Born: February 23, 1944 in Beaumont, Texas
Died: July 16, 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland
When blues guitarist Johnny Winter first hit the clubs of the Big Apple in late 1968, the jaded New York City audience had no idea of what to make of him. An albino, rail-thin, with long white hair and a dynamic onstage presence, Winter wielded his guitar like a switchblade. Over the next couple of decades, his career arc would take him from arena-rock royalty to blues legend. Winter's fiery slide-guitar and slash-and-burn six-string style would make him a popular performer with both blues and rock audiences.
Goin' To Chicago
Born John Dawson Winter III in Beaumont, Winter's family came to Texas because there was no hospital in their Leland, Mississippi hometown. Because his father's cotton business was failing, the Winter family moved to Beaumont permanently. Winter long held onto this Mississippi heritage, though, feeling a deep connection with the Delta blues. The clarinet was his first instrument, but he moved to the ukulele at an early age. By the time he was 12, Winter had taken up the guitar, and within two years he had formed his first band with younger brother Edgar.
Winter spent much of his teenage years haunting recording studios and performing live at local clubs. In 1963, he ventured to Chicago to try and break into the city's thriving and competitive blues music scene. He didn't have much success, but did strike up a friendship with fellow white blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield, who would later make his impact on the blues with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Winter returned to Texas and would later form a band with future Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer "Uncle" John Turner.
After recording a number of regionally-distributed singles throughout the mid-1960s, Winter - with Shannon and Turner - released his first album in 1968, The Progressive Blues Experiment appearing on the Austin-based Sonobeat Records label. By the time that Rolling Stone magazine published a complimentary article on Texas music in 1968, Winter had already spent the better part of a decade based in Austin and playing on the Southern club circuit.
After the Rolling Stone article, New York City club owner Steve Paul pursued Winter and eventually signed him to a management contract, flying him north to play in his club, The Scene. Paul stage-managed a bidding war for the 24-year-old veteran guitarist, Columbia Records subsequently signing Winter to an impressive $500-$600,000 deal for several albums. With Shannon and Turner in tow, and with cameos from blues legends Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton, Winter recorded his self-titled major label debut in Nashville in 1968.
Roots-Rock & Twang
Johnny Winter, the album, was a critical and commercial success, and the label rushed the guitarist and his band back to Nashville to record the equally well-received Second Winter, brother Edgar joining the band on sax and keyboards. Second Winter was notable as a vinyl album in that it featured three sides of music, the fourth side of the two-album set was blank. Although the band was enjoying great success, as Winter became mired in heroin addiction, the band would break apart in 1971.
Winter carried on with a band made up of members of the McCoys, including guitarist Rick Derringer. This line-up recorded 1970's Johnny Winter And album, following it up with a scorching live album the following year. By this time, Winter's addiction had caught up with him and he retired from music for a while to get clean. Upon his return, he hooked up once again with Derringer, who produced and played on Winter's triumphant 1973 album, Still Alive And Well. Featuring a new twangy roots-rock sound that would take him further away from the blues, the album would become Winter's highest-charting to date.
Working With The King
In the mid-1970s, Winter and his manager were provided the opportunity to launch their own CBS-distributed label, Blue Sky Records. Beginning with 1976's Captured Live, five of Winter's albums would be released on the Blue Sky imprint. Winter's sound again veered away from the roots-rock of his previous few albums and back towards a guitar-driven blues and blues-rock style. Winter's 1976 album Together included his brother Edgar for a raucous live set.
The label also afforded Winter the opportunity to make a dream come true, as he was able to work with one of his musical idols, Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters. Waters' 1977 comeback album, Hard Again, was produced by Winter and features his scorching guitarwork alongside the musical chops of legends James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins. I'm Ready in 1978 and King Bee in 1981 would take Waters' sound further towards a blues-rock hybrid, and the collaboration between the elder statesman and young guitarslinger would result in two Grammy™ Awards for Waters.
Back To The Blues
As the 1970s wore on, Winter would move away from his roots-rock sound and turn back towards the blues. Winter recorded 1977's Nothin' But The Blues with members of Muddy Waters' band. During the early-1980s, Winter continued to tour as a popular live performer, signing a deal with Alligator Records. Winter would resurrect his recording career, releasing a trio of critical and commercially-successful blues albums, beginning with 1984's Guitar Slinger. Winter was also honored by being the first white artist to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame by The Blues Foundation.
Winter left Alligator during the late-1980s and landed on Point Blank. After 1992's Hey, Where's Your Brother? album, Winter recorded sporadically during the remainder of the 1990s and into the '00s. A live album was released by Virgin in 1998, and Winter's 2004 "comeback" album, I'm A Bluesman was nominated for a Grammy™ Award. Health problems cut back on Winter's touring, but he continues to perform - sitting in a chair with his guitar - to the delight of audiences worldwide. Winter returned in 2010 with the guest-star laden LP Roots, which found the guitarist in fine form in the twilight of his lengthy career. Sadly, Winter passed away in July 2014 while on tour in Switzerland; his final album, Step Back, would be released the following September.
Recommended Albums: Winter has recorded several "landmark" albums over the course of his 40-years-plus career. His self-titled 1969 debut features a mix of inspired blues covers and original blues-rock barn-burners. 1973's excellent Still Alive & Well is a fine collection of blues and roots-rock. Third Degree, the guitarist's 1986 Alligator Records debut, is widely considered to be his best blues album. In celebration of Winter's 70th birthday in 2014, Legacy Recordings released True To The Blues, a four-disc career-spanning box set.
Johnny Winter - Select Discography
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- The Progressive Blues Experiment (Capitol EMI, 1962)
- Johnny Winter (Columbia, 1969)
- Second Winter (Columbia, 1969)
- Johnny Winter And (Columbia, 1970)
- Live Johnny Winter And (Columbia, 1971)
- Still Alive and Well (Columbia, 1973)
- Saints & Sinners (Columbia, 1974)
- John Dawson Winter III (Columbia, 1974)
- Captured Live! (Blue Sky, 1976)
- Together w/Edgar Winter (Blue Sky, 1976)
- Nothin' But the Blues (Blue Sky, 1977)
- White, Hot and Blue (Blue Sky, 1978)
- Raisin' Cain (Blue Sky, 1980)
- Guitar Slinger (Alligator Records, 1984)
- Serious Business (Alligator Records, 1985)
- Third Degree (Alligator Records, 1986)
- The Winter of '88 (Voyager/MCA, 1988)
- Let Me In (Point Blank, 1991)
- Hey, Where's Your Brother? (Point Blank, 1992)
- Live In NYC '97 (Virgin, 1998)
- I'm A Bluesman (Virgin, 2004)
- The Johnny Winter Anthology (Shout! Factory, 2009)
- Roots (Megaforce Records, 2010)
- True To The Blues (Legacy Recordings, 2014)