Raisin' Cain

The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter

by Mary Lou Sullivan

9 June 2010

Johnny at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in 1975. Photo (partial) by
© Jim Summaria 

The Scene: A Basement Club Under a Dirty Bookstore

“Later on I found out he didn’t like Tommy [Shannon] or Uncle John [Turner] at all,” says Johnny. “He didn’t think they were as good musically as they needed to be, but he didn’t say anything about that for a good while. He waited. He never did have opinions of his own. He would ask his friends what their opinions were and he’d get enough opinions in one direction and that would be his decision. He was real strange about that.”

Despite Paul’s comments that he loved the blues and blues artists—Muddy Waters was the first recording artist he hired to play at the Scene—Johnny believes he only embraced the genre because it was trendy in the late ’60s.

CAPTION

Both Johnny and Janis Joplin were featured in ads for Tijuana Smalls in 1969. (Photo by © Susan Winter)

It was a big club on Forty-Sixth and Eighth Avenue, a basement club under a dirty bookstore. I played a lot at the Scene and played with a lot of people there including Jimi Hendrix.”

“Steve Paul wasn’t into blues—not particularly. He just knew blues was very popular at the time. He was a New Yorker, a fast talker. He wasn’t like anybody I ever knew. He never seemed to have a thing for girls—he never liked guys either. We couldn’t figure out what he was, but he just didn’t go for either sex. He didn’t want us to know—I guess he felt we would be down on him if he told us he was gay, so he didn’t tell us.

“He said, ‘Let’s go to New York and I’ll show you what I can do.’ And he did. I stayed at his house and he took me to the Fillmore to see Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. I sat in with them and played ‘It’s My Own Fault,’ and blew everybody away. The crowd gave me a standing ovation. They just flipped out completely. They’d seen all the stuff in Rolling Stone and were waitin’ to see what I was like. Everybody wanted to sign me up after that. Steve didn’t make me sign until after he had gotten a deal with Columbia—I had already signed with Columbia when I signed a management deal with him. He had owned the Scene for several years when I met him. It was a big club on Forty-Sixth and Eighth Avenue, a basement club under a dirty bookstore. I played a lot at the Scene and played with a lot of people there including Jimi Hendrix.”

“Steve Paul was a cool person,” said Turner. “A brilliant, fast-thinking New Yorker, he hung with the Warhol crowd. Steve Paul delivered the $600,000 deal. He got the money and he also brought Johnny to New York to his club and got him to jam with Jimi Hendrix. In our mind, this guy was powerful.”

“Being a hick from Texas, I didn’t know what to think of Steve Paul,” said Shannon. “I’d never seen a New York Jewish guy before. It was weird how it happened. One night, Uncle John and I were sleeping on the floor with our clothes in footlockers. The next day, we fly into the airport, where there were two beautiful girls waiting on us. We went from there to some mansions in upstate New York. We went from sleeping on the floor to living in mansions overnight.”

Shannon also had another experience in New York he had never encountered in Texas.

“When we first moved to New York, there was a black guy named Jason who was supposed to be our valet,” said Shannon. “He was gay and fell in love with me. I was so dumb, I had no idea. One night, we went out and ate with a big group of people. He came over and sat in my lap, and I still didn’t get it. Everybody started laughing and I couldn’t figure it out. Someone had to tell me he was gay. After that it was like, ‘Get away from me, man!’”

Steve Paul enjoyed traveling with an entourage. Whether the initial destination was a restaurant, a concert, or a Broadway play, the group always ended up at his nightclub. He had opened the Scene just off of Manhattan’s theatre district in 1964. The blue-canopied basement club quickly became the place to see and be seen. Tiny Tim of “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” fame got his first break at the Scene in 1965 when Paul hired him, and he soon earned the title of House Freak. The Scene was also a spawning ground for up-and-coming musicians and the place where legendary players always stopped by for the good-looking groupies and impromptu jams.

“There was always a line outside the Scene and lots of celebrities,” says Johnny. “Jimi Hendrix and all of the English bands who came to New York—once they left their gigs, they came to jam. It was a real well known place for rock ’n’ roll people. There was everything in the Scene in 1968—heroin and cocaine, speed, ups, downs, grass. They pretty much did it in the open and nobody cared.”

Turner and Shannon were also dazzled by the Scene and the musicians the club attracted.

“All the people at the Scene were famous,” said Turner. “Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker. One of the first times we went there Jerry Lee Lewis played.”

“The first time I went to the Scene I couldn’t believe it,” said Shannon. “Jimi Hendrix and Rod Stewart were there, as well as the most beautiful girls you can imagine. You have to remember, we were hicks from Texas. I couldn’t believe Jimi Hendrix was sitting over there, Jerry Lee Lewis was there—any night of the week, you would go in and there’d be great musicians. I played with all the great guitar players just about… Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Muddy Waters, and all the Kings [Albert, Freddie, B. B.], just about all the great guitar players except Jimi Hendrix.”

Early in their careers, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Rascals, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the Chambers Brothers performed at the club, which was known for its horrible ventilation, deafening acoustics, and laissez-faire attitude. Raven, a Buffalo-based rock/blues/jazz band that relocated to New York City, played there regularly, and was the backdrop for Johnny to dazzle new audiences with his mastery of the guitar. Other house bands included the McCoys; Free Spirits, a jazz-rock band with Larry Coryell and Jim Pepper; and Players, which featured Dan Armstrong, the studio session guitarist and luthier who invented the clear Plexiglas guitar. Patrons witnessed musical history in the making at amazing jams by Janis Joplin and Eric Burdon; Tiny Tim and the Doors; Richie Havens and Joan Baez; Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck; Hendrix and B. B. King; the Monkees and Frank Zappa; Hendrix and Jim Morrison; and Hendrix and Johnny Winter.

TO BE INSERTED

Johnny Winter and Mary Lou Sullivan. Photo (partial) by © Andrew “Drew Blood” Grzybowski

Mary Lou Sullivan is a music journalist whose 30-year career began at a dinner with Bruce Springsteen. She first interviewed Johnny Winter in 1984, a meeting that led to a close rapport that has only deepened through the years. When Johnny was ready to tell his story, she was the only one he trusted. Mary Lou Sullivan lives in Connecticut.

© 2010 Mary Lou Sullivan


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