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A vintage Johnny Winter interview

Take a time machine back to March 13, 1976 in a never-before-published interview with the legendary guitarist, Johnny Winter.
WINTER 1976: A photograph of Johnny Winter live at the Felt Forum on April 3, 1976 — almost one month after this “Time Capsule” interview took place. (Photo by Frank White)

A photograph of Johnny Winter live at the Felt Forum on April 3, 1976 — almost one month after this “Time Capsule” interview took place. (Photo by Frank White)

By Diane Varner

The rumor passedthrough the southern town of Dothan, Alabama. A phone call to Joel Meredith, manager of Dothan Civic Center, confirmed it. A subsequent call to Riverview, Fla., to Gulf Artists Productions’ president, Margorie Sexton, set me up with tour manager Teddy Slatus in New York. All systems said go. Johnny Winter would come to Dothan on March 13, 1976.

Slatus was agreeable over the phone. He told me to call him the day he came to town regarding an interview. This warmth and friendliness I felt was something I later had to search to relocate.

Winter’s schedule at that time consisted of rehearsals in his Connecticut studio from 8 p.m. and often lasting through 9 a.m. the next morning. He and his band — Floyd Radford on guitar, RandyHobbs on bass, Richard Hughes on drums — were working hard to put a good show together.

For two weeks prior to the show in Dothan, radio spots ran day and night to pump ticket sales. Winter’s record company started running album promotion spots, often back-to-back with the spots for the concert. It was close to being overkill, but it worked.

Right after their near-sellout show in Mobile, Ala., on Friday night, March 12, the Winter entourage drove 150 miles due east and pulled into Dothan’s Sheraton parking lot. Leaving a “do not disturb the band” message at the hotel desk, Slatus hustled his group to their rooms.

My Saturday noon phone conversion with Slatus was brief. He refused my promised afternoon interview with Winter and asked if I would settle for one during the press party.

“But ... I had in mind a more private session.”

His answer was brief. “Meet me on stage at 6 p.m.”

At six, I walked through the backstage door and saw Fritz, a rep for Gulf Artists. He said that Margorie Sexton was in another town on a show so he was doing the gig for her. I asked him for a physical description of Slatus so I would be able to recognize him. From what he said, I expected Slatus to look like Bob Dylan.

Within 30 seconds, up walked Bob ... uh, Teddy Slatus.

Dressed in a stiff white shirt and a black tailored suit, he efficiently made another delay for the interview. Press party interview it was, and if I then needed more, he’d set something up later.

During the evening, Slatus ran the whole show. He bounced early comers, checked security and kept things together. While talking with Fritz in the lobby, I saw Slatus watching over the shoulder of a ticket taker. He didn’t miss a thing.

Brownsville Station came on stage at 7:30 and did their best to scream the audience up. I managed to get backstage during intermission and was amazed at the absence of friends or visitors. The eerie solitude I felt was the result of tight security.

Back in front, I settled down to hear the best performance I’d seen Winter give. Wearing a Greek sailor hat over ashorter haircut than usual, a black shirt, stove pipe Levis and a heavy chain necklace, he tore through “It’s All Over Now.” After “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” he changed guitars twice during “Bony Maronie.”

His notes were clear, fast and strong. He did a couple of excellent slide guitar numbers and moved into “Highway 61 Revisited,” again changing guitars. Winter ended the set with “Johnny B. Goode,” then answered an encore with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The show was over.

People began to collect in the press room at the Sheraton, pouring their own drinks from the open bar. Slatus came over and said that if more people didn’t show up, he would call off the party and take me to Winter’s room for the interview.

A few minutes later, soundman George Crombez was asked to take me to Winter’s room in 15 minutes. When the time came, we knocked on his door. Out came Slatus to cancel the order. “Johnny’s coming down after all, Diane. I hope you don’t mind.” We shuffled downstairs.

The party had grown into a large group of press, friends of press, local hip businessmen and several young, would-be groupies. Everyone had become slightly drunk during the wait.

Like a string of energy, Winter walked into the room, followed by his band. As he headed for the bar, his “Oh, yeah. Hi. What’s happenin’?” helped close the space around him with eager handshakers.

Slatus grabbed my arm and shouted, “Johnny, I want you to meet Diane.” I was abruptly pulled to his side.

“Hi. I’ve wanted to meet ya. Let me get a drink and we‘ll go sit down somewhere.”

A drink in hand, we walked to an empty side of the room and sat down. I took out my tape recorder and began to set up.

“Turn on that machine,” Winter said anxiously. “I’ve got lots of things to say.”

Seeing to his satisfaction that things were under control, Slatus turned and walked off. People in the press room gathered around to listen to the interview. Someone asked about his plans to tour with his brother, Edgar.

