He was a crossover hit before crossover was cool — one of the best blues guitarists of his generation a hit with rock ‘n roll fans. He played at Woodstock, partnered with his childhood idol Muddy Waters to produce 3 Grammy winning albums, made records with his keyboardist brother Edgar, and helped popularize the blues with a generation more attuned to the driving beat of the Rolling Stones than the laid back Delta blues of John Lee Hooker.
Johnny Winter was all that and more. His machine gun-like riffs soared above the stage, wailing, grinding, ultimately freed from convention to arrive whole and complete at the end of the measure. Listening to Winter’s solos was almost a spiritual experience that left one both exhilarated and exhausted at the end.
Winter’s enormous talent has been stilled. He died in Zurich while on a European tour. He was 70.
Winter may have become popular because of his rock interpretations of blues standards, and pop covers such as “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But he much preferred the Chicago-influenced blues he played in his youth. In the end, he went back to playing “pure” blues while his popularity only soared.
You’re not going to get through an obituary of Winter without the writer mentioning his albinism. The irony of a white man, with white hair and pink skin named “Winter” playing the music of black tragedy and pathos was not lost on Johnny or his brother Edgar, who sometimes joined him in concert and in collaborating on albums.
Growin’ up in school, I really got the bad end of the deal. People teased me and I got in a lot of fights. I was a pretty bluesy kid.” That alienation, he believed, gave him a kinship with the black blues musicians he idolized. “We both,” he explained, “had a problem with our skin being the wrong color.”
Rolling Stone paid tribute to Winter in a heartfelt remembrance. It was Rolling Stone that propelled Winter to stardom with a glowing portrait of him in 1968. Bluesman Michael Bloomfield read it, and asked the unknown musician to come on stage and play with he and Al Kooper during a concert at the legendary Filmore East. An exec with Columbia was in the audience and once Johnny gave a manic performance of “It’s My Own Fault,” Columbia had their man and Winter had a check for $600,000.
Rolling Stone comes pretty close to capturing Winter’s pedal-to-the-metal style:
It’s probably overly romantic to say that one can hear any sort of outsider’s howl in Winter’s playing, which first came to wider attention via a 1968 Rolling Stone article that praised him for some of the most “gutsiest, fluid guitar you ever heard,” but at its best, there’s a beautifully articulated flamboyance to his music. Faster and flashier than his blues god contemporary Eric Clapton, Winter’s musicianship — a hyperactive, high-octane intensity was his great blues innovation — had the electric flair of someone who was determined to take charge of how he was seen by others. It was as if his playing (and his gutsy singing) was a challenge to audiences. Okay, you’re looking at me? Then watch this.
The hard rock part of Winter’s career featured his discovery of another frantic and fabled guitarist in Rick Derringer. The group — Johnny Winter And — cut a live album in 1971 that, to this day, is considered one of the most high-octane examples of amphitheater rock ever recorded.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash captures Winter at his most manic and melodic:
One of the last live performances of Johnny Winter And was in 1973 in Connecticut. Winter’s signature song at the time was “Rock ‘N Roll Hoochie Koo,” later adopted by bandmate Derringer as his anthem.
Winter returned to his blues roots in the late 1970′s, churning out records and performing live in between bouts with heroin and prescription drug addiction. By the 1990′s he was clean and entered a new phase of his career, producing anthologies of his work as well as the occasional studio album. His last release was in 2011, titled simply “Roots.”
Although Winter never won a Grammy, he will probably win one posthumously for his upcoming “Step Back,” scheduled to arrive in September. It features the guitarists Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
That’s the kind of rarefied air Johnny Winter breathed for most of his professional life. He was admired by not only the greats of his generation, but the icons of past generations as well. This is a feat precious few musicians achieve and it speaks to Winter’s talent and dedication to the industry for 5 decades that so many from so many walks of life will miss him.
1. There once was a black country blues guitarist named Arnold Schultz. Originally from Kentucky, Schultz was a travelling laborer who had a huge impact on American blues music during his short life.
