

“Learning them at the same time is a good thing. You learn how the blues pitches work, and you have a visual analog on the fretboard, which made it easier to conceptualize how to play it on the harmonica. I also attended an incredibly transformative concert when I was seventeen. It was the J. Geils Band with James Cotton as the opening act. I had one of Cotton’s albums and I loved Magic Dick’s ‘Whammer Jammer,’ but this was the first time I could see the players and really feel the power of the amped up harp stuff coming off the stage.”

Although he initially wanted to study audio engineering to be able to work with musicians, Gussow found that he hated computer science, so switched to studying English and American Literature. While working on his bachelor’s degree at Princeton, he joined his first band, a jazz fusion band.

“The band was called ‘Spiral’, and it was a sextet like the Crusaders and was modeled after the Crusaders. I played guitar in that band. I remember feeling the power of the brotherhood of being in the band. That brotherhood is so important. It is one thing that has continued to mark my career.”

Gussow received his master’s degree in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and also attended the Berklee College of Music one summer, where he studied jazz guitar for seven weeks. However, there he discovered that while he loved to listen to jazz, he was not a jazz guitarist. It was around the time that his first serious love relationship ended that he found himself seeking more blues music.

image“I began to busk and ran into Nat Riddles, who became my harmonica teacher. He was six years older than me and a legend in New York blues circles, so he was kind of like a big brother. He heard me on the street, and we started talking and he said he could teach me how to tongue block and play like Kim Wilson, Sugar Blue and John Lee Williamson. I gave up playing guitar at that point and put it all into the harmonica.”

Gussow reported that he not only listened to the harmonica greats, but also listened to saxophonists. He realized that if he copied harmonica players, it would be clear that he was just copying them, but if he mimicked saxophonists, it sounded much more unique. Therefore, he interpreted solos by Houston Person, Hank Crawford, and King Curtis using his harmonica. Early in 1986 he began going to the jazz clubs in Harlem–a time when very few white people were visible in Harlem. None of the musicians in the clubs were playing harmonica, and he soon earned the respect of both audiences and his fellow musicians. He reported that one day when he was driving through Harlem, he spotted a man singing while playing guitar and percussion in the street and he stopped to listen. He asked if he could play with the man, who called himself “Mr. Satan”, and when he did, people started gathering to hear the two of them. He later discovered that Mr. Satan was actually Sterling Magee, who had backed such greats as King Curtis, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. Magee also had a brief solo career but had gotten disillusioned with the music business when he realized his record producer, Ray Charles, would take steps to ensure that no artist on his label outshone him.

“People say I must have been brave to be in Harlem at that time, but I didn’t feel brave. Once I started playing with Sterling and saw the positive response from the audience, it just felt right. It was a time when New York had a very high murder rate, but I never heard a gun or saw a gun. I didn’t think that was happening where we were, although later a Village Voice writer, Peter Noel, told me that he was hanging out with militant Black Nationalists just around the corner from where we were playing and they were not happy with the fact that I was out there. And he said, ‘Frankly, Adam, I’m surprised they didn’t take you out,’ so maybe it was more dangerous than I realized. But it was such a great gift to be able to play with this amazing musician. Then, pretty early on in our relationship, Mr. Satan got a second high-hat cymbal and he took off like a shot, doing much more complex rhythms.

image“He developed that incredible percussion sound while I was there. I think I provoked a little bit of it. My harp was adding to his sound, and we became very intense–we really pushed each other in an amazing way. To the people who came to listen to us I was just the ‘white boy who played with Satan,’ but then we made a demo and I had to put a name on it, so I called us ‘Satan and Adam’. We started playing in other locations, including near Columbia University and down in Times Square, and I remember at one location I sold 60 of the demo cassettes in one hour, while I was playing! I was trying to play and would have to stop to take their ten dollars and shove it in my pocket.”

After several years of playing together in New York, Magee and Gussow were discovered by Margo Lewis of Talent Consultants International and began touring internationally as “Satan and Adam.” They were featured in festivals such as the Chicago Blues Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, the King Biscuit Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They also toured with Bo Diddley and opened for such greats as Buddy Guy and Otis Clay. They released three albums together, and their first album, Harlem Blues, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year. However, not every aspect of their expanded success was easy. For example, Magee’s common-law wife would usually travel with the duo. According to Gussow, she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and would experience auditory hallucinations, so this sometimes caused traveling to be a challenge. Magee also displayed some eccentric behaviors, although more often he was focused on delivering joyful advice about living in the moment.