JOHNNY WINTER: Yea, I think we’re going to do a tour fairly soon. Edgar’s group is very broken up. I think what we‘ll do, since Edgar and I are so totally different ... we’ll do a short tour to where it’s fun ... to where we don’t hate each other and start killing each other on the road. I think it would be fun to do a short tour and then have him do what he wants, and me do what I want. That’s pretty much the way its always been since I was 7 and he was 5. You know, we’d play together for a while and then we’d get on the rag with each other ... and say, well, I want to do something different ... and we would get our own groups. Then we’ll come back and play together for a little while. It’s nothing that could ever work out for a long time, but a short tour is like a family reunion.

What about Rick Derringer?

JW: He’s got his own group together. He’s been practicing every night in New York with a bunch of real young, energetic guys. I haven’t heard them yet but it’s supposed to be a real hard rock band. They’re going to put out an album and then do a tour. I think he’s ready to go on his own. It’s the first time since the McCoys that he’s really ready to do it. I hope it works.

How did the rumor start that you are the son of Mr. Green Jeans of the Captain Kangaroo show?

JW: (laughs for several minutes) I’ve never heard that one. I heard that the Captain was a junkie.

On your album “Johnny Winter And” is a Steve Winwood song, “No Time To Live.” Why don‘t you do softer songs more often?

JW: Boy, I’m sure glad you asked that. Because, people don’t care. When I first started doing things like that people would say, “Who’s that singing? Is it Rick Derringer?” Everybody expects me to go ... “AAAAARRRRGGGGH!” and hard rock and kick ass-type music. Here I’m singing something like (starts to sing) “As time begins to burn itself upon me...” I mean nobody can relate to me doing that kind of thing and it’s one of the things that’s really bothered me about my career. I feel like I have to do the same stuff over and over. When I do ballads and the pretty songs, which I really love to do, nobody gets off on them. People that would like the pretty songs don’t come to the shows because they think I’m totally hard rock — and the people that do come and want me to be totally hard rock don’t want to hear those songs.

So, you give them what they want to hear?

JW: I do a combination, sort of give and take. I do some of what I want, and some of what they want to hear. If I could do really totally what I wanted, which is almost impossible for anybody in any line of work, I would do a little bit of everything. I’d do some country and western, some ballads, some rock ‘n’ roll, some stone blues and maybe some acoustic things. People want to hear one particular thing and that’s the worst part of it. You do get pigeon-holed and categorized.

Marty Balin has recently been able to do the kind of songs he’s wanted to do, like “Miracles.”

JW: Yeah. It sure worked good.

Would a drastic change through a single do it for you?

JW: I’ve never had anything close to a single and I don’t expect it. I’d love it — if it happened. Most of the songs I do are older songs that I get off on doing.

Like “Bony Maronie”?

JW: Right. I’m not really a writer. I write some pretty good songs, some songs I think are great, some decent songs, but I’m more of an interpreter. It makes me real excited to do songs that I grew up playing. I don’t feel that I copy from other people. If I do a song that Chuck Berry did, or Mick Jagger, then I do it differently — but it still has a definite original feeling for me. If I was a great songwriter, I wouldn’t do anybody else’s tunes. But I would rather do someone else’s tune that’s a fantastic song than to do one that I write that’s mediocre.

Joe Cocker’s an interpreter ...He was just in town on his seventh date in a 67-date tour. Do you have a feeling for his music? How do you think he’ll do?

JW: You see, I don’t really know what he’s going through. We had the same agency and I’ve known ...(he refuses an offer of another drink from a stranger, telling him he doesn’t need it) ... from what I’ve heard — not from personal experience — he’s supposed to be a real down-to-earth person. I think people have really hurt him and he’s fairly untogether — or he was. It was just real hard for him. I’d love for Joe Cocker to make a comeback. There’s not too many of us left from the early hippie days and he was one of the people that everybody flipped out on. Then he just didn’t care and went home. I hope that doesn’t last and that he can get things together and really do a good show like he used to do. Those were druggy days and a lot of people from that period just blew themselves away. It’s too bad, but a whole lot of them did. I hope all of us that are still here can stay — and not be derelicts, remembering what we used to do.

Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ...

JW: Well, it’s a little late for them. They died. They were my friends. My good friends. It hurt me real bad, too. But most of us died. Most of us died and you’ve got to face it. It was a crazy period. Everybody was nuts. Everybody wanted a new world, new society and a better life. I knew they were going about it the wrong way. Being a cynic, I knew it wouldn’t work. But a lot of people were idealistic and when it didn’t work, it killed them.

Has Rolling Stone given you much notoriety on your tour?