2. Schultz taught this guy, Ike Everly, a unique thumb-picking guitar style native to Western Kentucky.
3. Ike Everly taught this style to his neighbor and fellow coal miner Merle Travis.
4. Ike Everly would bring his sons, Don and Phil, into the family band. They’d grow up to form the famous American music group, the Everly Brothers. The Everly Brothers would go on to influence many musicians, including the Beatles. It is said that the harmonies in one of the Beatles’ first hits, Please Please Me, were inspired by the fraternal duo.
5. Merle Travis would go on to become a famous country and western musician, popularizing that fingerpicking style his neighbor Ike Everly taught him so much that it became known as Travis Picking.
6. Travis Picking is the style of guitar playing featured in the latest Coen Brothers release, Inside Llewyn Davis.
So, as we remember the life and legacy of Phil Everly and the Everly Brothers
We should celebrate the gift of American music
Without which the Beatles would not have existed
And we’d be forced to jam to techno-pop
Instead of those awesome Hillbilly tunes.
If you came of age in the rock and roll years of the 1960s and were into music you knew of Danny Kalb and the band he created The Blues Project. Often referred to as New York City’s “Jewish Beatles,” the group was at first managed by Sid Bernstein, the same man who ran the Fab Four’s New York City tours. You might have heard them at the Paramount Theater in Times Square, where a new group, Eric Clapton and Cream, opened for them. Or you might have heard them play at Palisades Park Amusement Park, at one of Murray the K’s (the most well-known NYC DJ) weekend programs at the park. Most likely, however, you went to hear them at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, the place for folk, rock and blues.
Now, after years of living in the shadows, Kalb has come out with a masterful two-disc of his most recent work, and is starting to receive major reviews. The latest for his new album Moving in Blue appears in The Morton Report, a major pop-culture review, and is written by its music critic, Bill Bentley. Calling Kalb “one of that decade’s musical linchpins,” Bentley writes that,
“his playing crossed blues with folk, rock, country and even jazz over the course of their albums, and before that he was one of the young white bluesmen who found nirvana in the music of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and other originators, and honored their creation with dedication and deep spirit.”
“The Blues Project,” he says, “spread waves far and wide.” In the new album, Kalb sets out to let you hear all the various musical directions he has absorbed into one unique style. You will hear songs by Muddy Waters, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, a few of his own compositions, and some glorious blues licks and the kind of incredible, finger-picking magic on the guitar of which only he is capable. Kalb finds, as Bentley writes, an “inner beauty in everything he touches.” His home, he concludes, “is a musical rainbow inside us all.”
Another additional treat is the insightful and beautifully written liner notes by historian and musicologist Sean Wilentz — yes, that same Wilentz who is a historian at Princeton University, most well-known for his books on American history, as well as his meditation on our greatest singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan in America. Kalb, whom he says “looks like a Jewish lumberjack Buddha,” is “more like Mandrake” once he starts playing. He says that Kalb stomps with “soulful joy through one genre after another.” He plays such tunes as Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” the Muddy Waters classic “I Got My Mojo Working,” Leadbelly’s “Leaving Blues,” John Lee Hooker’s “Louise,” and Big Joe Williams “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Many will agree with Wilentz that his version of the traditional “Death Comes Creeping,” sung by many from Dylan to Mance Lipscomb, is done alone on acoustic guitar “more movingly” than interpretations by other past singers.
Accompanying Kalb on the album: his brother Jonathan (himself a fine blues musician) on slide guitar and harmonica, his drummer from The Blues Project Roy Blumenfeld, bass player Jesse Williams and Lenny Nelson, and Sojourn Records co-founder, the label of Kalb’s CD, drummer Mark Ambrosino. There is, as listeners will find, some incredible keyboard and organ work by someone whose name does not appear, but who aficionados will think sounds suspiciously like the famous Blues Project keyboard man, founder of “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” and sideman for most of Dylan’s earlier hits, Al Kooper. The absence of any credit for whomever is playing those awesome keyboards on the CD is rather, I must say, inexplicable. The man deserves credit!
So, go take a break from the TV, stop fretting over the world situation, and enjoy some heartfelt powerful music. Bring some joy into your life. You deserve it, and Danny Kalb deserves to be heard and listened to.
Previously at PJ Lifestyle from Ron Radosh:
Why Oliver Stone Will Not Be a Happy Man this Weekend