Musicians who generously shared their memories for Johnny Winter's biography include Billy Branch, Doug Brockie, Bobby Caldwell, Dennis Drugan, Mark Epstein, Jeff Ganz, Styve Homnick, Bob Margolin, James Montgomery, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy, Floyd Radford, Pat Rush, and Bobby T (Torello).
Note: See Edgar Winter, Tommy Shannon, and Uncle John Turner on Family/Friends.
Harp player Billy Branch learned from harmonica masters Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell in the clubs in Chicago. He played in Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars, and recorded and/or performed with Muddy Waters, Big Walter, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, and Albert King. He appeared with Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and James Cotton on W.C Handy Award winner, Harp Attack!, and with Kenny Neal on Double Take, another W.C. Handy Award winner.
Billy first met Johnny in Streeterville Studios when he played harp on Guitar Slinger. Johnny was impressed by his work with the Blues in the Schools program, as well as his sound, which reminded him of Little Walter. Johnny invited him back into the studio to play on Let Me In and "Hey, Where’s Your Brother?" Billy shares his thoughts about Johnny and those sessions.
When guitar player Doug Brockie was 15 and 16, Johnny was his Robert Johnson. At 16, he formed a Johnny Winter cover band called Cobalt. Doug was playing in Cobalt when Johnny spotted drummer Richard Hughes, who he hired in 1972. The following year, Doug was thrilled to be one of the eight guitarists auditioning for the slot of Johnny's second guitarist. He played "I Love Everybody" from Second Winter and immediately got the job. Doug moved into the band's communal house in fall 1973 and played with Johnny through the end of the Saints and Sinners tour in June 1974.
Doug was dividing his time between the East and West Coast when I interviewed him. He shared his insights on how Johnny felt about any guitar player who tried to upstage him, and how his wild guitar playing on stage got him fired time and time again. He talks about the funky private plane that almost ended their lives, and a wild array of shows from the Saints and Sinners tour, including the ones recorded for the King Biscuit Flower Hour. He also shares Johnny's irreverent greeting whenever he saw the then 19-year-old guitarist who became and remains a good friend.
I conducted several lengthy interviews with drummer Bobby Caldwell from his home in Florida. The dynamic drummer that powered Johnny Winter And, Bobby was only 19 years old when he joined Johnny's band. Extremely forthcoming and candid, Bobby regaled me with tales of that band including the wild gigs that led to the recording of Johnny Winter And Live, Johnny's only gold album.
He shared his memories of playing the Royal Albert Hall on Johnny's 27th birthday, the gig at the Boston Tea Party where they learned of Hendrix's death, and later huddled in a hotel room to write "21st Century Man" in honor of their fallen friend. Bobby explained the dynamics between Johnny and then manager Steve Paul, tour manager Teddy Slatus, as well as Rick Derringer and bassist Randy Hobbs. He talked about the afternoon a drunken Janis Joplin showed up at Johnny's hotel room, the casual and naïve way band members regarded Johnny's heroin use during that time frame, and the abrupt manner in which Johnny Winter And was dissolved.
I interviewed bassist Dennis Drugan from his home outside of Chicago. Dennis is Johnny's childhood friend, and the son of Seymour Drugan, a jazz musician who taught Johnny jazz chords during three months of lessons in 1958. A member of Johnny and the Jammers, Dennis played on several of Johnny's early singles, including "School Day Blues"/"You Know I Love You," his 1959 debut single on Dart Records. In 1963, Johnny joined Dennis in Chicago, where he played with Dennis's band The Gents for four months before returning to Texas.
Still a close friend, Johnny was staying at his house in Chicago when Dennis’s first son was born. "We were up all night and Johnny was pacing the floor," recalled Dennis with a laugh. "That’s why I named my son Johnny." When Johnny recorded Let Me In in Chicago in 1993, Dennis, his wife Margaret, and sons Johnny and Brian, joined producer Dick Shurman and others on the chorus of “Hey You.”
Dennis shared his memories of the early years: bringing their records to radio stations, putting up posters at soda shops, and playing school dances and backwoods clubs when they were still in high school. He generously supplied dozens of photographs of Johnny's early life as a musician including personal shots of Johnny in his home, with Johnny and The Jammers, the Gents, and a photo of the marquee for the Beaumont Drive In when the band played on the top of the concession stand.
