Johnny Winter is a blues icon. Born 57 years ago (February 23, 1944) and raised in Beaumont, TX along with younger brother Edgar, Johnny is one of many in a long, proud line of Texas blues guitarists/singers. He came into national prominence in 1968, when an article about Texas musicians appeared in the new underground newspaper, Rolling Stone. The article spoke of a "skinny cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing the most fluid blues guitar you've ever heard…."
The Rolling Stone article produced interest in Johnny Winter's music, and a recording of his trio (recorded at Austin's hippie music club, the Vulcan Gas Company) called "The Progressive Blues Experiment" was released by Imperial Records. Simultaneously manager Steve Paul brought Johnny to his New York club, The Scene, and record companies flocked to Johnny. A famous signing with Columbia followed, making Johnny the highest paid musician ever to that date. The first Columbia release was a landmark recording, titled simply "Johnny Winter". On this initial Columbia release, and on "The Progressive Blues Experiment" (that actually was released following the Columbia signing, but before the first Columbia release), Johnny came out singing and playing blazing blues, brimming with fresh musical ideas, energy, soul and enthusiasm.
Since his initial splash on the scene, Johnny's career has taken many twists and turns. He spent much of the 1970s pursuing a more rock direction musically, recording for Columbia and Blue Sky. This changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Johnny had the opportunity to produce and play on several records with his idol, Muddy Waters. The first of these records, titled "Hard Again," won a Grammy in 1977. Several other records with Muddy followed, along with Johnny's own recordings (both Muddy and Johnny were on Blue Sky), until Muddy died in 1983.
Beginning in 1984, Johnny began recording for the Alligator label of Chicago, and made three fine recordings. The recordings, "Guitar Slinger," "Serious Business," and "Third Degree" feature a more seasoned Johnny (particularly vocally) backed by some of Chicago's best blues musicians (Johnny B. Gayden, Casey Jones, Billy Branch, Ken Saydak, and others). These Alligator recordings marked a change in his main instrument that remains to this day, to a light, small, headless guitar tuned down one whole step (D is the lowest string rather than E); an Erlewine Lazer. Johnny's trademark early 1960s Gibson Firebirds remain his instruments of choice for playing slide guitar, using a piece of conduit on his left hand pinky finger.
After one record with MCA in 1988, "The Winter of '88," Johnny signed with Pointblank in the early 1990s. Two fine recordings were released in the early 1990s, "Let Me In" and "Hey, Where's Your Brother," showing Johnny in fine form. A third recording for Pointblank is Johnny's most recent. This CD, recorded at the Bottom Line in New York, is titled "Johnny Winter Live in NYC '97."
On April 10, 2001, Johnny Winter performed at BrewBaker's Nightclub in North St. Paul with his trio. I was one of many in the packed house, thrilled to see and hear him perform. Johnny's set began with Freddie King's "Hideaway", and consisted of more or less the same tunes he has been playing at his shows for the last five years or so (documented on "Johnny Winter Live in NYC '97"). He appeared to be enjoying himself as he performed with his very supportive rhythm section. It's particularly obvious that bass man Mark Epstein has a lot of respect for his boss.
Johnny has never exactly been the picture of health, taking time off here and there through the years as needed for various reasons. He now seems quite frail (he broke a hip and had hip surgery earlier this year), uses a cane and moves very slowly, swaying back and forth even when the music has stopped, and appears to have a very difficult time seeing. Regarding his performance (both singing and playing), quite a bit of his spark and accuracy has waned in recent years. In fact, now it is somewhat bittersweet…even painful to witness his performance, considering how wonderfully he has performed in the past, even in the early 1990s.
Having said that, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, and was thrilled to see and hear him once again. I still remember when I first heard his fluid blues guitar style and soulful singing on an Imperial compilation record of 1968 music (the same record also introduced me to the Master of the Telecaster; Albert Collins…what a great record!). I also remember the thrill of seeing and hearing Johnny live many times over the years, in sports arenas, outdoor festivals and nightclubs. By the way, thanks to my friend Dave Hill, BrewBaker's mainstay, and fine house sound engineer at the show, for getting my Fender Mustang guitar to Mr. Winter for a signature…thanks Dave!
2001 marks the release of a video compilation titled "Pieces & Bits, Johnny Winter." The video is available through Johnny Winter's official website (at http://johnnywinter.prohosting.com). It is a very nice collage, giving samples of Johnny at various stages of his career. There is a frame at the end of the video that sums things up for us. It reads as follows:
"Johnny Winter remains a deep powerful and driving blues artist…a commodity even more to be valued after the recent untimely losses of so many of the music greats. Johnny is more than just a survivor or nostalgia act: he's a vital treasure who should be appreciated for what he has been and what he still is."
This review is copyright © 2001 by Scott Graves, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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