“His whole life was devoted to not being neurotic. He didn’t believe we should condemn what we do. If you are going to have a drink, have a drink and don’t regret it. He thought we should live without regrets, and we shouldn’t second-guess ourselves. It taught me a basic lesson—you can get through things you think you can’t. It toughened me up and that was one of the many lessons working with him. I didn’t think he was crazy—quirky but not crazy.”

However, Magee disappeared one day in 1998 without notice to Gussow, and it was later learned that he had experienced a breakdown requiring psychiatric treatment. With no sign of Magee, it appeared that their performing days had ended. But, at the same time that he had been successfully touring, Gussow had returned to Princeton and managed to complete most of his Ph.D. So, in 2002, he accepted a position as a professor at the University of Mississippi and decided to focus primarily on his university career. He did still find ways to host blues symposiums and conferences, helped in part by the recognition he’d gained as the author of a book about his time with Magee, entitled “Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir” (1998) and graced with the “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award from the Blues Foundation.

In 2007, after five years in Mississippi, Gussow also started to release harmonica tutorial videos.

“I decided to make some videos to share some insights I had developed over the years as a player, and then kind of got possessed and made forty videos in forty days. Surprisingly, nobody had ever taught blues harmonica by offering downloadable videos and tab sheets, so I was the first person to figure out that could be done. However, I knew very little about the Internet, for example, I didn’t know about file hosting, and had to learn some things pretty quickly once I had several hundred YouTube subscribers.

image“When I’m dead and gone if anybody knows about me, it will probably be from my YouTube videos, not Satan and Adam, because they taught a lot of people. People always come up to me and say they feel they know me because they are always playing along with my videos.”

For his next book, Gussow initially had hoped to write about transracial creativity beyond the color line but got diverted, early in his graduate school career, by his interest in the violent themes in the blues world.

“This was the period we had the LA uprising, and we had the OJ Simpson case. I remember being in a seminar on black intellectual tradition when Simpson was acquitted. Newsweek magazine had covers insisting that black and white Americans were living in two separate worlds. My initial desire was to write about transracial creativity beyond the color line, but I got turned in a different direction. I started thinking about the way that various sorts of violence showed up in the blues. You know the first recorded blues song, “Crazy Blues,” ended in a violent way, with a black woman fantasizing about shooting a cop. I wrote a dissertation about three different kinds of violence in the blues.”

Gussow’s book, “Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition” sheds light on a tragic period of lynching and mob vigilantism that is documented in blues lyrics. This book was the winner of the 2004 C. Hugh Holman Award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.

Throughout Gussow and Magee’s time performing together, there were filmmakers who had become very interested in the duo, and they started filming footage for a documentary entitled “Satan and Adam.” The filmmakers were able to locate Sterling Magee, who was living in a nursing home in Florida having suffered, among other ailments, a stroke. He appeared so debilitated that he was unable to play a guitar, but with encouragement from others he slowly regained his ability to sing and just enough dexterity on guitar to hold down the rhythm. In 2007 Magee and Gussow reunited to play a few gigs, initially adding a drummer (since Magee could no longer play percussion). When the drummer died unexpectedly in 2011, Gussow, who had been playing foot drums for several years, filled in and became the duo’s new rhythm section. A wonderful moment in the film showed that Gussow and Magee were able to return to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013, twenty-two years after their debut in 1991. Sadly, there will be no future reunions, as Magee recently passed away due to complications secondary to COVID.

While focusing primarily on his teaching and writing career during his time at Ole Miss, Gussow realized that he still wanted to record music, so in 2010, he released a solo album entitled “Kick and Stomp”. It was recorded live, with no overdubs, and featured Gussow as a one-man band singing and playing both harmonica and foot drum.

“This was a watershed moment for me. It was the first thing I had done on my own after all the Satan and Adam stuff. You know, I was not just Satan’s boy, not the strong second fiddle, but was doing my own thing. In our heyday, he was the percussionist and now I’m the percussionist. It was an uncanny transformation. Life forces us into unexpected growth and transformation. That the solo album sold well and my first video as a solo player got four and a half million views, a version of ‘Crossroads Blues,’ was by far the most popular thing I’ve ever done.”

imageIn 2012, Gussow joined forces with another professor at the University of Mississippi, Alan Gross, who also had dual careers in academia and music. They became “The Blues Doctors” and recorded two albums together. Gussow also authored another book in 2017 entitled “Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition” which investigates the presence of the devil image in blues lyrics. This was named the Best Blues Book by Living Blues Readers’ Poll and won the John C. Cawelti Award for being the best textbook in popular culture.

