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Remembering Johnny Winter

The spectacularly influential and forever intriguing blues guitarist, Johnny Winter, sadly passed away on Wednesday. Rolling Stone magazine has called Johnny Winter one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Ripped off and beaten down by unscrupulous managers, strung out, living the extreme highs and extreme lows of an uncompromising musician, Johnny was a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor. Winter’s long career was chronicled by Mary Lou Sullivan in her Backbeat publication, Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter, which was mentioned in the Rolling Stone article featured below.

The Lion in Johnny Winter: A Tribute to the Guitar Icon

by David Marchese

Legendary blues musician Johnny Winter died in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 16th at 70 years old. There are plenty of reasons why that’s notable — Winter was one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos, releasing a string of popular and fiery albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, becoming an arena-level concert draw in the process — but it’s the barest facts that remain the most inspiring. Johnny Winter, from little Beaumont, Texas, afflicted with albinism and 20/400 eyesight in one eye and 20/600 in the other, made an iconic life for himself by playing the blues.

What are the odds of that story coming true? What levels of self-belief, resilience and talent did it take to transform those biographical details — one could easily imagine, say, Thomas Pynchon conjuring them for a character (The whitest blues guitarist! Named Johnny Winter!) — into the stuff of a legendary career? As fellow blues guitar great Michael Bloomfield said when introducing Winter at a 1968 show at Manhattan’s Fillmore East, “This is the baddest motherfucker.” Winter was that, no doubt, but also a testament to the idea that with a lot of skill and dedication and more than a little luck, music can open any door.

In Mary Lou Sullivan’s entertaining biography, Raisin’ Cain, Winter, whose brother was multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter (of “Frankenstein” fame), explained that, “Growin’ up in school, I really got the bad end of the deal. People teased me and I got in a lot of fights. I was a pretty bluesy kid.” That alienation, he believed, gave him a kinship with the black blues musicians he idolized. “We both,” he explained, “had a problem with our skin being the wrong color.”
It’s probably overly romantic to say that one can hear any sort of outsider’s howl in Winter’s playing, which first came to wider attention via a 1968 Rolling Stone article that praised him for some of the most “gutsiest, fluid guitar you ever heard,” but at its best, there’s a beautifully articulated flamboyance to his music. Faster and flashier than his blues god contemporary Eric Clapton, Winter’s musicianship — a hyperactive, high-octane intensity was his great blues innovation — had the electric flair of someone who was determined to take charge of how he was seen by others. It was as if his playing (and his gutsy singing) was a challenge to audiences. Okay, you’re looking at me? Then watch this.

As a concert draw and big-seller, Winter peaked in by the mid-Seventies. (New listeners should start with 1969’s Second Winter; this year’s True To The Blues compilation is comprehensive.) But stepping out of stardom’s spotlight gave him the opportunity to do his most valuable work, as a steward to the music that changed his life. Starting in 1977, Winter produced a trio of swaggering, earthy albums for blues genius Muddy Waters, of which Hard Again is the first and best. Those albums reconnected Waters with his own greatness — Muddy’s prior Seventies albums had been uninspired — and delivered him a late-in-life critical and commercial triumph. After Waters died in 1983, Winter, who by then had already inspired followers like his fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan, settled into a journeyman’s role, releasing albums at a steady pace and touring even more frequently than that. It wasn’t always an easy ride— there were struggles with addiction and duplicitous management — but it was as good, and honorable, as a blues musician can ask for. They wouldn’t be called the blues if everything was rosy.

When he wasn’t on the road, Winter, who, it must be said, cut a striking figure on-stage up through his last gigs, spent his time with his wife at home in rural Connecticut, and was able to bask in the respect of fellow musicians, a testament to the truth that if you give your being to the music you love, the music can turn that being into a remarkable life. His now-posthumous upcoming release, Step Back, is due out in September and features appearances from Clapton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, Dr. John, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and others. They all knew what Winter meant.

Towards the end of Raisin’ Cain, Winter is asked how he’d liked to be remembered. He answered, simply, “As a good blues player.”

For more, here is biographer Mary Lou Sullivan being interviewed shortly after Winter’s passing.

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Happy Birthday, Johnny Winter

Guest Blogger: Mary Lou Sullivan, author of Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter (Backbeat Books)

I met Johnny Winter in 1984, shortly after his 40th birthday. It’s hard to believe that almost 28 years have passed since then and that he’ll be 68 on February 23, 2012. When I asked him about turning 40 back then, he viewed his birthday philosophically. “When you’re 40, there’s no getting around it,” he said. You’re not a kid anymore, you’re middle-aged, you’re an adult. It was kinda nice to me to make it this far and still be a successful musician. To me, the greatest thing in the world was to get paid enough so you didn’t have to get a day gig, where you could just be a musician. That’s all I’ve ever done and it’s a good feeling,” he added with a laugh. “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m 75 or 80.”

Mary Lou Sullivan and Johnny Winter during the recording sessions for I'm A Bluesman. (Photo by Dick Shurman)

Almost 20 years later, when I asked him how long he planned on playing during our weekly interviews for Raisin’ Cain, he’d had a change of heart. “I used to say I wanted to be playing the blues when I’m 80,” he said, as we chatted on his living room couch. “But 80’s nothing now; I’d like to go to 100.”

When I embarked on my seven-year journey to capture Johnny’s story, my goal was to preserve his legacy and give him his rightful place in music history. But the results of writing Johnny’s biography have been even more than I had imagined. Accolades for the book have come from far and wide and from some very unexpected places. Dan Aykroyd, a.k.a. Elwood Blues, called Raisin’ Cain “one of the world’s great music biographies,” and invited me to chat with him on two of his House of Blues Radio Hours. Jimmy Page’s manager David Enthoven took the time to send me an email to tell me Raisin’ Cain was “a great read.”

Johnny’s fans contacted me from around the world, praising the book and thanking me for writing it. I received emails and letters from throughout the US, the UK, Canada, Spain, Hungary, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Argentina, and Australia. A copy of Raisin’ Cain made it to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, where one of Johnny’s old roadies is serving time for too many DUIs. Another copy holds a place of honor in the Library and Archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

There were other honors as well. The Blues Foundation in Memphis presented me with the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Literature, and the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) gave its 2011 Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research to both me and Johnny.

Raisin’ Cain not only reached Johnny’s fans and followers; it exposed his story and music to a new generation. A 10-year-old boy interviewed me for a school report about Johnny, and used the latest technology to embed you tube videos into his PowerPoint presentation. Nearly 150 college freshman heard Johnny’s music and story for the first time when I was invited to be a guest lecturer at a music history class at the University of Connecticut.

Johnny’s legacy, like the man himself, continues to thrive. He celebrates his 68thbirthday playing the Sighisoara Blues Festival in Romania on a tour that includes shows in Italy, Croatia, Poland, Greece, Germany, and Switzerland.

Happy Birthday, Johnny. May you still be playing at 110!

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Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter (Backbeat Books) by Mary Lou Sullivan

Author Mary Lou Sullivan sat with Johnny Winter for hours of exclusive, no-holds-barred interviews, covering the guitar slinger’s entire career. From toughing it out in Texas to his appearance at Woodstock, his affair with Janis Joplin, his stadium-filling tours, and washing out on drugs and the temptations of the road before finally fulfilling his dream of becoming a 100-percent pure bluesman, resurrecting the career of Muddy Waters, and winning a Grammy Award for his effort, this is a raucous roller coaster of story. Raisin Cain is available from Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and BackbeatBooks.com.