“If he had a gig every day he’d still be alive.”
— Glenn Smith, stepfather
Sean Costello was that rarest of prodigies, a child genius who grew into a mature artist.
He was a quadruple threat: a songwriter, a singer, a virtuoso guitarist and a band leader. With his baby-faced good looks and stage charisma, he could have been a pop star.
Instead he was drawn to the blues as if it were a religion or a mission. Even in that niche market, he created an international career, recorded five albums, wrote a raft of songs and performed on stages around the world, leading bands with sidemen who were twice his age.
He weathered dramatic setbacks and notched great achievements. Atlanta blues legend Tinsley Ellis called him “the most gifted guitarist to come out of Georgia since Duane Allman.”
But there was one opponent that Sean could never overcome: His own chemistry.
This month, in a ceremony at the Georgia World Congress Center, Sean Costello will be ushered into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, joining the company of such titans as Ray Charles and James Brown.
Sean won’t be there.
In 2008, just before his 29th birthday, he checked into an Atlanta motel. The next morning the manager found his body. Sean had lost the battle with his demons. But his spirit is renewed each time a youngster falls in love with the blues. And a foundation created in his name will help those who are fighting the samebattle that took Sean Costello down.
Putting on a show
Sean Costello was probably the only 8-year-old who wanted to be both Michael Jackson and Ted Koppel.
A shy kid, but a natural performer, he liked inhabiting other characters, and he impersonated both of those men on different occasions.
When he was in third grade in a New Jersey school just over the line from Philadelphia, he stood in front of the students on Martin Luther King Day and delivered the “Dream” speech from memory.
Then an acoustic guitar — a gift from Sean’s father Michael Costello — changed his life. That guitar became Sean’s costume, his constant companion.
In 1988, the family moved to Cobb County for stepfather Glenn Smith’s job as a regional manager in the carpet industry. He bought an electric guitar and amp for Sean at JC Penney, and the noises Sean made in his basement were horrific. Nobody was showing him what to do. He just listened to records, watched MTV and copied. Then one day Smith realized Sean was playing note-for-note covers of tunes by Cinderella and Def Leppard.
“We called him ‘The Sponge,’” recalls blues player Felix Reyes, who became a mentor to Sean. “He was ripping off some serious Clapton-type or Eddie Van Halen-type licks ... A lot of kids can play a lot of notes and are proficient, but that kid had a lot of soul, which you can’t learn.”
Sean recruited classmates and staged performances in his basement. But house concerts were not enough. He wanted to get out into the real world. At age 11, he talked Atlanta music personality Bruce Hampton into letting him sit in during a show at a Buckhead club on a Sunday afternoon.
According to Hampton, another 11-year-old prodigy, Derek Trucks, also guested during the same show. “It was amazing to see these two 90-year-old men who happened to be 11 years old,” he says.
In the ’90s, Hampton would become a godfather to the H.O.R.D.E. tour and the jam-band movement. That musical trend gave a home to such Georgia bands as Widespread Panic and would nurture the career of Trucks.
But Sean would go in a different direction. The first step: virtuosity.
He played constantly, sometimes devoting six hours to a single song. Play a different song! Smith would holler down the basement steps. His guitar teacher at Kennesaw State University told his parents, I can’t teach him any more. He’s as good as I am. All we do is jam.
When he was 13, Sean accompanied his stepfather to a guitar show at the Cobb Galleria and asked to try one of the instruments at the Gibson booth. As he played, a crowd gathered. “He was a kid, and he had people stopping dead in their tracks,” says Reyes, who was among the listeners. Reyes immediately invited Sean to sit in with his band, Felix and the Cats, at their New Year’s Eve gig.
Sean began playing regularly with Reyes at the Northside Tavern and Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, and he studied the blues with intensity. He traced the music’s tributaries and branches, from the Delta blues of Charley Patton, to the Chicago sound of Buddy Guy and the Piedmont fingerpicking of Blind Willie McTell. Says Smith, “He read books, he watched old tapes, he knew everything.”
He also adopted the Cats’ dress code: vintage suits, skinny ties and spectator shoes. He looked like a little kid in dress-up clothes, but his intentions were sincere. While his rock ’n’ roll contemporaries were flying the flannel flag of grunge, he was paying homage to full-grown men like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, who looked sharp and dressed clean when they performed. “When Sean came out, the fun factor went up,” says Reyes.