JW: I haven’t gotten much. I’m under pressure to kind of reinstate myself. I’m a living legend that nobody thinks is still there. Lots of people say, “Johnny Winter, wow. I remember those days!” But it ain’t those days. It’s these days. I’m still here and I’m better than I ever have been. Rolling Stone ain’t knockin’ down my door to get an interview right now — and when they are, I’m closing it. When you’re not that big, the people that help you are the people you stay with. The people who don’t want to help you are the people who I want to stick my foot up their asses — and that’s where it’s going to stay. I’m going to be around until I’m 85 and these people are going to either be dead or real sorry. I’m ready to rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve got a damn good band, a good new record and we’re givin’ it everything we’ve got That’s the reason we’re doing press parties. Most bands say, “Press parties — who cares — can’t be bothered with that.” We want to let everybody know we’re still here and that we still care what everybody thinks, not just what we think.

Last month, over the phone, Teddy Slatus told me that you were rehearsing every night to get ready for this tour.

JW: Well, that’s not really exciting, ‘cause I hate to practice. I feel like that since I’m not really young anymore — I’m not really old either — if I ain’t got it by now, I’m not going to get it. I would rather have the guys go down there and tell them, “Okay, you guys, get this together and I’ll come in later.” I feel like it’s my responsibility to get the audience off first, not their responsibility to get me off. If I practice as hard as I can, it’s nothing like going on stage. I like to be able to get down and look them in the eye.

Your new album is live.

JW: Yes, ‘cause when I play live I just whip it out. I don’t worry about what’s goin’ on. Studio work is more calculated. The more calculated I get, the worse my music is. What I really do best is to get smashed and to go out there and beat my guitar and just go crazy.

What’s the story behind “Highway 61”?

JW: That’s the highway I was sorta born on. It goes into Mississippi. And plus, I’m a groupie. I really am, just like anyone else. I like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and The Beatles. A lot of their songs relate to me personally, even though I haven’t written them.

Are you looking forward to going to play in New Orleans?

JW: New Orleans. That’s going to be crazy.

You lived there.

JW: Yeah. I lived there two or three different times. It’s crazy. That’s why I moved out. I almost died. I stayed for six months and I was gone. ‘Cause there’s something happening every hour. If you wake up at four in the morning, stagger out of your door and there it is, “Hey, what’s happenin’? Hey, honey!”

You’re not playing at The Warehouse (rock venue in New Orleans), are you?

JW: No, thank God.

Man, you need some of that heat in there at The Warehouse.

JW: I don’t need that much. I heard they got an air conditioner.

I don’t believe it.

JW: I don’t believe it either. We played there with Dr. John. It was incredible. I had nothin’ on, man. I was sweatin’ like crazy. Dr. John had all this makeup on — robes and everything. He was cool, and I was flippin’ out. Damn, it was 157 degrees in there. He just says to me, “Hey, what’s haaapenin’? What’s goin’ on?”

What do you think of Neil Sedaka’s return?

JW: I think he’s much better now than he was before. Me and Edgar went to a show ... and he comes over in his white suit and was real friendly. “Hi there. I’m Neil Sedaka.” And he was real cool. It was a real strange situation because he was one of the people that I listened to when I was young, and didn’t like. But really, he had a lot of talent and made a lot of hit records. He had this formula. Now, he seems to be doing things the way he wants to do them, instead of doing things the way a producer wants it done. For example, a producer says, “Hey, the hit record last week sounded like this ... so let’s do your song like that.” Now he’s doing some of those same songs but doing them his way. In the old days, you had to do it that way, and I really kind of like him now.

Do you get tired of being asked if and when you and Edgar are going to play together?

JW: I did.

The last I read about you was your comment, “After all, we do love each other.” Why do people insist that the reason you don’t play together is because of competiveness?

JW: Probably because it’s true. We do love each other, but it is a competition thing and we help each other, too. I don’t really understand the thing totally. I hope it’s not just because when I’m doin’ good and Edgar isn’t, that he wants to play with me. I hope it’s not that.

Do people get you two confused?

JW: Sure. Edgar’s got a beard now and I just shaved mine. I used to have a beard and Edgar didn’t. So, everybody calls Edgar “Johnny” and they call me “Edgar.”

Does this bother you?

JW: I hate it.

A young musician comes over and begins to whisper loudly in Johnny’s ear.

YOUNG Musician: I’m going up to my room ... got something ... we’re all going to get naked and start something so come up when you get through.

JW: You’re really sick, man! What’s your room number?

YOUNG Musician: 226

JW: Okay.

YOUNG Musician: Come up alone.

At this point, I had used both sides of my tape, it was getting late and Johnny was anxious to get upstairs. We said good night. GM

Diane Varner began her career in the music industry as a DJ (“air personality”) in the early 1970s working at KPRI FM, a progressive rock station in San Diego, Calif. She also worked as the publicist for Earth Concerts in Pacific Beach, Calif., before moving to Dothan, Ala., in 1974 with her brother, John Varner, (a contributor to this article) where she became a popular columnist for the newspaper, The Dothan Progress. Her weekly column was called “Backstage With Diane Varner.” You can now follow her on Twitter @DianeAVarner.

Read an interview with Guitarist Paul Nelson, Johnny Winter's collaborator/bandmate/friend/curator/manager.