We’re re-running this article about Johnny Winter in honor of his passing on July 16th, 2014.
by Todd Beebe
Few artists can claim true devotion to a musical style like Johnny Winter can for the blues. Many contemporary acts change like the wind, going back and forth to chase trends for immediate appeal. Winter’s career goes back more than 45 years, and every stage of it shows his true love for the blues.
John Dawson Winter III was born February 23, 1944 in Beaumont, Texas. His first instrument was the clarinet, then ukulele. Early rock’n’roll caught his attention and Johnny soon gravitated towards the guitar. His younger brother Edgar was also musical, and the two formed a duo in the style of the Everly Brothers. Johnny and Edgar spent hours honing their skills, and by the mid to late 50’s were appearing on many local television shows. It was around this time Johnny started sneaking into blues clubs, where he witnessed Muddy Waters, Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King first hand.
[pullquote]It was around this time Johnny started sneaking into blues clubs, where he witnessed Muddy Waters, Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King first hand. [/pullquote]
He was hooked. A Beaumont club called the Raven was the sight of the now famous story where Johnny continually asked B.B. King to sit in with him. King let Winter on stage, and Johnny pulled out all the stops. He now knew he was forever on the path of the Blues.
In the early and mid 60’s Johnny toured the US relentlessly, playing anywhere and everywhere he could for whatever he could get. He even ventured to Chicago for a short time, where he befriended future icon Michael Bloomfield. Fast forward to December 1968. Bloomfield was playing the Fillmore East with Al Kooper and invited Johnny to come up and jam on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault.” Winter once again pulled out all the stops.
As fate would have it, the Fillmore was filled with executives from Columbia Records that night, and they loved what they heard. Johnny Winter was signed to a contract with Columbia that reportedly came with the biggest advance in the history of the record industry at that time. That evening’s entire performance is captured on Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield – Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12-13-68. If you don’t own this album, do yourself a favor and get it – hearing Winter and Bloomfield tearing it up together is priceless.
Johnny’s debut album, simply called Johnny Winter was released in ’68 followed by other greats including Second Winter, Still Alive and Well and Saints And Sinners. These albums hold a special place in history, linking old school blues with the British Invasion’s blues influence and the oncoming dose of southern rock that was then on the horizon.
Starting in 1974, Winter released the great albums John Dawson Winter III, Captured Live, and Nothin’ But The Blues on CBS Records’ Blue Sky Label. Johnny had dreamed about working and recording with his idol Muddy Waters ever since he started performing. In 1977 he heard that Muddy was currently without a record label. Winter jumped at the chance to ask Muddy Waters to record for Blue Sky under his direction.
[pullquote]Winter jumped at the chance to ask Muddy Waters to record for Blue Sky under his direction.[/pullquote]
What followed were some of the best recordings of Muddy’s career. 1977’s Hard Again is, in this author’s opinion, one of the best blues albums of all time. I just don’t think it gets any better than this one! With James Cotton on the harp, this album is the real deal. Hard Again was followed by more classic LP’s: 1978’s I’m Ready, 1979’s Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live and 1980’s King Bee. All were produced by Winter.
In 1984 Johnny signed with Chicago’s Alligator Records and released albums where he played exactly what he felt like playing. And he felt like playing the blues. Guitar Slinger, Serious Business and Third Degree all showed the world that Johnny was indeed Still Alive And Well and playing the blues better than ever. This trend continued into the 90’s. Winter signed with the Point Blank label and released the awesome Let Me In as well as Hey Where’s Your Brother which saw him reuniting with his brother Edgar.
Johnny Winter is still going strong today. Recent releases like I’m a Bluesman and Roots have showed him to be in top form. Trends come and go, but Johnny Winter and his love for the blues have been going strong for over 45 years. Play on, Johnny Winter, man of the Blues!