Born in Collins, the backwoods of Mississippi in 1943, Willie (Bill) Magee grew up listening to Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and BB King on his father's small radio. His mother died when he was four years old and his father followed when he was just 13. Taken from his parentless home, his older brother Deloy moved him to his tiny one room flat in Ithaca, New York.
At the Community Center, Magee met guitarist Butch Rosenberg and his focus turned to music. As the friendship grew, they spent many hours listening to R&B and rock, especially blues guitar. With a part-time job at a department store, Magee managed to save for his first guitar, a $29.99 Montgomery Ward special.
A year of solid practice brought Willie to join his first local band, and at age 14, music became his life. Working with various local bands, he also managed to graduate from high school, the first in his family to do so.
Magee relocated to San Diego in 1987 and has been performing locally since 1993. “You gotta have a passion for it,” he says of the blues. “That’s got to be number one. Number two? You got to be willing to pay your dues by practicing day and night.”
“The first six months, everybody’s gonna tell you to shut up and stop making that noise, that you ain’t never gonna ever make no music. But you gotta not listen to that.” What you have to listen to, he says, are other blues musicians. “Influences. What’ll happen is you’re gonna pick up some of their sounds, but you’re gonna start to make some of your own sounds, too.”
Magee says he practices for hours a day.“I watch football. That game’s gonna last four hours. I have my guitar in my hand the whole time. I can watch television and practice at the same time.”
To this day, Magee refuses to make a pre-show set list. “I learned that way back. When you make a set list, you’re pre-judging your audience. How you gonna be at home and know your audience?”
What does Bill Magee disdain in a fellow blues traveler? “Someone playin’ a whole lot of notes,” he says. “BB [King] could hit but one note and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”