Raisin’ Cain – The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter is a rarity — an authorized biography that pulls no punches, leaves no stone unturned or tale untold. Mary Lou Sullivan’s well-researched book chronicles the guitarist’s rise from the Texas roadhouse circuit to stadium headlining tours, and his subsequent decision to forego the big stage of rock stardom to focus on the blues music that inspired him to play in the first place.
It also covers his excesses — sex, drugs, alcohol and career mismanagement that not only hurt him professionally but also nearly killed him. Why did he agree to lay it all out for the world to see?
“Well, if you’re gonna do it, you gotta talk about everything,” said Winter recently by telephone from his home in Connecticut. “You can’t just put in the good stuff … there was some bad stuff too, and we had to do that.”
But there’s a lot of the good stuff.
“Legendary” is an overused term, but an apt one to describe Winter, the first white musician ever inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. At 16, he jammed with B.B. King in a blacks-only club in rural Texas. The night the Allman Brothers Band recorded their career-launching Live at the Fillmore East, they were opening for Johnny Winter.
“It was the first time I met them there,” Winter said.
He played at Woodstock (though he doesn’t remember a minute of it), jammed with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin (whom he also briefly dated). The Rolling Stones and John Lennon both wrote songs for him. “It was great, because I loved Mick and Keith and John,” he said.
There’s hardly a musician Winter hasn’t shared a stage with: “I played with everybody, and I loved every minute of it.”
Winter reluctantly embraced rock and roll due to management pressure. For his 1969 Columbia debut, his studio band included bluesmen Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton. By 1970, his original bass player and drummer were forced out, replaced with a harder-edged band that included second guitarist Rick Derringer.
The formula netted gold records and sold out tours for most of the decade. But when asked by Sullivan how he’d like to be remembered, Winter offers a succinct response: “as a good blues player.”
On other hand, when Led Zeppelin released their second album, it featured “Whole Lotta Love,” adapted from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.” Dixon, however, didn’t receive credit or compensation until 1985 — and then only by court order. It wasn’t the only time the English rockers engaged in musical pilferage, a fact that still riles Winter. “That was horrible, that was really rotten,” he said, his voice rising. “I really hated Zeppelin for doing that. I mean, they were making plenty of money. They could have afforded to credit the people that wrote the damned songs, they didn’t need to steal them. I couldn’t believe they did that.”
Winter says Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant came backstage during an early 2000s European tour to offer amends. “He said, ‘If I did anything that was crappy I was kind of stuck on myself,’ and apologized. But he really never did anything about it. He just said he was stuck on himself and if he was crappy he was sorry.” Still, Winter remains gracious about Plant’s not-exactly-heartfelt apology: “It was nice,” he said simply.
His ire is understandable. Where many musicians used the blues to further their rock careers, Johnny Winter traded on his rock celebrity to become the genre’s most vital ambassador. Beginning with 1977’s Nothin’ But the Blues, he’s stuck to traditional blues for the latter part of his career.
As a producer, he singlehandedly re-ignited public interest in Muddy Waters after Waters’ record label allowed the blues legend to languish with a series of poorly conceived “concept” albums like Brass and the Blues and Electric Mud.
“That was so stupid, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” Winter said. “Electric Mud was the worst piece of crap I ever heard. I wanted to get him back to sounding the way he did in the ’50s.”
Winter calls his four-album run with Waters, beginning with the 1977 Grammy-winning comeback Hard Again and ending with King Bee in 1981, “definitely the high point” of his career.
2004’s I’m a Bluesman is his last studio album; but recently Winter contributed slide guitar to James Montgomery’s upcoming album. “It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We did it in two takes.”
Several authorized bootleg albums of live material, assembled by musical curator, band member and manager Paul Nelson, have recently become available. The latest is a full Johnny Winter And set recorded at the Fillmore East in October 1970, which came out last month.
At the same time, Nelson has worked to stop the sale of inferior product that’s dogged him since early in his performing days. “Thank God for that,” said a relieved Winter.
Guided by Nelson, with help from Montgomery, Winter eventually bounced back from his frail state. By 2007, he was sitting in with Butch Trucks for his signature cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” at the Crossroads Guitar Festival.
He’ll return to Crossroads again later this month in Chicago to play with the Allman Brothers Band. Friday, June 11, Winter comes to Concord to headline a Concerts for the Cause “Blues Summit” with Joe Louis Walker and Ronnie Earl. Assessing the current state of the blues, Winter names Daddy Slim and Teardrops, Eric Shrug and Sonny Landreth as some of his favorite younger players.
“It’s not as good as it was, but we always do pretty well,” he said. “We haven’t had any trouble; a lot of these guys do. I’ve been real lucky — extremely lucky.”