When I began my career as an activity director, little did I know that taking that one extra step with a particular resident of mine would reap rewards for so many, and that I would become Satan’s Roadie.
In 2003, I took my very first job as an activity director in a LTC (long-term care) facility in Gulfport, Florida. Through my previous training, I knew the importance of getting to know each and every resident. On my daily rounds at the facility, I kept coming across this one gentleman who always sat in the same seat in the lobby or back porch, silently drumming his fingers or tapping his feet to some unheard song. When I approached him, he was very polite and called me, “Sir.” Rarely did he initiate conversation, and he wasn’t very forthcoming about his past. I just couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something about him…
So, I asked around. The nurses and aides filled in some of the gaps. They told me he had family who came by occasionally to visit and were supportive. He liked music and at one time was “some kind of singer.” He had a guitar in his room that he didn’t play anymore. The most interesting thing they told me was that a film crew came down for “some kind of story” about a year or two ago.
Well, I thought, we have a local high school and a university a few blocks away, maybe it was for some sort of class project. But it got my curiosity up. In his room, along with his guitar (that was being used more as a clothes rack), I found some homemade CDs with his name on them. When I popped one of them in a player, a soulful singer and band were playing their hearts out and playing the blues. Was this him? Or maybe a favorite singer of his?
At home, I Googled his name: “Sterling Magee”. Page after page popped up. Sterling Magee was also known as “Mr. Satan”, played with musical legends like Etta James, James Brown, Little Anthony and the Imperials, George Benson and appeared on U2’s “Rattle and Hum”. I had that album! He himself had recorded a couple of 45s, and most notably, was part of a blues duo called Satan and Adam. That’s who was on those CDs I found in his room. Wow! No wonder why he had that beat going on! And the film crew? It was a documentary called Satan & Adam being shot by director Scott Balcerek for the past 12 years or so, (now over 20) and no high schooler here! Among Scott’s credits were special effects coordinator for Star Wars, Twister, and The Perfect Storm! This is Hollywood, baby!
So there I was in my first week as a full-fledged activity director, and I’m presented with this gift of a challenge. Of course being new, I still had 100+ other residents to get to know, but I visited Sterling as often as I could. When he was in his room, I’d be sure to pop in one of his CDs. I put new strings on his guitar and tuned it up, hoping for the best. He strummed it a little, and he seemed happy while I was there encouraging him. Once I left, the guitar went back on the chair though, and he didn’t touch it until I visited again. Yes, had seen that spark, but how to get it to become a flame? I had to start thinking outside the box.
While previously working as an activity assistant, one of my favorite group of folks to work with – although very challenging – were my Alzheimer folks. The one constant in successfully reaching these special people had been when I offered music. Not just some general “oldies” playlist (although that did work sometimes), but rather specific music that each individual could relate to. I’d ask them what their favorite songs were. Favorite bands. I’d consider the era they grew up in. I’d ask family members. If they didn’t know, I asked them to thumb through their loved one’s record collection. After all, I am not going to reach “Maggie” with country music when she likes big bands.
Now mind you, Sterling didn’t have Alzheimer’s or anything like that. In my opinion, he just has not been encouraged enough, given the tools or support he needed to connect with his past and his one true love of playing the blues. I saw that spark, the gleam in his eye. Music was his thing. So, I started there. I put Sterling on my 1:1 programming schedule. He started getting regular visits by music therapists and volunteers, who not only played music for him, but also encouraged him to play as well. I continued to visit and encourage him, quizzing him about his days in New York and other things I found out about him online. Slowly but surely, I could see the change coming. I even found him a few times playing his guitar in his room with no encouragement at all!
Then opportunity knocked, and I answered. A family member of another resident knew about Sterling’s backstory, and she mentioned to me that there was a local musician, a blues harmonica player by the name of TC Carr. She spoke with him, and he’d be willing to stop by with his harps, and who knows…? Of course!! How great is that! A real bluesman coming by to connect with Sterling!
TC and Sterling immediately connected, and every week, sometimes twice a week, he’d come by. Out on the back porch, TC would blow his “harp”, while Sterling strummed along with his acoustic guitar. It started sounding pretty good! Not to mention, it was also great for my other residents who would come out to listen to the music.
Things progressed! TC got a weekly gig in town with a couple other musicians. He asked if Sterling could come down with him and play in his band. “Are you kidding me? Of course!” Now Sterling was in a band again! TC started to pick him up each week and bring him down to the gig. They let him borrow an electric guitar to play. After a few weeks, the woman who first hooked us up with TC, came running up to me in the hallway at the nursing home: “You HAVE to come down and see Sterling play! You just have to!”
So the next night he played, I went down. Through a beautiful courtyard attached to a historic inn and spa, I could already hear the music playing, and they sounded really good! When I came around the corner, there was Sterling, sitting on a stool, front and center of the band, and playing that guitar like I never have seen or heard him play back in the nursing home. Was this even the same guy? I couldn’t believe it! He was even singing a little. I felt a shiver go down my spine. This was too good to ever miss again. From that night on, I decided to take on the task of picking Sterling up from the nursing home every week to bring him to the gig. And right there that night, I became “Satan’s Roadie”.
Day by day, week by week, Sterling got better. There in that beautiful courtyard with Sterling playing the blues, although it was just a few blocks away, the nursing home seemed so far away, for both of us.
One More Step
Not longer after, I contacted Scott Balcerek, the filmmaker, who had been filming the documentary about Satan and Adam. Then I called Adam Gussow, Sterling’s former partner. Before I knew it, a film crew was on their way, and Adam himself came down to visit. The last time they visited they were resigned to the fact that the story, and Satan and Adam, were history. Little did they know the roadie was on the job! Could it be? Was it possible? A Satan and Adam reunion?
Well, it happened. I arranged a fundraising ball for the nursing home, and who better to headline the show and bring people in but the legendary Satan and Adam duo! I found another blues act to open the show and called it “The Boca Ball Re-Birth of the Blues”. I got a local newspaper to do a story about the fundraiser and Sterling ahead of the event. The phone was ringing off the hook! Over 200 people attended. Satan and Adam were back! Folks as far away as Philadelphia came to see. It was an incredible night!
After the Boca Ball, things took off. Georgia, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Virginia! To top it all off, Satan And Adam were invited to play in honor of Etta James at the Apollo Theater just blocks from 125th street where Sterling and Adam had met! Scott’s film crew came along when they could, and they gave me a nice digital camera to take videos of the various gigs we were doing when they couldn’t.
Of course, there were many special moments for me throughout this journey. Meeting celebrities like George Benson, being backstage at the Apollo, visiting the backroads and lounges of the South. But the most memorable was when we all went to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Satan and Adam played there way back in the day, and now they were returning when nobody thought it was possible.
After Satan and Adam finished their musical set, over a thousand people stood up and gave them a standing ovation. The look on Sterling’s face…the faces of the crowd… seeing all those people in such admiration just for him. Yes, I cried. Most of them didn’t know the back story, what all it took to get there that day. They just loved what they heard. The feeling I had at that moment, thinking back, to that first day meeting Sterling, and how far we have come, all the work involved, made it all so well worth to take that extra step.
It was also the perfect ending for Scott’s film, which is now complete, and coming to a theater near you.
by Kevin Moore