Greetings to all who love rock and roll, and thank you all for your comments and encouragements on this column.
When you talk about great authentic white blues guitar players, you are surely talking about some rarified company. The key word being authentic, and in my estimation authentic white blues guitar player means that when you listen to this person playing you think it’s a black man playing. Stevie Ray Vaughn a great blues guitar player always tried to get that real blues sound. When I saw Stevie Ray for the last time a few months before his death we spoke backstage at one of his shows and I told him “man you sounded like Albert King”, Stevie smiled and said that was the biggest compliment I could have ever given him. That is what we who strum the strings in the blues strive for, to sound like our idols, the great bluesmen. Johnny Winter did this as well as anyone, and proof of this is that he was accepted amongst the great bluesman as an equal, and shared the stage with many of them with great dignity and restraint.
Johnny was born John Dawson Winter in Beaumont Texas on February 23rd 1944. Johnny (as well as his brother Edgar) were born with albinism, and being an albino made Johnny stand out, but that did not stop him from playing music with his brother Edgar. His first record was recorded when Johnny was only 15 with his band Johnny and the Jammers, but it was Johnny’s self-titled first album on Columbia that established Johnny Winter as an A-List 60’s rock icon. His second album titled Second Winter was a three sided album (a double album with a blank forth side) that further marked Johnny as a guitar hero right up there with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Mike Bloomfield.
Johnny’s next few albums were also fantastic albums, Johnny Winter And (1970), and Johnny Winter And Live (1971) were big sellers and were just ass-kickin’ rock and roll records. Those two albums contained great tunes such as “Rock and Roll HootchieKoo” (penned by Johnny Winter And guitarist Rick Derringer) and “Mean Town Blues”.
Johnny Winter’s years of drug addiction caught up to him in 1972 and after a hospital stay (no ‘rehab in the pre Betty Ford era) he released “Still Alive and Well” in 1973, this was to be Johnny’s last decent selling release.
Even though Johnny’s days of gold records were behind him his name alone could sell out any club, or 3000 seat venue. Johnny always delivered at a live show; his fiery approach to guitar playing was eaten up by audiences all over the world.
As a slide guitar player (playing guitar using a glass bottle-neck or copper tube) Johnny was unparalleled in his day, just check his slide work on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” from Johnny’s album “Second Winter”. And when you talk about sheer rock and roll guitar, Johnny Winter can stand up with any rock guitarist. His vibrato (the bending of notes on the guitar) which is the signature of any rock and blues guitarist is unmistakable.
Johnny kept it real for the blues crowd as well, and in 1983 he produced a great record for blues legend Muddy Waters called “Hard Again”. Reticent of Muddy’s age Johnny laid back on his playing on the record and let Muddy control the dynamic range of the record, a great tribute to Muddy and Johnny as well.
To this day Johnny still can bring it live, even though he sometimes has to be led to the bandstand, which is no surprise when you understand that his lifestyle over the past 40 years makes Keith Richards look like Bruce Jenner.
Johnny Winter Guitar God, Rock and Roll Survivor, and most importantly, Legend of Rock and Roll.
14 thoughts on “Legends of Rock & Roll: Guitarist Johnny Winter”
Nice blog and photos, next time detailed captions and credits please.
n.b. “it’s a full-time occupation, tryin’ to keep my business clean”
best wishes: Conrad
Hey..I was hoping for some insights into Johnny`s gear…not just a history lesson……Also the statement “when you listen to this person playing you think it’s a black man playing”..is pretty weird. It`s like saying to a Japanese classical violin player..” Hey, you are good..you sound like a White person when you play that thing”….
For the young players exploring their blues/rock roots, do not overlook Johnny Winter’s work with Rick Derringer, in the Johnny Winter And band. “Johnny Winter And…Live!” is one of the best dueling-guitarists records around, as both Winter & Derringer push each other into stellar performances. Although Johnny downplays his rock contribution to his career, the early stuff is one of the main reasons I started playing, some 41 years ago. That’s Rick Derringer on the floor in the 2nd pic above.
This article on Johnny Winter has a lot of intriguing “snapshots.” I do have a few thoughts on some of the particulars:
The fact that Blues music came primarily through the African American cultural milieu makes it largely, but not exclusively, black music. Stevie Ray was understandably pleased at the comparison with Albert King. I had a similar experience. I was playing in a hotel bar, years ago, and getting a little raspy, vocally, as it was 11:00 pm on the fourth night of a week-long gig. Two young women came in from the lobby and said to me,” We wanted to see who was singing. We thought you were an old black man!” (Not bad for a Jewish white kid from Massachusetts!)
At the same time, Keith Richards rightly complained when comedians and journalists would poke fun at the Stones’ supposed geezer rock. Keith pointed out that if you’re black, you get an automatic “pass.” It’s assumed that you’re hip, no matter your age.
On the other hand, Bill Wyman (original Stones’ bassist), said that “A white man can play the Blues, but he has to work very, very hard at it.”
And according to the liner notes from some archival CD’s I borrowed from the library, there was a time in the US when there was essentially no difference between white and black folk music.
So the racial component forms a mixed picture–something that should surprise no one. Keeps things interesting, I think.
Now, about this “guitar god” thing: The longer I live, and the longer I play music, the less I like the whole concept. It’s true that a performer needs an audience, and the more famous the performer, the larger the audience. But fame turns into celebrity, and celebrity into deification. I personally don’t think it’s good for anyone. It makes other performers (and the public) feel inadequate, and lays a heavy psychological burden on the celebrity. I think it’s better just to appreciate an artist’s talent and skill, while remembering s/he is just another human being.