I interviewed bassist Mark Epstein in the dressing room of the Mohegan Sun Casino, where he was playing bass with Joe Bonamassa. Prior to bringing the sounds of his Sadowski five-string bass to Johnny's band from 1995 to 2001, he played and recorded with Larry Mitchell, worked with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, recorded and toured with Wishbone Ash, and worked as a sideman with Taj Mahal and Dr. John.
Mark was delightfully open and honest and shared not only his experiences with Johnny and the band, but his insight into Johnny's psyche and his relationship with his then-manager Teddy Slatus. He candidly discussed Slatus's volatile temper, his obsession with being a star, and an ill-fated European tour where they were forced to hire a local road manager because Slatus was too drunk to leave his hotel room.
Bassist Jeff Ganz played his first gig with Johnny in May 1989. He didn't have to audition because Johnny and his manager Teddy Slatus were familiar with his chops. Slatus had managed Roy Buchanan up until his death in August 1988 and Jeff had played in Buchanan’s band. A studio musician with a Broadway and jazz background, he played fretless and fretted basses, including an 8-string electric and an upright. He also sang a number of tunes on the road with Johnny, including “Turn on Your Love Light,” “Politician,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Jeff accompanied Johnny to Tramps in July 1990 to see guitarist Danny Gatton, and described the wild scene when Gatton invited Johnny up on stage and handed him his Telecaster. Jeff played on several of Johnny's recordings: Let Me In, "Hey Where's Your Brother?" and a track Johnny cut wth John Lee Hooker on Mr. Lucky. A friend, as well as musician, Jeff visited Johnny in the hospital when he had severe anxiety attacks in the early 1990s.
Drummer Styve Homnick was playing with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who were opening for Muddy Waters at the Savoy, when Styve approached Johnny about producing Sonny’s next album. A country blues harmonica master, Terry was best known for acoustic albums with McGhee, a singer and guitarist who had been his longtime partner. Johnny jumped at the chance and that meeting in 1981 led to Whoopin', an album released with a limited pressing on Johnny's Mad Albino label and later picked up by Alligator Records. Johnny played on and produced Whoopin' , which featured Sonny on vocals and harmonica, Willie Dixon on standup bass, and Styve on drums.The musicians took a road trip to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to record it over the July 4th weekend.
I interviewed Styve from a small town in New Mexico, where he moved when he grew tired of living in NYC. Styve talked about Sonny's style of playing, and offered an insider's view of those sessions and the camaraderie in the studio. He also shared his memories of working with Johnny and Sonny's thoughts about that recording.
Guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with Muddy Waters from 1973 to 1980, played on Hard Again, I'm Ready, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, and King Bee, the four Muddy Waters albums that Johnny produced and played on for Blue Sky Records. Bob played with Johnny and Muddy on the Hard Again tour in 1977, and played on Johnny's Nothin’ But The Blues album.
Bob explained Muddy's behind-the-beat feel and how Johnny's approach to producing Muddy's LPs captured the ambiance of raw blues. He shared Muddy's reaction to bass player Charles Calmese's modern popping sound and talked about the relationship between Johnny and Muddy and the camaraderie in the studio that made those recordings spontaneous and joyful.
Harp player James Montgomery joined Johnny's band in June 2002 and played with him through the end of 2004. A talented vocalist/songwriter/harp player and band leader in his own right, James's love for Johnny is palpable. As president of the New England Blues Society, he founded a medical program for musicians, which spun off to become the DeviBlue Foundation. James hooked Johnny up with two Foundation doctors, who weaned him off the deadly mix of prescriptions drugs that his former manager Teddy Slatus had him taking and treated the carpal tunnel syndrome in Johnny's right hand.
A working musician since the late 60s, James shared his insight into the industry, his years playing harp in Johnny's band, and wheeler dealer philosophy and behind-the-scenes money scams perpetrated by Slatus. James discussed the breakdown of a European tour that resulted in a lawsuit, and the out-of-control alcoholism of Slatus, that not only destroyed relationships with Johnny's booking agencies, but had him running up a $600 bar bill, charging it to James's hotel room, and telling everyone, "My God, Montgomery sure is drinking a lot."
I interviewed harp player/guitarist Paul Oscher at a coffee shop in Memphis. Paul played harp in the Muddy Waters band from February 1968 until late 1971. When I was later traveling through the Delta on my way to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, I ran into Paul at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, A fitting place to see Muddy's harp player, the Delta Blues Museum houses the frame of Muddy's cabin from the Stovall Plantation, and a life-size photograph of Johnny, Muddy, and Eric Clapton at Chicago Stadium in 1979.
