Raisin Cain – The Johnny Winter Story (book review)

Raisin’ Cain – The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter – Mary Lou Sullivan (Backbeat Books) Book review

Johnny Winter was one of the most influential guitarists of the Seventies; yet, we know very little about him.  A quick web search brings up surprisingly little about his personal life.  Part of the reason is that unlike blues contemporaries like Eric Clapton or Steve Miller, Winter never crossed over to the Pop charts.  But, after reading this book, you find out that there’s some very good reasons for Johnny’s disappearance.

Raisin’ Cain tells the complete story of Johnny Winter, beginning with his early years of growing up in Beaumont, Texas, being drawn at an early age to the African American roots music, certainly in part because Winter could sympathize with being discriminated against for the way you looked.  If there’s a common thread that runs throughout the book, it’s that Johnny Winter has always wanted to just play the blues.  Much of the struggles here center around how other people want him to play something else, namely rock n’ roll, to make better money.  But, Winter always returns to his passion—the blues.

Raisin’ Cain also reminds us that Winter was a major player in the rock scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  He befriended Jimi Hendrix and would jam with him frequently, he dated Janis Joplin and played the legendary Woodstock Festival, but was left out of the movie because his manager was haggling about money.  And that is only the tip of the iceberg in the managerial blunders department.  The book profiles Winter’s constant battles with a long list of ill-chosen managers who push him into bad career choices and release older recordings without his consent, while making sure he’s properly medicated and sheltered from his own finances, and even his own fans.

Author Mary Lou Sullivan does a hell of a job piecing Winter’s difficult past together.  The biggest resource for quotes is Johnny Winter himself, whom Sullivan interviewed extensively, and who gives the book his blessing in the foreward.  However, Winter admits that large chunks of his memory are clouded in a drug-induced haze.  This is where Sullivan enlists the help of several former bandmates, including Rick Derringer, and Tommy Shannon, who later went on to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan, plus countless friends and former girlfriends.  She also uses magazine interviews from the past to show how Winter’s opinion of things changed over the years.  The end result is an honest account of the life of one of the most under appreciated musicians in rock.