In 2018 the documentary “Satan and Adam” was finally completed after over twenty years in the making. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was streaming on Netflix and Amazon prime. Gussow reported that frequently people tell him that the film moves them to tears.

“Woven into the documentary is a message about interracial brotherhood, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called beloved community, and that’s something we don’t hear enough about these days. I think Sterling and I kept that alive in a way that moved people when they saw it imaged in the documentary, and I think the blues world should offer more images of that kind of thing.”

Magee’s nephew, Rod Patterson, saw the documentary and contacted Gussow.

“I got an email from Rod. He said he did anti-bullying work and was a singer and a dancer. He said he could sing his uncle’s songs and asked if I wanted to put something together. It turns out he had actually contacted me at some point ten years earlier, but I never got back to him. I don’t know why. This time I thought, ‘Why not? What do we have to lose?’ Alan Gross and I decided to go to the studio with him and see what happened and it felt amazing from the get-go. We initially didn’t know what to call ourselves, but we decided to keep his stage name from his anti-bullying work, Sir Rod, and we became Sir Rod and the Blues Doctors. I’m 64 and Alan is 70 and we didn’t really have a front man, so it’s great to have Rod, who is a legit front man. He provided exactly what we needed because he upped the singing and performance element. We are doing a range of music. Some of it is Satan and Adam repertoire, and that feels great, but we are also meeting Rod where he is. We’re making it work and I think there is a market for us out there.”

Of course, starting a new band while teaching full-time at a university would not be enough for this master multitasker, and Gussow has recently authored another book. “Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of Music” is a well-researched candid description of the diametrically opposed views regarding whether the blues is multi-cultural or whether whites are guilty of cultural appropriation. It was included in the prestigious list of Choice Outstanding Academic Titles for 2021.

image“Some people think the presence of white blues songwriters and musicians is a relatively new phenomenon, as if the music had not been shaped early on by white songwriters. We need to be aware of when white people actually came to the blues, and I invite people to read more about that in the book. I know that sometimes there can seem to be an element of blackface minstrelsy or racial burlesque when white artists perform, which can make for lightweight, forgettable blues. However, when you hear someone like Tab Benoit or Watermelon Slim singing from deep within their souls, that’s not a problem. You don’t have to throw a huge racial sword on the music.”

When asked if there are any contemporary blues artists that he enjoys, Gussow mentioned Aki Kumar (a harmonica player originally hailing from Mumbai, India), Memphissippi Sounds, Southern Avenue, and Jason Ricci.

“Aki Kumar blows me away. He is a brilliant payer and writes interesting songs. He is interesting also because he made the decision at a certain point to heighten his ethnic self-presentation, wearing native Indian clothing and doing songs that were written, in part, in Hindi. The Memphissippi Sounds have a great thing going on, and I like that an Israeli guy gets together with two young black women, and they end up conquering the world with Southern Avenue. They show you what you can do, making new music. It’s blues but with an R&B side that interests me. Then there is my pal, Jason Ricci. I love what he does. He is doing things no other amplified blues player has ever done with overblows on the harmonica. And he’s open about his struggles with substance abuse, but he didn’t become a member of the “27 Club” like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, and other gifted blues musicians did. He picked himself up, humbled himself, and kept on living. He is such an inspiration and is playing better than ever.”

Ricci has equal admiration for Gussow. He noted that “Gussow is much more than an academic or an educator. He is one of the best and certainly most unique blues harmonica players alive. The way he swings and the way he accompanied Mr. Satan were as supportive, beautiful, and funky as this instrument is capable of doing. For blues he is one of my favorite players alive and in my top ten ever. Quite simply I wouldn’t be the player I am without his contributions to music and to me personally. I am very grateful to have him as role model and a friend for over 30 years.”

Adam Gussow’s books are available through Amazon and other vendors, his tutorial videos are available at www.modernbluesharmonica.com, and you can find out more about his new band and their tour dates at www.sirrodandthebluesdoctors.com.

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