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

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.

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.

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.

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