On 16 July 2014 Johnny Winter died at age 70 on tour in Europe.
Johnny came from the Texas blues guitar tradition, which is what he practiced for most of his career except for a digression into hard rock in the mid-Seventies, aided and abetted by Rick Derringer after overcoming a heroin addiction and leaving behind the grandstanding hard rock Winter was an integral part, as producer and musician, in the revival of the fortunes of Muddy Waters in the late Seventies. After that brief interlude of brilliance he kept going as a journeyman blues musician, releasing a number of albums and touring regularly, without much further distinction other than as becoming a grand old man of the blues.
As a teenage White, albino blues aficionado in Texas he must have been a strange sight with his huge talent and fierce ambition to carry him through. There are some photographs of the young Johnny looking very cool with his white-haired crew cut and Ray Ban Wayfarers. He could have been part of Booker T & The MGs. By the late Sixties he was known for his ultra-long, very straight hair and almost invisible eyebrows that gave him a true otherworldly presence.
In 1968, and when Johnny Winter was 24, Columbia Records signed him to a recording contract with the largest advance paid to any blues or rock act at that time. He played at Woodstock, though he is not in the movie. Like Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter sunk into heroin addiction in the Seventies, and was then guided into rock and roll stardom by Rick Derringer's hard rock nous and "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" and blistering live performances with plenty of white hot lead guitar.
Johnny had a brother Edgar, a keyboardist with leanings towards jazz rahter than blues, and with whom Johnny recorded a couple of albums over the length of his career. The two brothers chose quite different career paths.
I knew of the Edgar Winter Group, a glam rock, jazz-funk-metal outfit, featuring guitarist Ronnie Montrose, long before I ever heard of Johnny Winter. The Edgar Winter Group's album They Only Come Out At Night was in the record racks of Sygma Records in Stellenbosch and the striking cover of Edgar in make always caught the attention. Twenty five or thirty years later I found Edgar Winter's debut album at Cash Crusaders and bought it because it was very cheap. I did not like it because it was full of progressive jazz that did not appeal to me at all. There was no blues, or funk or glam rock to it.
Johnny Winter came to my attention with the reviews of Hard Again, the Muddy Waters album from 1977 that revived his fortunes and made him a star again. Johnny Winter produced the album and played guitar on it, and also with the Waters band during the subsequent tour.
A couple of years later I bought White, Hot & Blue, Johnny Winter's return to the blues, recorded at about the same time as Hard Again and with the Muddy Waters band backing Winter. Both Hard Again and White, Hot & Blue were my introductions to the Chicago style blues pioneered by Muddy Waters.
By this time I'd also heard Winter as rocker with "Rock and Roll. Hoochie Koo," and his loud, rocking versions of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Jumping jack Flash" and did not care much for them. Winter's piercing, fast fingered turbo boosted style of playing on these tunes, particularly live, showed an astonishing ability but dragged after a while. The short, more concise and more fluid playing on the blues albums was much more to my taste.
I have not been able to replace White, Hot & Blue in my CD collection as the original LP seems not to have been released in any digital format yet. I have bought Nothing But The Blues, the follow up album with the Muddy Waters band, and an anthology of blues tracks from the Nineties. Winter continued to release blues albums on Alligator Records, Virgin Pointblank and other labels, and none of them appealed to me. I imagined that the music would be based around Eighties production techniques with an emphasis on a rockier rhythm section rather than a swinging blues rhythm section with Johnny Winter's flamethrower guitar on top. Alligator Records, in particular, made an effort in the Eighties to bring blues up to date with contemporary production techniques and simply produced a great deal of stodgy, lumpen music. An anthology of the best of his releases made much more sense for the collection.
In the late Nineties there was a sudden slew of very early Winter blues recordings on low budget CD compilations, often with the same tunes reshuffled from CD to CD with different covers and titles. I believe that these tracks were recorded in Texas during the dues paying years before the big Columbia Records contract. The truth of the matter is, despite somewhat dubious production at times, that these early blues performances are quite tasty and satisfying and a good record of the state of blues in the early to mid-Sixties, before the major boom that led to Columbia showing interest in Johnny Winter, otherwise no more than an albino, White blues guy on the chitlin' circuit.
Johnny Winter has the distinction of releasing two debut albums in 1969 because the small company with whom he was contracted before the Columbia Records signing had a album's worth of tracks in the vault and they obviously decided that it was time to cash in on a guy who had unexpectedly been pushed onto the big stage. This small label record was The Progressive Blues Experiment. The big label debut on Columbia Records was called simply Johnny Winter.
