Interview with author of the Johnny Winter Biography Mary Lou Sullivan

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Raisin Cain - the wild and raucous story of Johnny WinterMary Lou Sullivan is the author that recently released Johnny Winter’s long-time-coming biography Raisin’ Cain – The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter. Johnny Winter is hard-driving Texas bluesman that built a name in rock with hits like “Rock n’ Roll Hoockie Koo” while never straying too far from the blues. He’s well known in the blues community for his vocal love and ambassadorship of blues music to the rock world, and for helping to give Muddy Waters a second burst of exposure and aided in cementing the iconic blues hero into his rightful place in history. Mary Lou is an accomplished author and a long time friend of Johnny’s. When Johnny was ready to tell his story, he called her.
We sat down with Mary Lou to get a little more insight on her book, her long, hard journey writing it, and Johnny’s wild & crazy rock star life.

Mary Lou, tell me a little about Raisin’ Cain – The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter. Is it a biography or autobiography?

It was originally going to be an “as told to” autobiography, but when I started interviewing Johnny in January 2003, it was obvious his lifestyle had affected his memory. He had no recollection of certain events and periods in his life, so it made more sense to write it as an authorized biography. That entailed countless hours of research, as well as interviews with the key players in his life—family, friends, musicians, managers, producers, engineers, and record company executives. That made the process longer and more labor intensive for me, but I believe the result was well worth the time and effort.

You’ve been writing for quite some time now! I understand you’ve spent a lot of time interviewing the greats in the blues and rock scenes. Can you tell us a little about the folks you’ve interviewed?

My first music story was about a dinner I had with Bruce Springsteen during The River tour in 1980. My cousin worked for his sound company, and my aunt invited the entire band over for a 6-course Italian meal. I hid my notebook in the bathroom, and chatted with Bruce, who graciously posed for photos “for the family album.” He later gave me permission to run my article and the photos in the Hartford Advocate. My next interview was the Ramones. I wore spandex to get a backstage pass and enjoyed talking to Johnny Ramone, who was extremely intelligent and articulate, and Joey Ramone, who (according to Johnny) told me stories that just weren’t true.

I did several phone interviews with B.B. King, who invited me to join him at his table at a nightclub after a show. I interviewed Albert Collins over the phone, and met him at a party in S.I. R. in New York after his American Guitar Heroes show at Carnegie Hall with Roy Buchanan and Lonnie Mack. I did a back stage interview with Michael Bolton when he was opening for Bob Seger, and interviewed Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown many times. One of my favorite interviews was with Levon Helm when he was performing with The Band.

I understand that you were the person he wanted on this when he was ready to tell his story, and that it took a long time for him to be ready. Can you tell me a little about how you two got teamed up for this?

I met Johnny in 1984. I did an initial interview for the Hartford Advocate over the phone, and was impressed by his honesty, affinity for storytelling, and great sense of humor. I enjoyed meeting him backstage at the subsequent concert, and wanted to do another interview in person. I was also hosting and producing a talk show at WCCC, a rock radio station, so I was able to schedule and tape a second interview in his tour bus for my show.

Johnny was charming, energetic, and funny when we chatted in his tour bus. He screamed into a pillow to show me how he practiced his “rock ‘n’ roll” yell as a teenager, and pulled out a small suede drawstring bag to show me the slide he had made from a piece of pipe from a plumbing store in Colorado. I was fascinated by him and his amazing life story, and knew right then I wanted to be his biographer. I approached his manager Teddy Slatus about writing Johnny’s biography in 1985, and several times throughout the years. But it wasn’t until I approached Slatus almost two decades later that he finally agreed to the project.

I had interviewed Johnny for another paper in September 2001 and stopped by Slatus’s house for a photograph. Slatus remembered me and said he was impressed with the way Johnny opened up to me. We entered into a handshake agreement to make me Johnny’s biographer (actually he kissed my hand) the day before 9/11. But Slatus gave me the runaround for 15 months before making it official. When he finally did, he said he had talked to other writers but chose me because “You have heart and you really care about Johnny.”

What made the connection with Johnny so strong that he had you eventually record his story?

Johnny is a really honest person, and so am I, and he picked up on that early in our relationship. I did research on Johnny for a year before I started interviewing him, and brought 400 plus questions (culled from research and interviews with his mother, brother, wife, players, etc.) to every one of our Saturday night interviews. He was impressed with my research and loved hearing about people, events, and recordings he hadn’t thought about in years. We were both very nervous in the beginning. So I started hanging out to shoot the breeze after our interviews, and we developed a friendship. Once Johnny got to know and like me as a person, he trusted me and really opened up. He knew the book was a labor of love—that I wanted it to be his legacy, to give him the respect he deserves, and allow him to take his rightful place in music history.

Did you have any challenges when working on Raisin’ Cain?

After I had interviewed Johnny for a year of Saturday nights, Slatus called in his attorney, stopped the project, and forbid Johnny and his wife Susan from having any further contact with me. Slatus had planned to limit my access to Johnny, but was in rehab for alcohol-related problems for most of the year. With him out the picture, I dealt with Johnny directly and he invited me over almost every week. When Slatus finally got out, he was threatened by my close friendship with Johnny and frantic about what he may have told me.

