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Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter

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

“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…"

Excerpted from Chapter 5, “The Legend Begins” of Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter by Mary Lou Sullivan Copyright © 2010 by Mary Lou Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Hal Leonard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

While Johnny was meeting with the Vernon Brothers in England, Rolling Stone was going to press with an article that would change his life. On December 7, 1968, the counterculture music magazine ran a cover story written by Larry Sepulvado and John Burks, who traveled to the Lone Star State to report on the music scene. The main illustration, a photograph of Johnny in a formal seated pose with the caption JOHNNY WINTER, ALBINO BLUESMAN, was spread over two pages and ran beneath the “Texas” headline. Although the article mistakenly called Edgar his “identical twin brother,” it gave him instant credibility with Mike Bloomfield’s acknowledgement that Johnny was the “best white blues guitarist he had ever heard” and Chet Helms’s description of him as “incredible.” A former Texas resident, Helms had talked Janis Joplin into leaving Austin and later convinced Big Brother and the Holding Company to hire her as their singer. With credentials like these, along with his famed “Family Dog” concert and light-show productions at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms, Helms’s opinion carried weight.

“When I got back to Texas, Rolling Stone had this big article that said how great I was,” says Johnny. “It was everywhere—everybody read Rolling Stone. It called me the hottest thing in Texas outside of Janis Joplin. The reporter saw me in the Love Street Light Circus but I never knew he was there. That article was excellent; I didn’t know how much it would do, but I knew it was gonna be a big help to us. It helped us get more money at the club, and I was going to New York to talk to Steve Paul, who wanted to be my manager.”

Steve Paul, a twenty-seven-year-old New York entrepreneur from the Bronx (“one of the best boroughs in town”) owned the Scene, a trendy nightclub in Manhattan. A former restaurant publicist with numerous contacts in the music industry, Paul was fascinated by the nightclub scene and remembered “loving and sneaking into all sorts of New York nightlife at an early age... My concept [for the Scene] was organic, eclectic, and open minded,” he said. As owner of the hippest club in New York City at a time when the rock music scene was exploding, Paul enjoyed the music and company of a wide circle of rock stars and famous musicians.

“Everybody had an amazing time, including me,” he said, as he tosses off names of notable artists who frequented and jammed at his club. “Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton, the McCoys, the Who, the Velvet Underground, among others,” he said. “How can you not like all these people, especially when they come to your club? They’re all great musicians and interesting characters.” The Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin also frequented the Scene, and Paul considered Johnny “equal to the best of them.”

Before Johnny met with Paul, he and his band flew to San Francisco to talk to record executives at Mercury Records. Texas native Doug Sahm, founder of the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose single “She’s About a Mover” on Mercury Records reached thirteen on the charts, set up the meeting.

“Doug Sahm got Mercury Records to pay our way to San Francisco,” said [Uncle John] Turner. “The Rolling Stone article came out at the same time. Record labels were calling our hotel room from the East Coast saying don’t sign anything yet—give us a chance. I don’t know how they knew we were in San Francisco. I guess the word got out.”

Also in relentless pursuit, Paul who had talked to Johnny for hours on the payphone at the Vulcan Gas Company, left phone messages at Johnny’s parents’ house, and tracked him across the country. “I was really into blues and great players and Johnny seemed like an exciting and colorful musician, which indeed he is,” said Paul.

“When I went to California, he called me at every place I was there,” Johnny says. “I don’t know how he got my number. He’d call me at restaurants, everywhere. I thought he was kind of an idiot. I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. Believed he really was who he said he was.”

Johnny and company stayed on the West Coast for several weeks. Mercury Records arranged for them to play a Tuesday night audition at the Fillmore and a gig at the Matrix, a small, hip club near North Beach.

“The Matrix was owned by Grace Slick’s husband,” said Turner. “Jerry Garcia was there; he was part owner. It was a club like the Scene, although it was nowhere as big or as cool. But it was a cool place to play; there were a lot of record people there.”

Although Mercury Records offered Johnny a lucrative deal, the label wanted artistic control, something Johnny was determined not to give up. He returned to Texas to see what Paul had to offer.

“Steve Paul looked up my number in the phone book and called me when he flew in to Houston,” says Johnny. “He came to my house. I thought he was kinda crazy; he saw us but he never said he liked us or not. We couldn’t figure out why he was so excited about signing us if he didn’t have any feelings for us. It was very strange that he never said he liked us.”

Paul may not have told Johnny he liked the band, but considered that meeting “exciting and enjoyable” and on a personal level, found Johnny to be “really smart, funny, and enjoyable to be with.” Nevertheless, Johnny doesn’t think that goodwill ever extended to the rest of the band.

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