32 years after the release of his debut, self titled album, Johnny Winter has gained almost icon status in the world of blues and blues-rock. There is a mystique surrounding Winter. He has a striking appearance—he (as well as his younger brother Edgar) was born an albino without pigmentation in his hair and eyes, has long, flowing, waxen white hair and is legally blind. Plagued with poor health throughout his childhood, his physical condition was marred even more from drug and alcohol abuse that has further taken its toll on his already frail body. He is thin as a rail, can barely see and needs assistance just strapping on his guitar. Watching him stand on stage you are struck with the impression that the slightest breeze would knock him over. His body is also covered with innumerable tattoos (surpassingly he didn’t get his first tattoo until he was almost 40 years old). When asked about it he said, "It was right before I was forty. I was looking for something new to do that wasn't self-destructive. Tattoos turned out to be it." I don't know about the self-destructive part, but I guess its better than drugs. (He also said there was no truth to the rumor that he would get a new tattoo with each new album he released.) But in spite of what we see, it is, and always has been, his guitar playing that sets Johnny Winter apart.
Born John Dawson Winter III in Beaumont, Texas on February 23, 1944 Johnny and his brother Edgar grew up surrounded by the blues, country and Cajun music. Johnny began playing clarinet at age five and later switched to the ukulele and then guitar when his hands were big enough. The two brothers showed an inclination toward music at an early age singing as a harmony duet fashioned after the Everly Brothers, winning talent contests and appearing on local television shows. By 14 Johnny had his own band and a year later he recorded the singles "School Day Blues" and "You Know I Love You" on Houston-based Dart Records, gaining the Winter brothers some local notoriety. When he was 16 he would sneak into the local clubs like Beaumont’s Black Raven Club, an all black club where artists like Muddy Waters, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and B.B. King performed. Johnny actually sat in with B.B. King at one of those shows. Another place Johnny would go was the Pleasure Pura Ballroom in Port Arthur, Texas where he would see Louisiana blues-men like Lonnie Brooks and Lightnin’ Slim play.
Throughout the early and mid-60s Johnny continued to play the more popular rock and roll but always came back to his one true love, the blues. His major break as a solo artists came about in 1967, after he had recorded an album with Red Turner (drums) and Tommy Shannon (bass) for an obscure regional label (Sonobeat). The Rolling Stone journalists Larry Sepulvado and John Burks heard the album and mentioned Johnny in an article they were writing about Texas music. They wrote, "Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard." That little piece catapulted Winter from local guitar hero to overnight international stardom and a major record label contract. In 1977 Winter was also instrumental in producing and playing on Muddy Waters’ Grammy winning album Hard Again.
This show at First Avenue was another in a series of comeback shows for Winter over the past 3 years. He is slowly gaining more strength and showing the dynamic spark of his early blues guitar prowess. Hunched at the shoulders and with his eyes closed most of the time, Winter never stopped rocking back and forth from one foot to the other as he played to a near sell out crowd of adoring fans.
With his patented headless Lazer guitar strapped over his stooped shoulders Winter began his set, as he always does, paying homage to one of his biggest influences, Freddie King. The instrumentals "Hideaway" and "Sen-Sa-Shun" were followed by "She Likes To Boogie Real Low," "Just A Little Bit," and Ray Charles' smoldering ballad "Black Jack" as well as "Got My Mojo Working." With the help of his guitar tech, he then switched to his famed sunburst Gibson Firebird guitar to showcase his phenomenal slide chops with a smoldering rendition of "The Sun Is Shining." Influenced on the slide by Robert Johnson and Son House, Winter plays with the slide on his little finger and coaxes a sound out of that guitar that hearkens back to the heydays of delta blues. Interestingly Winter uses a piece of conduit pipe for his slide. "It's just a piece of pipe," he said in a Goldmine Magazine interview. "I used test tubes, pieces of test tubes, pieces of pipe...but nothing worked right until I played in Denver. And a guy from Denver named Morris Tiding turned me on to a piece of conduit pipe - a 12-foot piece we got from a plumbing supply place. And I'm still using that same piece of pipe now that I used back then, I just saw off another piece of it every time I need a new one."
Most of Winter’s songs lasted at least 5 to 10 minutes with little break or comment between. Winter kept up a brisk pace and even though his guitar playing doesn’t have some of the "pyrotechnics" of other blues-rockers, his playing shows his complete understanding and mastery of the nuances of blues guitar. His playing epitomizes the very best elements of the Texas blues guitar tradition. For his encore, Winter returned to the stage and delivered a crushing rendition of his adopted theme song, "Johnny Guitar" (the tune first made famous by Johnny "Guitar" Watson). He even threw in his trademark "twirl" performed almost in slow motion.
Johnny Winter, this soft spoken, frail, tattooed, Texas titan, and blues-rock’s seminal illustrated (blues)man still has the ability to captivate an audience and mesmerize his fans. And you can feel his sincerity and sense his almost child-like quality when he sings, "they call me Johnny Guitar. I'm comin' to play in your town."
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.