by Maria Schulz
The last two weeks have been tough for my childhood idols. First off, my favorite movie star, James Garner, died at the age of 86. As a result, for a few short days, some of my posts had an international audience. Thank You, James Garner, My Fan Letter to James Garner, James Garner and Fruit Pie, Perfect Together, and Pin Up Material got several thousand hits. That was amazing…and another reason for me to really love that man.
Now that the shock has passed, I realized that I didn’t get a chance to write about another childhood idol whose passing was sudden and sad: Johnny Winter.
The first people I called about JW’s passing were my brothers, Jude and Chris. Jude was the person who introduced Chris and me to the legendary blues musician who was dubbed one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” by Rolling Stone magazine.
I can still picture Jude’s bedroom in our old house. Besides the lava lamps, fringe and odd mood lighting, there were pictures and memorabilia in every nook and cranny. Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, and other rock-n-roll legends like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Lynrd Skynrd, The Grateful Dead and more graced every square inch of wall space.
When I was very little, I remember Jude running through the front door of our old house, telling Chris and me to go “get on the couch and really feel the music.” Then, he’d put his newest prized possession on our turntable: the latest album from The Beatles, The Allman Brothers, and of course, Johnny Winter.
Years later, Jude was still staging music marathons on nights when our parents weren’t home. Like the guitarist from Spinal Tap, Jude would spin the volume dial “up to 11.” That way, the entire neighborhood could hear us playing Still Alive and Well, Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo, and Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein.
We bounced, swayed and sang on those couches while one of the lights from Jude’s band gigs bounced off the walls and lit up the room in rays of blue, green, and red. Between the ear-deafening music and the colorful light show, I’ll bet that our neighbors found even more reasons to hate us.
Jude so idolized Johnny Winter that when he brought home a pet albino rat from the lab where he worked, he dubbed him “JW.” JW went on to live a very happy, experiment-free life in a cage in Jude’s room, possibly staring at his albino namesake on the wall.
Chris went on to perform some of those same songs in his own band called Pee Wee Sweet. I can still see him, my cousin Tommy, and our friend Mike playing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and even “Frankenstein” at gigs all over Queens and Long Island.
Some years later, I had the chance to see Johnny Winter in concert at the Jones Beach theater. It can be hard to see your favorite stars mulling through an opening act sometimes. Not so with Johnny Winter. He stood there, wearing his black cowboy hat and strumming away, singing in that growly voice, and the crowd was transfixed. He was tremendously talented and I’m so glad I got to seem him perform.
When I told Jude about Johnny Winter’s passing, he said that JW was “one of his all time favorite musicians” and one of his “greatest” idols. I know how he feels, since James Garner passed just a few days later.
But you know, they say these things come in threes….
I learned last week that my brother Louie’s old friend, Boots, passed away.
“WHAT????” I texted to Chris.
Since Boots was sick for some time, it shouldn’t have been a shock. But isn’t it always when a friend from the old days passes away?
Peter Bozza, a.k.a. “Boots,” had the kind of laugh that made you want to laugh too, and a wicked sense of humor. I first met Boots when I was in high school, when Louie and Boots worked together at bars in Bayside, The Hamptons and Hunter Mountain.
When I think of Boots, I remember all the times he came to our house and shared some pizza, White Castle, or Jack-in-the-Box. One of our favorite stories was about how Boots set an all-time record at White Castle, consuming 125 cheeseburgers in one sitting. I don’t know if that story was true, but I’ll bet if it wasn’t 125 cheeseburgers, it was close.
Back in my Sizzler days, Boots would come to the restaurant, order every “all you can eat” item off the menu, and chow down. When his weight topped 600 pounds, he entered a medically supervised fast. He would crack us up with stories of how his support group was next door to a pizzeria, and on more than one occasion, the other members would catch him enjoying an entire pizza right after the weigh in.
But Boots stuck with it and lost 150 pounds. He stopped by our house one day and my Dad greeted him.
“Hey, Boots! You look good. Did you get a hair cut?” Dad said.
“No, Mr. Lagalante,” Boots replied. “I lost 150 pounds.”
“Oh,” Dad said. “Well, keep up the good work!”
I remember him as someone who had a big appetite for everything: food, dancing, pretty girls, laughter, movies, take-out, and alcohol. But I also remember the devoted son who asked me to spend time with his Mom, who had Alzheimers.
On days when Boots was away, I would check in on her. I’d make sure she had someone to talk to, that she took her medication, and that the stove was turned off. I quickly understood why Boots had a weight problem, since his mother wanted to feed me about 75 times a day. As an old Italian momma, food was love. That was something I understood very well.
Seeing Boots walk through the door meant we were all in for big laughs. I will always remember Boots dancing the night away at my brother’s wedding, chugging mini-champagne bottles and laughing.
Boots may not have been an international celebrity, but he sure was a celebrity in our little corner of the world.
Cheers, Boots. I hope they have White Castles wherever you are.
In honor of Johnny Winter: here’s a Texas Toast Steak Sandwich recipe that’s gotten rave reviews.
And in honor of Boots, here’s a recipe for Mini Meatball Heroes:
So…who was your childhood hero? Did you rock out to Johnny Winter or know someone as full of life like Boots? Please leave a comment below. Thanks!