Before you begin interviewing an artist for a biography, you spend years emerged in the details of his life: doing online research; reading dozens of newspaper and magazine articles; listening to old albums and CDs; watching videos and DVDs; talking to his friends, family, musicians, managers, producers, and so many people that played a role in his life. So it wasn’t surprising that once I began interviewing
in his home in January 2003, I developed what I called “Johnny Fever,” enjoying our two to four hour interviews and the time we spent hanging out together after my tape recorder was turned off.
Even before I began our interviews, I knew we’d get close and that would make his loss even harder when the time came. But 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 selfserving memories of peripheral players after he was gone.
I had no idea how devastated I would feel when I heard the news of his death. I was still in tears when a Fox TV producer called to see if I’d come to the studio in a matter of hours to share my memories of Johnny on the 4 o’clock news. It was difficult reading the countless heartfelt emails and Facebook messages thanking me for writing Raisin’ Cain, and saying how much they loved Johnny and my book. Emotions ran high during those early days, and it took quite a while for the pain of his loss to lessen. But finally, thankfully, it was replaced by sweet memories.
I still smile when I remember the first night I went to his house, where he stood up like a true Southern gentleman when I walked into his living room. During that first interview, it was difficult to tell which one of us was more nervous. After I started staying after our interviews and talking to him like a friend, Johnny proudly showed me his extensive record collection that included hundreds of vintage blues albums, Alan Lomax’s field recordings, and Firesign Theater comedy albums from the 1970s.
When he said he couldn’t listen to them because he didn’t have a turntable, it really bothered me. So I bought him a turntable but left it in my car until we finished our interview the following week. When I told him I had an Easter gift for him, he figured it was a chocolate bunny (he loved chocolate). But when he looked in the box and saw the turntable, he got so excited that he reminded me of a little kid at Christmas. Trying to put the belt on the spindle was like the blind (literally) leading the blind, so I promised to return with a friend to hook it up the next day.
When we stopped by on Easter Sunday, he had his custom box of carefully indexed 45s ready. He played “Okie Dokie Stomp” by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and my requests: “School Day Blues” and “You Know I Love You” from his first single, and “Birds Can’t Row Boats,” which he called “a song makin’ fun of Bob Dylan.” I still treasure the memory of that delightful afternoon.
I’ll never forget the night he brought me upstairs to the room where he kept his awards, hats, music books, and music memorabilia. His gold record for Johnny Winter And Live; framed Grammy certificates for producing Muddy Waters recordings Hard Again, I’m Ready, and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live; and Grammy nominations for Johnny’s Alligator recordings – Guitar Slinger and Serious Business – were proudly displayed on the wall – next to an award for 100,000 plus sales in the UK for John Lee Hooker’s 1991 release Mr. Lucky. He was so proud and unassuming that it reminded me of being 11-years-old and having your best friend show you the treasures in his bedroom.
Guitarist Chris D’Amato, who had toured with Debbie Davis, asked me if Johnny wore clothes when I interviewed him. I thought that was an odd question, but mentioned it to Johnny the next week. He laughed, said he usually didn’t wear clothes around the house, and told me a story about getting in trouble for reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” naked at summer camp as a kid. When I thanked him for wearing clothes during my visits, he smiled and said “You’re welcome.” It was a sweet and surreal moment.
My fondest memory is the night Johnny answered the door wearing the Homer Simpson slippers I had given him the week before. After our interview, he walked over to his CD player, his shirt open to display his trademark tattoos, wearing dark blue sweatpants and those bright yellow slippers with bulging white eyes. I had asked him to play me his fiery rendition of B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” on the Mike Bloomfield / Al Kooper Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12-13-68 CD that had just been released. As I sat beside him on the couch, listening to that historic performance by this amazing guitarist with a wonderful heart, my only thought was, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
I still find it difficult to believe he’s gone. But I’m grateful for his friendship, his music, and the opportunity to capture his life story in his own words during our much too brief time together. Rest in peace, dear friend, and know that you are loved. [ ]
Mary Lou Sullivan’s authorized biography - Raisin’ Cain - The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter - earned the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Literature from the Blues Foundation in Memphis and the 2011 Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. JohnnywInterbook.Com