At age 14 Sean entered the Memphis Blues Society annual talent competition. He won the regional finals and came in fourth in the nationals. Finishing second nationally was a female singer from Boston named Susan Tedeschi.
His wins in subsequent contests earned him studio time for a four-song EP. A deal with a Memphis agent paid for his first full-length album, 1996’s “Call the Cops.” The cover shows an impeccable, impassioned young man in a Chuck Berry crouch, leaning into his big, vintage hollow-body electric, his blonde hair swooped up into a James Dean pompadour.
His look and sound were a big hit. Sean assembled a band of Memphis players and took them to gigs throughout the Southeast. The CD party at the Northside Tavern broke attendance records there. Smith was the driver, and tours would begin right after school on Friday and end late Sunday. Sometimes Sean would skip school on Friday to get a head start.
The traveling meant late nights and missed sleep. That’s not a big deal for many kids, but sleep disruption can aggravate someone with a mood imbalance, and Sean was beginning to show signs of stress.
A perfectionist, he was fearful of making a mistake. I don’t think they like me, he might say after a gig, in the face of waves of applause.
“I struggled with him being sad,” says his mother, Deborah Ann Smith. “I struggled with him in school. I called every school in Atlanta and the best I could come up with was asking them, ‘What do you have for a right-brained child?’”
He started seeing counselors at age 12 and began different medications to treat depression and anxiety. But Prozac drove him up the wall, and Paxil made him sleep all the time. The only thing that made him completely happy was playing music. Onstage, he was blissful, and if he was happy, Debbie was happy. So the tours went on.
If Sean was shy and tentative when it came to social interaction, he wasn’t tentative about his career. He was driven.
“When you’re young you want to rule the world,” says Hampton. “You want to be Elvis.”
Being Elvis comes with risks, though. As a teenager, Sean began drinking and smoking pot.
In 1996 Sean played the Springing the Blues music festival in Jacksonville, Fla., where blues artist Susan Tedeschi, eight years his senior, was on the same bill.
“We had a gig after the festival at a club a block from the festival, and Susan came down and sat in,” says Felix Reyes. “She and Sean played together, and you could see the fireworks. That was it.”
Love and heartache
As he approached the end of his senior year at North Atlanta School for the Arts, Sean announced he was going to drop out. Don’t even try to talk to me about college, he told his parents. You’ll just waste your money.
They talked him into a home-study course that allowed him to graduate. Meanwhile, Sean and Susan found a musical and emotional connection, and moved in together. Sean played on her debut album, “Just Won’t Burn,” which went gold, and they embarked on a months-long tour, with most of Sean’s band playing backup for Tedeschi. Sean was expecting equal billing on that tour. When Tedeschi became the focus, he lost his temper and quit, ending the partnership and the relationship. His band remained with the tour.
Tedeschi would go on to collaborate with Derek Trucks and eventually marry him in 2001. Today, they co-lead the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Meanwhile, Sean came home, regrouped, found some more musicians and recorded “Cuttin’ In” and “Moanin’ For Molasses.” Instead of a kid dressed up in blues clothes, the new records revealed a depth of feeling and some of the pain he’d been through.
“He had an edge, he had been broken,” says Paul Linden, who played piano and harmonica with Sean for 10 years.
Another relationship sprang up before long, this time with vocalist Amy Helm, daughter of Levon Helm and a member of the folky group Ollabelle. Amy introduced Sean to New York record producer Steve Rosenthal, who produced Sean’s self-titled album in 2003.
Amy also brought Sean to see her father, a founder of The Band, who also played on Sean’s record. Levon, just recovering from throat cancer, kept a studio and home in Woodstock, New York, where he organized musical get-togethers with other stellar players that he called “Rambles.” Sean became part of that scene, and his music began to change again.
Evolution of sound
Videos of Sean performing during this era show a young man boiling with ideas, his eyes half-closed or startled wide, the lyrics exploding out of him like steam from a pressurized kettle.
He flings himself into the music. He was known to perspire so profusely that he shorted out the pickups on his guitar. His prized instrument, an original 1953 Les Paul, suffered from this corrosive barrage: The sweat ate the finish right down to the wood.
Much of his music is about love, lost and gained, but some of his songs hint at his relentless sense of mission.
In “No Half-Steppin” he sings: “I got a light that keeps on shinin’ in my mind / Day and night, it just keeps burnin’ all the time.”