Muddy's band included Oscher, Otis Spann, Luther “Georgia Boy/Creepin’ Snake” Johnson, Pee Wee Madison, and Sammy Lawhorn when Johnny opened for them at the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin, Texas in August 1968. Paul shared his memories of that fateful weekend, including his and Muddy's reaction when they heard Johnny's slide guitar. He shared Muddy's original misconception when he was told about an albino blues guitar player from Texas, as well as his own thoughts about being one of very few white blues players in the late 1960s.
Harp player Jerry Portnoy played on I’m Ready, and Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, two of the four records that Johnny produced and played on with Muddy Waters. Waters’s second LP on Blue Sky, I’m Ready also featured Jimmy Rogers, Muddy's guitar player from 1947 to 1955, and "Big Walter" Horton, Muddy's former harp player. Portnoy, who was playing in Muddy's band, was brought in as insurance because Johnny and Muddy were concerned that Big Walter might get too inebriated to play. Portnoy later toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, playing on From the Cradle, 24 Nights, and Clapton's 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson.
Both Portnoy and Horton played harp on “I'm Ready” and “Hoochie Coochie Man." Portnoy played chromatic to Horton’s diatonic on “I’m Ready”. Both played diatonic on “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Portnoy discusses those sessions, as well as his relationship with Big Walter, and the ill fated afternoon when the Muddy Waters band played with Johnny at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1984.
I interviewed guitarist Floyd Radford from his home in Florida. Floyd joined Johnny's band as second guitarist in June 1974 and played with him until 1976, when Johnny left the band to produce Muddy Waters. The guitarist for Tin House, a band that was managed by Steve Paul, Johnny's original manager, Floyd also played on Edgar Winter’s White Trash and toured with Edgar’s band.
In fall 1975, Floyd played the joint dates with Johnny's band and the Edgar Winter Group (with Rick Derringer) that were recorded for two live albums: Captured Live (with Johnny’s band) and Together (with both bands). Floyd shared his experiences with Johnny, his stint in Johnny's band, and the dynamics of having three guitar players on stage. He described the vibe between Johnny and Derringer, which he characterized as love/hate, the sibling rivalry between the Winter brothers, and the shows recorded and later released as Frampton Comes Alive by up-and-coming artist Peter Frampton when he opened for Johnny.
Guitarist Pat Rush played with Johnny's band during the Nothin’ But the Blues tour and joined him for the recording sessions for White, Hot & Blue. Pat met Johnny in New Orleans when he was playing in Thunderhead. When Johnny got weekend passes from River Oaks Hospital, he would visit the Nutcracker nightclub, where the band played regularly. Those visits led to Johnny staying at the Thunderhead band house and producing and playing on (with Edgar) their first album.
Pat offered insight into Johnny’s stay in New Orleans during and after rehab, the recording sessions and rehearsals for the Thunderhead LP, and the fateful day he introduced Johnny to the MXR Phase 90 phase shifter. Pat, who lived with Johnny in his Manhattan penthouse apartment for awhile, recalled how Johnny discovered harp player Pat Ramsey for the White, Hot & Blue LP and the rehearsal that ended when bassist Randy Hobbs was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. He also shared an amusing story about a wild night with Johnny in the French Quarter.
I met drummer Bobby T (Torello) in a roadhouse in Connecticut, where his band, Bobby T's Electric Circus, was putting on a heck of a show. I'll never forget the Halloween show when he dressed as Alice Cooper and his guitar player dressed as Lita Ford. He shared wild stories at his shows, which were followed up with an in-depth phone interview from his home.
A fan from day one, when Bobby learned Johnny had entered a drug rehab program at River Oaks Hospital in 1972, he moved to New Orleans to meet his idol. Bobby accomplished his goal when Johnny produced and played on the Thunderhead LP. Bobby later played on White, Hot & Blue and Raisin’ Cain, and toured with Johnny for many years. He is still close with Johnny and it is easy to see why—his love and loyalty to Johnny has no bounds. Bobby explained how Johnny taught him about the blues, and shared tales of wild times on the road, on stage, and in the bayou. Bobby also shared Johnny’s concept of touring with only drums and a guitar, which was set aside when he discovered Jon Paris, who played bass and harmonica.