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Johnny Winter - Raging Pages

  by Lisa Torem

published: 8 / 11 / 2016

Johnny Winter - Raging Pages


In 'Raging Pages', her monthly book column, Lisa Torem enjoys Mary Lou Sullivan’s expertly written biography, 'Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter'

The international blues community was shocked and saddened upon reading the headlines that beloved blues guitarist Johnny Winter passed away in the summer of 2014. Author Mary Lou Sullivan, who had first interviewed Winter in 1984, had formed a strong bond with the Beaumont, Texas, recording artist/producer and with Winter’s blessings, was determined to help tell his engrossing story, although her mission would be thwarted by management many times over. It was back in 2010 that ‘Raisin’ Cain’ (Backbeat Books) finally got published, and whilst Raging Pages ordinarily concentrates on recently published books, the author wanted to celebrate an artist, whose career is perpetually being renewed; much like the majestically coloured leaves of the autumnal season. Sullivan, a passionate writer and clearly a great believer in Winter’s legacy, doesn’t cut corners when detailing the drama and euphoria that Winter encountered and endured. He and his younger brother, Edgar Winter, were both born with albinism and had to field cruel comments from school mates. The disease also affected the siblings’ vision and tolerance for the sun. Despite this, Winter devoted his formative years to diligent practice. After winning a talent contest, which led to a recording contract, fates were sealed. Both would become acclaimed musicians, but Edgar would develop a more perfectionistic style, work as a multi-instrumentalist and prefer rock, whilst the older Winter would stick primarily to his blues roots. One of Winter’s earliest memories was sitting in with Muddy Waters on the far south side of Chicago. They would develop a life-long friendship, in which Waters would even refer to Winter as “my son”. Between 1977-1979, Winter would go on to produce two studio albums and one live album on behalf of his mentor (‘Hard Again, I’m Ready’and ‘Muddy Mississippi Waters Live’). But Winter’s story also includes other strong relationships. His self-titled album of 1969 featured bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. When Winter first hired the band members, he was fully aware that, by playing only blues material, they would suffer a financial loss but the love of the genre was so strong, that they committed themselves whole heartedly. “When he got up under the lights, with that long white hair he looked like some kind of god—I was mesmerized by him” Shannon recalled. The two would ultimately be let go, due to management decisions, but would always remain friends and continue to support each other’s careers, through friendship and later gigs, but many of Winter’s other relationships would be much more shrouded in ambivalence and contempt. Winter is courted and then managed by Steve Paul, who once owned the New York Club, 'The Scene'. Winter feels that there’s a disconnect between them, although Paul does move his career forward greatly. Ultimately, Winter creates a management deal with tour manager, Teddy Slatus, whose financial decisions practically destroy Winter’s career until second guitarist Paul Nelson discloses his unscrupulous practices and redirects his career. Serious musicians will love the detailed desciptions of gear used in sessions, how material was selected and how various producers worked alongside the bluesman. Was Winter impossible to get along with? Were people out to get him? Was he a friendly, affable man with raw talent that had to be handled with kid gloves, so that his true genius could easily flow? The studio interviews were taken from the point of view of other players and major producers. Sullivan, thankfully, allows the reader to decide. Winter’s addictive personality and the way it was treated is also highlighted. Shockingly, his hands and feet were clamped onto a bed for 12-hour stretches at a rehab center. His addiction to methodone, which sounded like a viable alternative to his heroin addiction at the time, turned out to be a deadly option. Winter’s love life is scrutinized too. He employs a double-standard, feeling strongly that he doesn’t have to remain “true” on the road, although he expects his women to do so. He fully exploits his rank as rock star; although he eventually does marry and does reflect on how his choices may have affected those who most loved him. Winter has a charmed life. There are many references to the performances that changed his life and the artists he revered, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are just of a few of the celebs that arouse his curiosity, bring out his competitive instincts or allow him to connect emotionally or musically. 24-photos are included, including one by Paul Natkin which shows his "Screamin' Demon" tattoo and Lazer guitar complete with the enraptured expression on his face. The photos trace his early roots and illustrate key performance moments. “I’ve lead a very interesting life. You can’t make this stuff up,” Winter writes at the end of his heartfelt foreword. “Interesting” can be construed as an understatement, of course; Winter, who buried a knife and gun in separate boots in case of a violent brawl, had a life that resembles more of a seething volcano, and the fact that he rose above so many obstacles to attain such success is remarkable in and of itself.

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Interview (2009)
Johnny Winter - Interview
Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter talks to Lisa Torem about the craft of song writing, his favourite songs and some of his main musical influences

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