In a YouTube interview about his playing style, he says, “Sometime it seems like a mad search for what I’m actually going for, then when I get there I try to rub it in a little more. I like to feel the tension and the pain of it, and then sort of ease that.”
Sean became a great singer and good songwriter, but he wrote his name in fire on the musical sky in Atlanta with his unearthly ability on guitar.
He was largely self-taught, and he had some wonderful idiosyncrasies. He frequently played with his thumb and first two fingers, like his mentor Reyes, but also tucked a pick under his ring finger, which would materialize in the middle of a song, sometimes in the middle of a solo, if he thought he needed one.
He played a variety of guitars, but found his ultimate instrument in the 1953 Les Paul.
This guitar can do everything I want, he told Reyes.
Costello’s playing was sometimes too sophisticated for blues — he’d throw in altered chord changes, augmented triads, tiny East Indian decorations, and sometimes he’d plunge into chaos and then bungee jump back out again.
Yet his sound, with his obsessive attention to vintage amps and pure tone, was 100 percent blues.
Sean hated to change strings — I’ll change these when they start to grow hair, he told his tech — but his sweat ate through the metal, and he often broke strings on stage. This never slowed him down. He could change a string while singing an extra verse, and tune it by ear, or blow through a whole set playing five strings as well as many musicians play six.
“He passed a certain level of his playing,” said Reyes, “where he transcended everything he knew, and got rid of it, and then it was pure emotion flowing from his brain to his fingertips.”
The Rosenthal-produced “Sean Costello” album included some of Sean’s best work. But it disappeared from sight shortly after its release when the label went out of business.
For Sean, this was a catastrophe. Rosenthal, a four-time Grammy winner who had remastered the Rolling Stones catalog for their “Forty Licks” set, produced a follow-up record for Sean on his own dime, but couldn’t find a record label to distribute it.
Here was the problem: On those new recordings Sean was crossing genres. He’d been on an Eddie Hinton kick and a Bob Dylan kick and was covering “Simple Twist of Fate.” His music was turning toward soul and ballads, and the blues community didn’t want to hear it.
“He wanted to stretch the boundaries of what it meant to be a blues artist and he got a lot of crap for it,” says Rosenthal.
Chemistry and balance
More trouble came from the inside. On tour Sean veered between a stay-up-all-night party animal and a recluse who pulled the curtains and refused to leave the hotel room. He threatened to go home mid-tour and sometimes refused to get in the van. At one point he decided to dispense with the pompadour and he shaved his head.
He showed his friend Linden a bag of “what looked like solid crystals of amber” and said it was good for smoothing out a reefer buzz. Linden demurred.
In 2006, Sean was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by heightened mood swings accompanied by an increased risk of drug abuse and suicide. Perhaps Sean’s drug use was purely recreational, but it’s also possible he used chemicals to alter his moods, taking the edge off his anxiety with alcohol — or heroin — and bumping up his low-energy moments with cocaine and methedrine.
“Jekyll and Hyde” is how Tedeschi describes Sean in a recent telephone conversation. “That was the unfortunate result of being bipolar and depressed and doing drugs,” she says.
As the recession hit and gigs dried up, Sean switched from a five-piece to a three-piece ensemble, featuring Paul Campanella on drums and Aaron Trubic on bass.
In performance, the arrangement put more pressure on Sean as the singer and only solo player.
By then Linden had retreated from the stage, getting a doctorate in French literature and joining the faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi.
His Atlanta friends began to worry that Sean was getting into something scarier than his usual recreational drugs. They sought help from Linden in Hattiesburg and Reyes, who had moved to Chicago.
“I did get some phone calls from friends, saying ‘Sean’s getting a little crazy out here, you might want to talk to him,’” says Reyes.
Sean had been prescribed Lamictal, a mood stabilizing drug, but instead of taking it daily, he would take it when he felt he needed it, like aspirin for a headache.
Yet when Reyes caught up with Sean during a seven-week tour in 2008, the young man seemed at the top of his game.
“We blew the roof off that place,” says Reyes, who sat in with Sean at B.B.’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups in St. Louis. “It was a hellacious night. We stayed up in the hotel room, drinking wine, playing songs for each other.”
When the tour ended in early April, Sean returned to Atlanta and checked himself into a week-long residential rehabilitation program to dry out. He started going to 12-step meetings.
