A Bluesman To The End: Johnny Winter 1944-2014

Thursday, 17 July 2014 10:45 AM Written by 

 Johnny Winter

Photo: Jeff Daly/AP

I was hooked on the blues in 1968—hooked on it (the country stuff came a bit later). I also had a subscription to Rolling Stone, and in an article about the music scene in Texas, there was mention of a (and I quote), "cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, playing some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.” His name: Johnny Winter. Winter died yesterday in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland while on a worldwide tour to commemorate his 70th birthday, which took place February 23rd. His fiery Texas blues playing, rooted in authenticity, paved the way for fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan and generations of blues guitarists.

The Rolling Stone article changed Winter's life. In December of the same year, Columbia Records brought him to New York. He played the Fillmore East. Impressed Columbia executives (Clive Davis was running things at the time) offered him not just a recording contract but an unprecedented advance, for that time, of over half a million dollars. His first Columbia album appeared in 1969. There'd be plenty more over the next four and a half decades.

After reading the first article, I found out hee did an album called The Progressive Blues Experiment, that could be had for a few bucks mail order from some Louisiana record store. I ordered it and when it arrived, it pinned me to the wall, realizing he was a peer of Hendrix, Duane Allman, Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, the Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie), the Chicago blues guys and the acoustic Delta blues of the 30's. Indeed, he blended the best of all of them. A slide guitar master, he synthesized the spirits of Robert Johnson, Son House, Tampa Red, Elmore James and Muddy Waters into a chilling, slashing technique.

You could hear it on this song, from the first Columbia album. "Be Careful With A Fool" (1969). This version comes from Danish TV. Behind him: his early sidemen: bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner.

 

"Mean Town Blues" (1969) from Woodstock.

 

Winter could imbue any song with the blues. His sophomore Columbia album Second Winter (1970) proved that with a blazing take on Bob Dylan's "Highway 61."

 

1970 saw him unveil a new band featuring guitarist Rick Derringer. Winter's ability to create powerful mainstream rock was obvious on Derringer 'soriginal "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo."

 

Younger brother Edgar would blaze his own trail, but the brothers, who'd worked together fo years, had blues and R&B in their DNA. Here's proof: "Fast Line Rider" (1970)

 

Winter was stronger than he looked. He triumphed over heroin addiction and rededicated himself to the blues with his own label, Blue Sky. He was the label's top artist, but he also brought Muddy Waters to the label. Aware, like most blues lovers, that Muddy's own records had lost focus in the late 60s, Winter wanted to get his friend and lifelong hero back in the zone, to restore the raw, basic sound of those classic Chess records of the 40's to the mid-60's. And boy, did he. Those Winter-produced albums, Hard Again,  (1977), the Grammy-winning I'm Ready (1978) and King Bee (1981), became Muddy's last great musical statements.

Occasionally the two performed together. Here they are onstage at "Chicagofest 1981." The song: "Walking Through The Park." " Another Chicago blues icon, Mojo Buford, is playing harmonica. By 1983, Muddy would be gone.

 

Today, except for B.B. King and Buddy Guy, nearly all the early blues greats who inspired Winter are gone, and he's joined them. His legacy, like his heroes, will loom large for generations. Fans and friends celebrated his 70th birthday with a February 23 concert at B.B. King's Blues Club in Manhattan. At the same time Legacy Recordings released the four-CD, 57 track compilation True To The Blues:The Johnny Winter Story, a journey through his career from 1968 to 2011.

This is him in LA on April 2, singing Elmore James's "Dust My Broom."

Johnny Winter, at threescore and ten, had lost none of his spirit. The passion, still riveting, slashing and intense—remained to the end.

 

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