By Peter Lindblad
From his onstage chair during the 2007 Crossroads Concert put on by Eric Clapton, Winter swung open the doors on a jailbreak of mean chord combinations and hell-spawned solos in an apocalyptic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” that dazed all who witnessed it. In typical fashion, the understated Winter doesn’t gloat about the display. He was just happy to be there.
“It was great performing among the artists that got together at that concert,” says Winter. “Performing with both Derek [Trucks] on ‘Highway 61’ and with Eric on ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ was a blast, not to mention all the musician friends that came to my tour bus to visit all day.”
An electrifying guitarist whose Texas blues roots run deep, Winter has played just about everywhere in his long career, from the lowest dive bars to sprawling outdoor venues. No matter what condition the place was in, Winter has always given all he has to give.
“It’s all good,” says Winter. “I just love to play and sticking to my blues allows me to play a huge variety of places, from those rich in blues history to large concert halls and everything in between.”
The product of a musical upbringing, Winter and his brother, Edgar, both of whom have albinism, began performing at an early age. By the time Winters was 15, the two brothers were already recording with their band Johnny and The Jammers, putting out “School Day Blues” on a Houston label.
Winter calls his childhood “pretty normal,” adding that, “I listened to as much blues as I could. Yes, I was in my first band when I was 15, listening to rock ‘n’ roll like early Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. We put out a record right away.”
There’s never been anything “normal” about Winter’s live performances. From the days when he and Edgar were kicking around local clubs in Texas through his scintillating performance at Woodstock, Johnny Winter and his fiery chops have torched concert halls, leaving them in smoking ruins, while simultaneously evoking memories of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Robert Johnson. And now, Friday Music is doing its part to preserve Winter’s concert legacy by releasing Johnny Winter’s Live Bootleg Series Volume 1.
Culled from Winter’s own archive of classic shows collected from 40 years of road work, Volume 1 is a thrilling documentation of Winter’s legendary performances from the ‘70s. His backing band for these blazing bonfires of blues-stoked rock ‘n’ roll consisted of bassist Jon Paris and drummer Bobby T.
Backed by this propulsive, rhythmic freight train, Winter serves up a greasy plate of feverish improvisation and joyous hymns to whatever unseen creator that bestowed these gifts to him. A brawling, muscular take on “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” and a napalm-spewing version of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” highlight the set, along with a smoldering reading of “Stranger” and a rollicking romp through “Johnny B. Goode.”
Winter is impressed with the sonic quality of this recording.
“I’m real happy with the release,” he says. “It’s the first in a series of many of my performances over the years from my private collection, and thanks to Friday Music, these shows now get out to my fans. Volume 1 came out very well sound-wise. It’s a great mix overall.”
And it stands up to any of the live albums that dot the charred landscape of Winter’s recorded output, such as 1971’s gold seller Live/Johnny Winter And, 1973’s Still Alive And Well — his highest-charting album — and 1976’s Captured Live!
Not merely markers on the dusty backroads and highways Winter has traveled, they document the incredible spontaneity and barely harnessed power of one of the greatest guitar gunslingers ever. It took awhile for the world to recognize what a phenomenon he would become, however.
In the years leading up to 1968, Winter was trying to make a name for himself with a threesome that included bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. Then, he caught the ear of a Rolling Stone writer who wrote an article on Winter. His brand of white lightning began to get noticed. That year, Winter played with Jimi Hendrix at The Scene club in New York City, owned by Winter’s manager, Steve Paul.
“I was very impressed. He was an excellent guitar player,” says Winter. “It was great to play with somebody that good.”
Known for delivering the goods every time out, Winter landed a chance to play Woodstock in 1969. He took the place of none other than Hendrix, who had turned down the gig.
“There’s a saying going around that if you really played Woodstock, the memories are blurry,” jokes Winter. “Let’s put it this way: I don’t remember a thing (laughs)! I knew it was going to be bigger than the 150,000 seaters we were playing. I played Jimi’s offered time slot on Sunday night at around midnight. There was no rain and it was packed.”
Further clouding Winter’s memory was a drug habit that was growing out of control. Eventually, he’d kick his addiction, and that’s one of the things he’s most proud of.
“I was doing heroin for a while, and it was really bad for me,” says Winter. Of why he wanted to quit, Winter matter of factly states, “I just really wanted to.”
Even as the addiction was taking him over, Winter was gaining national acclaim.
In 1969, Winter’s self-titled album reached the charts and Winter, who would form another band with hot-shot guitarist Rick Derringer in the early ‘70s, saw his star rise with the release of his live work. With his career in overdrive, Winter met and worked with some of the legendary artists in blues and rock, including his idol, Muddy Waters. As Winter’s own work went in more of a blues direction later in the ‘70s, he also produced several albums by Waters.
When asked if he incorporated many elements of Waters’ guitar work into his own playing, Winter, who still reveres the man and the artist, said, “Not that much, but I loved Muddy. He just had a great voice. Good slide guitar player,” says Winter.
Into the ‘80s, Winter continued to blaze his own bluesy trail, recording for blues label Alligator for three releases and then moving over to MCA and Pointblank/Virgin. The new millennium saw Alligator release a best-of collection of Winter’s work with the label in 2001 called Deluxe Edition. Then, Columbia/Legacy put out the Best of Johnny Winter in 2002 that spanned his 1969-71 period. More reissued material followed, with Fuel 2000 collecting his earliest recordings on 2003’s Winter Essentials and Sony reissuing his 1969 self-titled effort with bonus tracks.
Today, there is a new book in the works about Winter’s life and Gibson has put out a Johnny Winter guitar. And, of course, he’s still playing live, with a band that includes guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Tony Beard.
Is there anything left for him to do, or are there people he wants to play with that he hasn’t already?
“That’s a hard one. I think I’ve covered them all,” he says with a smile.