I was devastated that I couldn’t see Johnny anymore because we had gotten very close. It was a tough time for me, and I went back to writing my novel for several months. But then I realized I already had Johnny’s story on tape. If I didn’t let him tell it, someone else would. And that would most likely be a collection of self-serving accounts by peripheral players, with background from old magazine articles that may or may not have been accurate. As Johnny always said, “Who knows better than I do? I’m the only one that knows what really happened.”
That’s when I decided that Johnny’s story was too important to stop without a fight. So I embarked on six more years of interviews with dozens of people to fill in the blanks and make it a definitive biography. 

Another big challenge was cutting 15,000 words from the final manuscript to comply with the publishers guidelines. That was really tough.

How long did it take to write? 

About 7 years, not counting a year of research before my interviews with Johnny.

Did you discover any interesting revelations about Johnny when working on Raisin’ Cain?

Johnny is a gentleman – he stood up the first time I walked into his house. I thought he came from a poor background, but he’s from an upper middle class family with a maternal grandfather and great-grandfather who were both lawyers. But what surprised and impressed me the most was his undying belief, even as a child, that he would be a successful musician.

Now Johnny was the collaborative effort behind one of Muddy Water’s most acclaimed albums Hard Again. He produced and played with Muddy and I believe the album really gave Muddy a second burst of popularity. I know you cover this extensively in your book, but can you tell us a little about Johnny’s collaboration with Muddy?

Johnny loved Muddy and was thrilled to play on and produce Muddy’s four Blue Sky albums. He didn’t like the way Muddy had been treated by Chess Records, especially in his later albums, and was determined to recreate Muddy’s early sound. He chose Dan Hartman’s Schoolhouse Studio in Westport, CT, a one room schoolhouse built in 1760, for the sessions. Johnny used close miking for the instruments, but also set two microphones near the ceiling, which created a room echo and captured the raw sounds of Muddy’s 1950s recordings. Johnny was amazed how quickly Muddy worked in the studio, and learned a lot from him.

You can check out an excerpt from the chapter about Johnny’s collaboration with Muddy at: http://www.thebluesmobile.com/upload/media/johnny205216.pdf

Johnny has a reputation in the blues community of being this true link between blues and rock, and sincerely preaching the blues to all who would listen. Can you tell us a little about the bluesmen that Johnny collaborated with and supported?

Johnny revived Muddy’s career when three of the four Muddy Waters Blue Sky Records won Grammys. Johnny’s passion for Muddy brought his music to an entirely new audience and cemented his legacy. Johnny also produced and played on “Whoopin”” with harp player Sonny Terry. “Whoopin” was Terry’s only recording with electric guitar, and brought Terry’s music to a difference audience than his work with Brownie McGhee. Johnny has also been very supportive of Clarence Garlow, a Creole guitar player that befriended him in Beaumont. Johnny considers Garlow an early mentor and provided a photo of the two of them for the book.

Of course, Johnny also gained a reputation some time ago for being pretty wild. Hittin’ The Note (music magazine) says “There’s enough sex, drugs and tales of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle here to make most editions of VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’ seem like a visit to Sunday school”!! Were there any crazy stories in your book about Johnny?

There are a lot of crazy stories in Raisin’ Cain. Johnny making women get his name tattooed on their groin or derriere, and then dumping them for being weak. Playing on a revolving stage tripping on LSD with Led Zeppelin as their opening act. The multiple women who knew they were one of many but went along with the arrangement. Getting caught with a joint while in rehab for heroin addiction, and getting strapped into bed for a month. Salvador Dali wanting Johnny to perform with a microphone up his butt. And that’s just off the top of my head.

This book has been getting popular! I’ve heard you on House of Blues, you’re winning a “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in Literature from the Blues Foundation this year, Blues Revue Magazine did a piece on you, and that’s just what I’ve seen around. Where can we find you in the press?

I’ve been really blessed in terms of publicity. In addition to the two House of Blues Radio Hour shows with Elwood Blues, I did an interview with Bill Wax on B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. I’ve had press in the UK’s Classic Rock (an article and a review) and Record Collector, France’s Soul Bag, Germany’s Good Times, as well as Blues Revue, Vintage Guitar, GuitarEdge, Guitar & Bass, Guitar World, Big City Rhythm & Blues, Booklist, Connecticut Magazine, Hartford Magazine, About.com Blues, Blueswax, LiveBluesWorld.com, Popmatters.com, Hartford Advocate, Austin Music Source, and the Port Arthur News (Texas), to name a few. You can find links and/or excerpts on my website www.JohnnyWinterBook.com.

I’ve found stories about Raisin’ Cain on websites in Sweden, France, Indonesia, Hungary, Russia, Brazil, and Japan, and have had six orders from Australia for signed books.

Raisin’ Cain has amazing photos, including Johnny jamming with Jimi Hendrix, Johnny with Janis Joplin, and Johnny with Jimi’s engineer Eddie Kramer. Was it difficult finding those photos?

The book has three photo inserts with 47 photos, which my editor says is unheard of in the publishing industry. People were extremely generous in providing photos, especially Johnny and his wife Susan. It took me several years to find the name of the photographer who took the shot of Johnny with Jimi. I knew who took the Johnny and Janis photos, but was unable to reach him by email for three or four years. I finally connected the old fashioned way–by writing him a letter. Apparently he gets so many unsolicited emails, he deletes them all. The photo of Johnny with Eddie Kramer was a serendipitous find – I discovered it when Uncle John Turner’s widow Morgan was showing me his old scrapbooks.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Mary Lou! Where can people pick up a copy of your book?

It’s available on my website, www.JohnnyWinterBook.com (I’m happy to sign copies), at Borders, Barnes and Noble, and (hip) independent bookstores, as well as Amazon.com.


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