Johnny Winter comes from my neck of the woods and my favorite tunes by him are the early years “That’s What Love Does To You Baby” is super… His drug years sound like a speed freak playing blues…guess that is what white blues players like…fast flashy blues…..played faster. But if that is what you like,….you got plenty of company. I am more of the school of less said is more…where the right placed blues note can have a chilling effect….folks like Hubert Sumlin. Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Freddie King, BB King. God bless ya, Johnny…but take your time!
Johnny Winter is highly underrated, and really was way ahead of his time. Kids today for the most part don’t know who he is, let alone some dudes my age. “Still Alive and Well” is a rock and roll masterpiece. He played some of the most badass guitar ever on there, and made Alvin Lee sound like a tortise, who is incredible in his own right, but Johnny could go on extended passages for days with some hard driving tone.
I became a Johnny & Edgar Winter fan many years ago however…I always saw Johnny as a rock guitar player. Now I listen to songs like Illustrated Man or Shame and I see just how talented a bluesman Johnny is. The funny thing is that visually – Johnny couldn’t be further from looking like a black man however, does have some tonal qualities in his voice that lead you to believe. Honestly…I believe that artists pay homage to the legendary players, but the good ones really create their own chops over time. That is what Johnny has done. He’s not Alvin Lee, he’s not BB…he’s distinctively Johnny. A man that has lived as long as he has in an industry that sucks the life out of you while consuming every drug known to man. Cheers Johnny – you’re a stud!
I grew up in NYC in the 60’s, 70’s and some of the 80’s. I saw Johnny Winter’s first appearance at the Filmore and at many other venues! He played BlackFaced Super Reverbs all controls soldered on 10!! When SRV hit the scene and the buzz you heard “the Greatest White Blues player” I laughed because the people who wrote those headlines we on the latest Fad of SRV playing with Bowie!!! I’m sure SRV never considered himself “the Greatest, blah, blah, blah!!! he had respect for his elders!!! And yes some of the shows I saw with winter and Derringer where insane!!! Rick Derringer is so under rated!! I also was fortunate enough to see Super Session with Bloomfield. And one of the nights they invited Johnny Winter to play-it was magical!! I will say that Bloomfield on that night was as good if not a tad better the Johnny-IMHO. I also saw Johnny in his heavy coke era….. what a shame- he was never the same. One quick note- I saw Johnny winter and in Portchester, NY and he was on fire!!! Derringer played very light lead- Winter was so on!!! WE all were in awe??? 4 months later they are back in Portchester, Winter was completely incoherent, and Derringer played all of Johnny’s leads….note for note of of the record!!! We left in total shock on how great Derringer is!! Yes I know I have been very lucky living and playing music in NYC back than!!!
Thanks for writing . Not one of your better articles(Which I enjoy) More content on technique and gear would have been more interesting.
A small point please remember you are writing for an international audience. (I am in Australia) Who the hell is Bruce Jenner? Perhaps the Pope might have been a better saintly analogy. Keep up the good work.
I am kind of surprised that you missed his first record…”The Progressive Blues Experiment”
done before he was signed to Columbia
The opening paragraph reinforces some stereotypes about skin color and music that really don’t hold up too well. While it’s true that blues originated in rural black America, I don’t listen to Johnny Winter and think he’s a black player because I know he’s white. Sure, he obviously was influenced by black musicians, but to say he sounds like a black guitar player makes no more sense than saying Bad Brains or Living Colour sound like white rock bands (both have all black members). Just because these musicians don’t play the music most commonly associated with their race does not make them any less authentic or talented.
Some other thoughts…Is B.B. King’s blues any more/less authentic when used in a Wendy’s TV commercial to sell junk food? What about when Beck shuts off the sampling and plays acoustic blues? Is this more/less authentic
How about simply saying that Winter’s playing is authentic vs. the cliche “pretty good for a white guy” routine that’s thrown at people like Winter, Roy Buchanen, Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl – all estimable players.
Terrific article Joey, no question that you idolize JW and that is quite evident in your writing. Johnny is a RnR legend and true guitar god, I wonder how many young guitarists today have never heard JW play or even know who he is. My all time favorite track from Johnny is Good Morning Little School Girl from JW and Live, Rick Derringer is a great guitarist in his own right, and a frontman/lead guitarist right up there with the best but he provides such a solid rhythm instrument on this album. Whenever I put this track on for people who have never heard it they are just blown away. The twin lead jam after Rick’s solo is for the ages. This entire album is simply Rock’n Roll at it’s finest and may Johnny rock on for many more years !
I was 13 when I first heard The Great White Tornado Johnny Winter on Fm radio in Detroit.When all the other kids were listening to bubble gum Am I was listening to Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, Mike Bloomfeild and Paul Butterfield. Johnny is so underrated He’s the reason that I wanted to play guitar. I fell in love with this guy… it was is energy and his passion not to mention he’s a virtuoso on that flying V. Oh yeah and Rick Derringer too. I still got an old vinyl rock blues complilation album featuring some of the greats among those killer tunes are ;ive versions of Jumpin Jack Flash and Black Cat Bone. Maybe part of the reason he’s so good is he is from that old school of blues rockers that had soul and grit and he learned from them first hand. His slide work is nothing short of amazing!
I once caught an interveiw with him in Houston the guy was talking to him and stated that Johnny can crack a walnut between his thumb and fingers! He’s always been ahead of his time musically. Heck he was the original bad ass and had an armful of tattoos before anybody even dreamed of being an inked up individualist badass rocker. I hope someday the world (especialy kids today) know how much he contributed to music especially the Rock and Roll and of course the blues.
I was walking over the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin last month and as I passed the old Vulcan Gas Company building (still there) I started singing “Forty-Four” and progressed on to Rollin’ And Tumblin.’
It felt good..