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.