On the first of these two albums Winter leads a power trio, with Uncle John Turner on bass and Tommy Shannon on drums, and plays a set of blues standards mostly electric but also some solo acoustic guitar tracks, in what can only be called blues with amplifiers turned to 11. One could compare the Winter band with Cream, the original blues power trio, and the main difference would be that Cream's rhythm section is far more interesting to listen to in its own right where Turner and Shannon simply stick to the basics and keep it together for Winter's guitar pyrotechnics. Johnny plays a Gibson Explorer where Clapton plays a Gibson Les Paul and Winter emphasises piercing high notes and a style where a dexterous flood of notes drives the music and Clapton plays with a greater melodic fluency and a less shrill tone. Overall Johnny Winter sounds like a guy playing deep blues really loudly and Cream sounds like a heavy blues band with ambitions beyond the blues.
On Johnny Winter the man leads a larger ensemble, with the core rhythm section, and, amongst others, his brother Edgar on keyboards and with a horn section. The set mixes Winter originals with blues standards and the feel is that of late Sixties heavy progressive blues (more so than the probably ironically named The Progressive Blues Experiment, which was experimental only in the volume at which Winters played) and the production values are clearly far higher than on the other album. Although the blues tropes are present and correct the roots of the later hard rock sound are already in place. Having said that, Johnny Winter still plays the blues with feeling and his trademark rolling cascades of notes.
The rock and roll version of Johnny Winter did not appeal to me because he just seemed to play too much loud, unsubtle guitar, in keeping with the post-Clapton, post-Hendrix overlordship of the guitar hero in rock. Where Winter once covered blues standards with a sense of understanding of the blues, he now selected prominent rock songs by Dylan and the Rolling Stones to showcase his furious attack and basically started jamming on stage for as long as possible to get through his sets with minimum attention to quality. It seemed to me, from the live albums, that he could pretty much just set himself on cruise control and solo for as long as he could while his rhythm section kept the beat going. He was on junk and his audiences were stoned as well and it must have made a lot of sense in the context. Listening to those albums now are nothing but a trial.
For my money, the Muddy Waters band has produced the best, most sympathetic setting for the Johnny Winters blues experience. The band swings behind him; the veterans know when to lay back and when to push and never overwhelm or sound workmanlike. The tunes ate mostly well-known and have actual tunes to them, and the ensemble playing suits Winters well because he can be as fluid or as sharp as he likes, while seamless fitting into the groove. It is an ensemble, with each instrumentalist playing a part and not one overpowering the rest or showboating.
The later blues albums tend to be too much of Johnny Winter with rhythm section that is always solid and dependable yet seems to be designed to be a backdrop for the guitar and voice and not part of a band of equals. It is all very well to have a distinctive style as your trade mark but you gotta alleviate it with actual tunes and enough variations on the theme to keep the listener's attention.
There is a YouTube clip of Johnny Winter playing four numbers in a small club in Copenhagen in 1970 that illustrates the point. He is backed by bass and drums and plays a blues set, with a detour to "Johnny B Goode." His main ax is a Fender with a humbucking pick up and for "Mean Town Blues" when he plays slide he switches to a 12-string electric. The performances are extended and he plays plenty of guitar all over the songs. The audience seems rapt, or maybe they are overwhelmed by the extended solos. Although the fluency and talent of the guitar player are not in doubt the performance is curiously enervated. There is no spark at all and the guitarist could have been any local body with the technique and the repertoire and at the time the world must have been over supplied with blues bands. I can only imagine that the Danes came to hear Johnny Winter because he was an American and something of a legend and not because he was a certified genius of the blues.
This is why I maintain that the substantive legend of the Winter legacy will not rest on the totality of the body of work he's left us but principally on his first couple of albums from the Late Sixties, where the style was introduced and defined, and records with Muddy Waters and the Waters band in the late Seventies. Johnny Winter had to reign in his natural tendency to over play and to go on far beyond the bounds of necessity or pleasure when playing guitar solos and rather to rely on the strength of the song he was performing and the ensemble playing of the band to carry the entire tune.
No doubt Johnny Winter will always be held in high regard by blues lovers, lovers of blues guitar and all round rock fans who appreciate the craftsmanship, drive and talent of someone like Johnny Winter. I cannot see myself investing heavily into the back catalogue except for Johnny Winter and Second Winter. And I would dearly love to find a copy of White, Hot & Blue to go with Nothing But The Blues and the Muddy Waters albums Hard Again, I'm Ready, King Bee and Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live. These records represent the best of Johnny Winter and pretty much all you need to know about him.