When Johnny Winter was signed to Columbia Records in 1968, he was given an advance of $600,000 – the largest that any performer had ever received up until that point. The story told suggests that it was just simple luck that found label execs at an Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield/Stephen Stills showcase in NYC – one that Johnny had just sat in on and then took lead on a song or two. The truth is that Columbia was anxious to find a response to the wildly popular Jimi Hendrix – a guitar virtuoso who had knocked out two wildly successful albums in one year. To make matters worse this was done through an indie label called Track Records that had literally just launched. This work along with 1968’s “Electric Ladyland“ prompted Rolling Stone to name Jimi their “Performer of the Year.” The clock was ticking for Columbia and the answer looked like it was standing right in front of them. Later that month, Winter signed with Columbia and began work on his debut.
Johnny quickly followed the debut with an album that most fans consider his best, “Second Winter.” Recorded in Nashville, Johnny again was accompanied by a band that to this day remains the best group of sidemen that he would ever assemble. There was Tommy Shannon (later to be part of Double Trouble) on bass, Uncle John Turner on drums, and his multi-talented brother Edgar on everything else. After “Second Winter,” this line up would work only one more time together in the studio. That would be in 1970 on Edgar’s own debut album “Entrance,” released on Columbia’s sister label Epic. He would quickly form White Trash and Johnny would disband and recruit Rick Derringer and others to form the outfit that carried him into the 70s. But in 1969, he and this group of Texas gunslingers went into Music City and broke some musical china!
“Second Winter” found Johnny at his prolific peak. These sessions resulted in so much material that Columbia, originally intending for”Second Winter” to be a standard two-sided release broke rank with tradition and expanded the record to three sides, the fourth side being a complete blank. To this day it is among only a few records of any genre to embrace this orientation. But during a start to finish play through you quickly begin to understand that these songs all belong together. That they all somehow snap together as one complete piece of music. The production is remarkable modern, and the sound separation is crisp and clean. Moreover, there’s never been a stronger clarity to his guitar sound. We can reference a whole host of players who must have influenced Stevie Ray. If it can be proven that he ever listened to”Second Winter” the search for Stevie’s guiding light can the end.
Almost in response to the success of Jimi’s version of “All Along The Watchtower,” the label encouraged Johnny to provide his own take on another Dylan classic. He chose “Highway 61 Revisited,” a song and album incredibly influenced by the contributions of his pals Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Johnny added a slide guitar along with a Texas boogie beat that helped make the song his own. In fact it would forever be a part of his live act – a song synonymous with all things Johnny Winter.
What I love most about the record is that it’s as representative of his musical journey up to that point as “The Last Waltz“ was for The Band. Every kind of sound that influenced his style is found on these three sides. There’s the sleepy Texas shuffle of “Miss Ann“ where his guitar work sways in and out of the groove with the tastiest licks that poke and prick the rhythm section with precision. The rollicking piano driven romp “Slippin’ and Slidin’“ nods to Jerry Lee and showcases the reed capabilities of brother Edgar on sax. There’s the four on the floor rock of “Johnny B. Goode“ – another Winter signature song. And then there’s the trippy hippy work of “I’m Not Sure“ that tips the hat to his fellow guitar gods of that very moment.
But there’s no song that better showcases his immense talents – especially when he was at the very top, the apex of his game than “I Hate Everybody.” A super tight jazz driven instrumental Winter here puts it all out on display. There’s speed, precision, creativity and wonder to be found on this song. It’s made only better by the support he receives from his band – especially his brother. Together they trade the spotlight in a tightly woven melody of musical genius. It’s no wonder why the critics all expected this record to be the launch pad to super stardom. As we know, that never quite happened.
Johnny Winters life was hard fought, hard lived and hard played. He may have never made a record that met the pure genius that’s found in these three sides. But he left behind a body of music that’s essential and a life led without apology. Most important: in “Second Winter,” he left a great musical gift.
Below is the value of the aforementioned album in Near Mint (NM) condition, according to Goldmine’s Record Album Price Guide, 8th Edition. Note: As a standard rule, a vinyl record in VG+ condition is 50% of NM value and VG record is 25% NM value.