Classic Album: Johnny Winter

johnny_winter-johnny_winter-mississippibluestravellers-1662x1655_2The 1969 self-titled album from Johnny Winter blew through the music world like a Texas tornado. Mixing blazing guitar with amazing vocals, Winter rewrote the book on Blues/Rock. Most were unfamiliar with Winter at the time, even though he had been on the road and playing the Blues for quite some time when the album hit. The LP “The Progressive Blues Experiment” was released the previous year on the small Sonobeat label. Most people consider the “Johnny Winter” album his debut, as it was much more widely distributed by the Columbia Label.

In the early 60’s, Johnny spent time with Mike Bloomfield at the Fickle Pickle Club in Chicago. There he met Steve Paul, who would later run The Scene Club in New York. Fast forward a few years, and in 1968 Winter was performing regularly at The Scene. In December of that year, Bloomfield invited Johnny to play at his gig with Al Kooper at the Fillmore East. Record label executives were in the audience and were blown away by what they heard! A bidding war began, with Columbia winning at a rumored $600,000, the largest advance in the music industry at that time.

Winter throws blazing runs into the stops, proving that the Blues indeed can be played with both feeling and speed.

Recording began on the Columbia debut immediately. The legendary Eddie Kramer was brought in to produce the album with Winter. Johnny’s awesome band of Uncle John Turner on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass set the foundation for the album. Shannon would later go on to play bass in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band. Johnny’s brother Edgar plays keyboard and saxophone, and blues greats Walter “Shakey” Horton and Willie Dixon play harmonica and bass on the Muddy Water’s classic “Mean Mistreater.”

johnnywinterThe album kicks off with the rocking Winter original “I’m Yours and I’m Hers.” Right out of the gate the listener can tell that Winter not only is a first class guitar slinger, but has vocal chops to boot! Blues/Rock would never be the same again! Winter doesn’t want the listener to forget that his guitar is front and center though, so he pulls out all the stops in the B.B. King classic “Be Careful With A Fool.” Winter throws blazing runs into the stops, proving that the Blues indeed can be played with both feeling and speed. This would be a trademark of Johnny’s for the rest of his life. He was quoted many times saying it always felt right to him to throw fast licks into his Blues and he never felt like he should hold back. The late 60’s saw plenty of Blues/Rock players leaving their marks in the guitar world. Much of it was in the vein of what we hear on this tune. However, few were doing true Delta Blues in the style of Robert Johnson. So the Original tune “Dallas” completely throws a curve ball at the listener. This track leaves you feeling that Winter spent years studying and basking in the style of Johnson. That’s because he did, and this is about as real deal as it gets.

The previously mentioned “Mean Mistreater” is up next. Many have handled Muddy Water’s tunes improperly, using them as a backing track for long, overdone solos and self indulgence. Not Johnny Winter. With Horton and Dixon standing at his side, Johnny keeps one foot in tradition, and the track sounds very similar to Water’s version while putting enough of himself into the tune to do his thing. Classic stuff. “Leland Mississippi Blues” takes Water’s influence into an Original tune that once again shows the amazing vocal abilities Winter had.

The Sonny Boy Williamson classic “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” proves that Winter indeed can stray from tradition when he wants to. This great version was often a highlight of his live shows and stayed in the sets right up to the end. “Dallas” left the listener wanting another taste of that Robert Johnson style Delta Blues, so Johnny pulls out one from the man himself with “When You Got A Good Friend.” This showed the world that Johnny was a true slide master, and in 2016 when the slide guitar greats are listed, Johnny Winter is deservedly on a list with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Duane Allman. The Dunlop Company even issued a signature Johnny Winter slide to honor the man and his impact on slide guitar playing.

He [Johnny Winter] had many proud moments, such as helping to revive Muddy Water’s career in the late 1970’s, giving the legend the honors he rightfully deserved before he passed in 1983.

As the album nears its finish, Johnny treats the listener to perhaps his finest vocal performance ever with an amazing cover of the Ray Charles classic, “I’ll Drown In My Own Tears.” Guitar players have come and gone over the years, but many wisely choose to leave the singing to someone else. Rare is a talent like Johnny. His guitar chops left many in the dust, but his voice was to die for too. Many were often shocked when they saw Winter. Born albino and standing rail thin, audiences were often expecting to see someone three times his size as his voice leads you to believe. The man could flat out sing!

The album closes with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Back Door Friend.” Once again, it’s a nod to Winter’s love for the Blues and its founding father’s. It’s as if he didn’t want to end with one of his tunes, but chose this one to let the listener know he didn’t invent this music, just wants to expose it more and give you his take on it.

johnny-winterIn 2004 the album was remastered and expanded with three bonus tracks. Covers of B.B. King’s “Country Girl” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Two Steps From The Blues” make it worth picking up a copy. But you also get to hear “Dallas” played with the band.

Johnny went on to make many more albums. They’re all great and worth owning. His career saw its ups and downs. He had many proud moments, such as helping to revive Muddy Water’s career in the late 1970’s, giving the legend the honors he rightfully deserved before he passed in 1983. Check out the recently released DVD bio of Johnny’s life, “Down & Dirty”. Johnny gives much insight into his career with interviews from himself and other legends in the industry.

The Blues and Rock and Roll have many iconic albums that define both genres. With the release of his self titled album in 1969, Johnny Winter offered a classic LP and kicked down the doors, letting the world know he meant business and was here to stay. Thanks for the music, Mr. Winter.

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe is a full time musician/teacher in the Chicago area and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News. His first exposure to music was hearing his Grandfather's bands playing Traditional Country music by the likes of Hank Williams Sr., The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Tracing the roots of that music lead him to his love of the Blues. Todd is available for private guitar instruction at All About Music, Inc. in Mokena, IL. 708-479-0440 www.AllAboutMusicMokena.com For more info contact him @ 708-214-6459 or visit www.ToddBeebeMusic.com.

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