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"Remember me as a good blues player..." The real Johnny Winter.

Johnny Winter biographer Mary Lou Sullivan pays respect to the recently departed Texan legend with a personal account of the man behind the myth. It got crazy and then some...

When Johnny put himself into the River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans for heroin addiction in June 1971, celebrities didn’t get treatment for alcohol and drug addiction and rehab facilities catering to them didn’t exist.

One music magazine reporting Johnny’s hiatus from touring referred to him as a “frail Texas albino bluesman-turned-rock-superstar-turned-mental-hospital-inmate.” But Johnny saw what drugs had done to his lover Janis Joplin and his friend Jimi Hendrix, and “went for help because I didn’t want to die.”

He kicked heroin cold turkey and suffered through three months of physical withdrawal and another three months of psychological withdrawal. “The mental part was the worst part,” he said. “When you’re tryin’ to get off of heroin, it messes with your head. It’s horrible, just horrible.” Not being able to play guitar was extremely difficult, so as soon as he earned passes to leave the hospital, he sat in with a rock band named Thunderhead. The friendships forged during that dark period of his life led to musical collaborations with guitarist Pat Rush and drummer Bobby T (Torello) who became a lifelong friend.

Johnny’s resolve to stay away from heroin led to an increase in his drinking, which he tried to curtail by drinking liquor that he didn’t like. “I drank a lot of nasty-tasting things because I figured I wouldn’t drink so much. I drank bourbon and grapefruit juice. That must have been the worse possible combination and I still drank a lot of it. Scotch is nasty tasting too.”

In fact, a wild night in the French Quarter when Rush and Johnny attempted to sit in with a band was a result of drinking copious amounts of Chivas Regal scotch.

“We sat at a table at The Ivanhoe and Johnny leaned over and said, ‘Pat, promise me that you won’t let me get me get up and play. I’m too drunk − I can’t stand up,’” Rush recalls. “We’re in there five minutes, and the band says, ‘We see Johnny Winter, let’s get him up to play a song!’ Johnny stands up, ‘Yeah!’ I pull him back in the chair and say, ‘Johnny, no. You made me promise. You’re too drunk, you can’t stand up, don’t do it.’ He said, ‘Come on, Pat, just one song. I’ll sit on a stool and sing and you play guitar.’ So we got up and he sat on a stool. He had his top hat on and his fringed jacket. He leaned back to hit this note and the stool fell backwards, he fell into the drums and knocked them over on top of the drummer. That was pretty much the end of the song. I had to pick him up off the floor and out of the place − it was hilarious.”

When I first interviewed Johnny by phone in 1984, he had just released Guitar Slinger on Alligator Records and celebrated his 40th birthday by getting the Screamin’ Demon tattoo on his chest. Impressed by his honesty, affinity for storytelling, philosophical approach to life and self-effacing sense of humour, I set up another interview for a Johnny Winter special on my WCCC radio show in Hartford so I could meet him in his tour bus after the show. 

Smoking his trademark Kool and sipping on a glass of vodka in the back of the bus, he pulled out a small velvet sack and proudly displayed the last remaining slide from a 12-foot piece of tubing he bought at a plumbing-supply store in 1965. When I asked him about how he’d practised his scream by yelling into a pillow as a kid, he grabbed a small brown pillow off the seat and screamed into it. He was such a charming, larger-than-life character; I felt I wanted to know more about him. 

Johnny’s life story had all the ups and downs and twists and turns of great literature and, in 1985, I approached his manager Teddy Slatus about writing his biography. But Slatus said Johnny was still young and they wanted to wait until he won a Grammy. I kept asking and he kept turning me down, but I never abandoned my quest. I was determined to tell Johnny’s story with his input during his lifetime, rather than leave it to biographers forced to rely on the often self-serving memories of peripheral players after he was gone. As I always say, “Everybody has a Johnny Winter story and some of them are even true.” 

This feature contains excerpts and photos from Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild And Raucous Story of Johnny Winter. For more details visit: www.johnnywinterbook.com 

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