Sean Costello, 1979-2008 

The tragic death of an Atlanta bluesman

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Monday, April 14, Sean Costello checked into Room 157 at the Cheshire Motor Inn. The highly praised Atlanta blues singer and guitarist was winding down after a seven-week tour that carried him up to Vancouver, down to L.A. and finally, on Saturday, to an American Legion Hall in Smyrna.

Apparently while he drove to the motel on Cheshire Bridge Road, Costello was interviewed via cell phone by blues enthusiast Mark Wade of Since he'd burst onto the scene as an early teen, Costello had been lauded by blues purists for his warm guitar tones, his soul-bending riffs and especially the gruff voice that contrasted with his baby face. He was hailed as an innovator, and this year, since the Feb. 19 release of his fifth album, We Can Get Together, his distinctive takes on blues classics had gained even more notoriety in both the United States and internationally.

In a podcast of the interview on the A1 Artist Spotlight website, the musician's upbeat, easygoing demeanor came across like business as usual. He rattled off a Cliff's Notes version of his rise as a blues prodigy. He talked about performing with such artists as Levon Helm, Susan Tedeschi, Pinetop Perkins, Nappy Brown, B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

"I've played with most of my heroes," he told Wade with the characteristic quiet confidence that made his modesty seem sincere. "I've been very lucky."

No one had any way of knowing this was going to be Costello's last interview. The following day he was found dead in his hotel room, his life cut short on the cusp of musical greatness, and his death surrounded by mystery and speculation on the eve of his 29th birthday.

Costello's mother, Debbie Smith, and his stepfather, Glenn Smith, bought him his first guitar for his 9th birthday. Not long after, Glenn got a job as Southeast regional manager for a large carpet manufacturer, and the family moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta. The guitar came along with Sean and his younger sister Bridget -- the gateway to a musical obsession that grew with each passing year.

"Sean was a blues historian," his stepfather explains. "He could tell you stories about all of the old blues players and he listened to everything. He loved the blues, jazz, gospel music and rock 'n' roll, and he could play it all, even the alternative stuff. But he really loved the blues. In my garage, I have about 5,000 records, tapes and CDs that he bought. And he read books and books and books about music."

By the time he was 11, Costello was practicing every day, riffing on the metallic licks of everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Guns N' Roses.

"When we bought him his first amp, you can't imagine the noises he made," Smith recalls. "People would come over and say, 'How can you stand that noise?' I guess we just tuned it out after a while. But at one point I remember hearing music coming from downstairs, and I realized that it was Sean playing everything that he heard on MTV, and playing it exactly."

When Costello was 13, Smith took him to a guitar show at the Cobb Galleria Convention Center. The boy approached a Rickenbacker booth and asked if he could play one of the guitars on display. The clerk refused, saying it was the company's policy not to allow its instruments to be handled by children.

So Costello walked across the aisle to a Gibson booth and asked to play one of their guitars. The clerk handed him the one he wanted to see and plugged it into an amp. Costello began playing "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix. His rendition was so powerful, Glenn recalls, that a sizable crowd gathered around to watch.

As soon as Costello was done, the Rickenbacker representative dashed across the aisle and said, "Here kid! Play this guitar!"

"No thanks," Sean replied. "I already played."

Felix Reyes was one of the people who witnessed Sean's spontaneous performance of "Hey Joe."

Reyes, an older Atlanta blues guitarist who fronted his own group, Felix and the Cats, immediately realized he was glimpsing a rare talent. He befriended Costello and his stepfather on the spot, and invited Sean to come sit in on a gig on New Year's Eve.

During his interview with A1 Artist Spotlight, Costello referred to Reyes as his mentor, a title Reyes hesitates to accept. "I tend to think of that as a misconception," the producer, engineer and musician says from his private studio in Chicago. But Reyes and Costello maintained a close relationship. They played together as recently as a few months ago in St. Louis, where, Reyes recalls, they "burned the house down."

"His energy was infectious and we always played above our abilities when he was around," he says.

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