Johnny Winter

It’s been an exceedingly tough week for music deaths: Maestro Lorin Maazel, the last survivor of America’s greatest punk band, Tommy Ramone, unforgettable Broadway singer and actress Elaine Stritch and now the great Johnny Winter who died on Wednesday in Zurich, Switzerland at the age of 70.

Nearly cross–eyed and impossibly skinny even as a kid, the man with what he called "albinoism" from Beaumont, Texas, was a guitar virtuoso, particularly on his beloved Gibson Firebird, who loved playing the electric blues. Brought to a national audience via an article in a 1968 issue of Rolling Stone that focused on Texas music (and which featured the late, great Doug Sahm on the cover), he played the blues for the kids at Woodstock, played with his brother Edgar and became a reluctant but successful arena rock star before returning to the blues in the late 1970s on a series of records he produced and played on with his hero, Muddy Waters. Although it all has its merits, I was always partial to the Still Alive and Well and Saints & Sinners pair of early '70s rock records, which had more variety than the straight blues stuff and about which Winter says in the film he didn't want to do but knew at the time and even now, was the right decision.

When it comes to meeting your heroes, be careful what you wish for. Never is that more true than in music, especially rock ‘n’ roll. When I saw Johnny Winter perform this year at South By Southwest in Austin in March, I was a bit taken aback at first. He had trouble walking, he sat down to play (he broke his hip in the 90s), and despite the trademark long white locks, looked incredibly wizened. His voice was shot but his mind and fingers and so guitar playing were undiminished. My only complaint was that his band was too loud and muscular. You couldn’t hear a word the poor man was trying to sing.

When we first meet Johnny Winter in the excellent new documentary on his life Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, the reaction of shock is repeated. It takes a minute to get used to Winter’s appearance, and how much the years of abuse have aged him. Although everyone in the film agrees that he’s “come back” mentally and physically after kicking methadone which he’d been on for 30 years!—his new manager reckons he was really only on heroin for two years (?)—Winter still manages in one recent scene that was filmed, not surprisingly, in New Orleans, to slug down four large glasses of vodka and get rip–roaringly drunk. Another vodka experience in a steak house in Japan culminates with him, to the complete amusement of his band, singing karaoke to Ray Charles “Georgia.”

As music documentaries go, Down & Dirty is a judicious mix of performance footage, history, interviews with friends, and the man himself. It’s exceptionally up close, honest and fun to watch. Winter was brave to even do it. Throughout he is shockingly stooped and physically infirm and yet his sense of humor is undiminished.

"I made my first record when I was 15, started playing clubs when I was 15. Started drinking and smoking when I was 15. Sex when I was 15. Fifteen was a big year for me,"

And despite the boozing episodes, he’s relatively clear–headed and well–spoken through most of the film. He does not kid himself about his life or his music. He’s nearly brought to tears when he visits his childhood home. Neither he nor his wife Susan have problems speaking about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle they lived, with Johnny saying at one point that his old friend and drug buddy Janis Joplin who once said about junk, “Anything that makes you feel that good can’t be all bad,” was wrong and that the only thing he’d take back in his life was using dope.

Winter’s new record, Step Back which will be released in September, is one of those duet projects where a slate of guests track their parts somewhere else in the world and it’s all mixed after the fact into a (semi-) coherent whole. The material here is all blues classics from the 1950s and '60s and the guest list includes among others Eric Clapton (“Don’t Want No Woman”), Joe Perry (“Mojo Hand”), and Leslie West (“Long Tall Sally”). A solo take of “Death Letter” now takes on a special significance. But it’s two classic blues tracks, “Okie Dokie Stomp,” an instrumental made famous by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and the Little Walter hit, “My Babe,” with Brian Setzer and Jason Ricci respectively, that are this record’s key tracks. I previewed an advance CD so there's no way to tell what the final product will sound like. A long way from revolutionary, it's still great to hear a guitar master at work.

As superstitions go, none are stronger for me than the one that holds that sometimes folks stay alive just long enough to do what they have to do and then they pass on. That seems to be the case with Johnny Winter, who left behind both a new album and a new film as his immediate legacy.

KingGhidora's picture

I listen to "Still Alive And Well" on a regular basis after all these years. I have been a huge fan for nearly half a century. He could play the blues with the best of them. Friday evening it was hard to hear Winter sing about all the people he thought was cool being dead while he was still alive. They tried to get him lots of times and they finally did. Winter fans will know what I mean. What a great talent he was. He will be missed.

Vinyl53's picture

Wow. The first album I can remember buying with my own money was Johnny Winter And - Live. I've gone through at least 3 LP copies over the years. I still listen to "Mean Town Blues" & "It's My Own Fault" at least once a month. The speed & the Johnny Winter signature guitar hook can never be duplicated. The gift that keeps on giving forever. RIP Johnny.

Honesuki's picture

To know Johnny Winter, one need go no further than The Progressive Blues Experiment. Johnny said everything he needed to say about who he was and what he was about. What followed was emphasis.