At the time, home base was his parents’ Cobb County house, but he didn’t want to go back there after coming out of rehab. While he was looking for an apartment to rent, he stayed at hotels and motels. One day he called Linden in Hattiesburg, asking to crash with him for a while.
Linden was married and had a new baby. He said it wasn’t a great time for Sean to stay there. He regrets that exchange now.
In the last week of his life, Sean played a gig at The Melting Pot in Athens, performed for a swing dance group at an American Legion Hall in Smyrna and taught some aspiring teenaged musicians in a class run by Chicago Joe Jones.
On April 14 he checked into the low-budget Cheshire Motor Inn on Cheshire Bridge Road, a street full of strip clubs that serves as Atlanta’s de facto red-light district.
“When he was manic, he’d be up for three or four days,” says his stepfather. Sean’s parents suspect their son was looking for some way to come down.
He was found dead the next morning. According to the toxicology report, Sean’s brain was swimming with psychoactive chemicals: Librium, to ward off symptoms of alcohol withdrawal; Lamictal, for his manic-depression; Claritin, for a head cold; cocaine and heroin.
Sean’s family and friends don’t think he overdosed on purpose.
“He was not in a place where he considered taking his own life,” says Linden. “He was far too aware of what good he was doing... Whatever recreationals he was involved with that night came up all spades; that’s my intuitive gut feeling about this.”
The chance of having bipolar disorder is six times higher among creative people than the average population, according to Australian psychologist and researcher Greg Murray. The disorder is also associated with enhanced empathy and more intense human connectedness.
Murray, a professor at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, has proposed ways to harness that creativity in the course of treating the disease.
He has done some of that work on behalf of the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research. Sean’s mother, Debbie, created the fund in a torment of grief and rage. While coping with the loss of Sean, she was faced with comments from Internet trolls who dismissed her son as another self-destructive stoner. “We wanted to protect Sean,” says her husband, Glenn. “We didn’t want people to think he was just another sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll guy.”
The fund has raised more than $80,000 through benefit concerts at North Atlanta School for the Arts, Northside Tavern and venues in Chicago, Memphis, Marquette and elsewhere.
More support will come from sales of a new CD, “In the Magic Shop,” the unreleased record that Sean made at Steve Rosenthal’s Manhattan studio. Going back over the tapes was emotional, says Rosenthal. “It was really hard to listen to because he was very present. If you loved Sean, it’s like he’s there with you.”
On Oct. 11, Debbie will accept Sean’s award at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame award ceremony at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. It won’t be an easy day.
“It’s such an honor, and it breaks my heart,” she says. “He would be so over the moon, I mean, James Brown? Ray Charles? And for him not to be there is so hard.”
Sean Costello is buried on a bluff at Crest Lawn Cemetery on Marietta Boulevard. They say if you moved a few buildings and trees, you could stand on his marker and see the Northside Tavern, where Sean played countless gigs, honing his chops, entertaining thousands of fans and, on one occasion, bringing the house down, in the demolition sense of the word.
While his band was playing there one evening, part of the roof collapsed. Unaware, the band played on. No one was injured, but the incident entered into the Costello mythology.
This month, recordings of Sean’s music will raise the roof at the Hall of Fame ceremonies. And somewhere, says his sister Bridget, Sean will be smiling, and touched, and a little embarrassed at the fuss.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Sean Costello was a young man when he died, but he had a big impact on music in Atlanta and elsewhere. I spoke with musicians who played with him throughout his career, and with those who produced and distributed his records. I also spent time with his parents at their cabin in Bent Tree, with his father, Michael Costello, in Philadelphia and spoke at length by telephone with his sister, Bridget, at her home in London. Three years younger than Sean, Bridget looked up to her brother, and named her son after him. Bridget and Little Sean have “Sean time,” every week, watching her brother’s performance videos on YouTube, so that her 1-year-old can learn about his uncle. If “Love is Amazing” comes on, Little Sean kicks his legs until his mom lets him down out of his high chair so he can dance.
About the reporter
Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1983. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham’s last crusade. His previous Personal Journeys feature was about Jason Barnes, a drummer who lost his arm in an accident and was outfitted with a robotic arm to play the instrument with superhuman skills. Emerson is married to Maureen Downey, who covers education for the AJC.
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Next week: Atlanta actress Carolyn Cook confronts the ravages of dementia in her life and art as she helps develop the play “Blackberry Winter.”