The story of the blues and rock guitarist Johnny Winter, who has died suddenly aged 70 on July 16, is both a cautionary tale and a lesson in how to stay true to your own instincts.
A precocious talent from Texas, Winter was signed by Columbia Records in 1969 for US$600,000, then an unprecedented sum for a solo artist. He released his first Columbia album in April 1969, and in August that year he appeared in the midst of the rock ’n’ roll aristocracy at the Woodstock festival.
But Winter became disillusioned by the way his record company wanted him to be another spectacular rock star like Jimi Hendrix or a supergroup such as Cream, when what he really wanted to do was “play real raw country blues in my own style, and that wasn’t what people were expecting,” as he put it. “I loved Jimi and I loved Cream, but I wasn’t trying to compete.”
It took Winter several years of working with different musicians and musical styles, as well as nine months of treatment for heroin addiction in the River Oaks hospital in New Orleans, before he could find what he was looking for.
It was when the blues veteran Muddy Waters asked Winter to produce his comeback album, Hard Again (1977), that Winter felt he had finally got back in touch with his blues roots, after several years of playing a flashy rock-blues mixture to arena-sized crowds.
The album won a Grammy for best blues album, and when Winter produced Waters’s follow-up, I’m Ready, it won another. Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live (1979) completed the Grammy hat-trick. “The high point of my career was working with Muddy,” Winter reflected.
Son of John and Edwina, Winter was born in Leland, Mississippi, but the family moved to Beaumont, Texas, while he was still an infant. Both Johnny and his younger brother Edgar were born with albinism. The pair began playing music before they went to school, Johnny trying the clarinet before switching to the ukulele and guitar while Edgar played keyboards.
In 1959 the Winter brothers, already known from local talent and TV shows, cut the singles School Day Blues and You Know I Love You for the Houston label Dart Records.
In 1962 Johnny formed Johnny and the Jammers, with Edgar on keyboards. In the early 1960s Johnny recorded numerous singles for such local labels as Frolic, Diamond and Goldband, and scored a local hit with Eternally, distributed by Atlantic.
Between 1965 and 1967 he played across the deep south with Black Plague (featuring Edgar) and his own band It and Them (also known as The Crystaliers). In 1966 Johnny hit the Billboard Hot 100 with a version of Harlem Shuffle, which he recorded with the Traits.
Winter was a regional star in the US south, but major success came knocking in the wake of a 1968 article in Rolling Stone magazine about the Texas music scene. He was then playing with his own trio, completed by the drummer Red Turner and the bassist Tommy Shannon, which had recently recorded the album The Progressive Blues Experiment on Austin’s Sonobeat label.
Winter was written up alongside names such as Janis Joplin, Steve Miller and the Sir Douglas Quintet, and was memorably described as “a 130lb cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard”.
Winter found himself pursued by the New York club owner Steve Paul, who had read the article and launched a campaign to become Winter’s manager (which he eventually did). Paul set up a bidding contest between record companies that was won by Columbia, resulting in the debut album Johnny Winter (1969) reaching No. 23 on the charts.
The follow-up, Second Winter, appeared in November 1969 and reached 55, but Winter’s progress was being impeded by a stream of reissues of his older recordings on various labels.
The Progressive Blues Experiment had reappeared just before his Columbia debut, and further non-Columbia releases included The Johnny Winter Story, First Winter and About Blues.
In 1970 Winter was dissatisfied enough with his band to drop them in favour of the McCoys, now older and wiser than the bubblegum pop band who recorded Hang On Sloopy, and featuring the guitarist and songwriter Rick Derringer.
Calling themselves Johnny Winter And, they released a studio album that fared poorly, and a live follow-up that went to No 40 and was certified gold. However, shortly afterwards Winter was floored by heroin addiction and hospitalised.
“At that point, heroin was the only way we could stay on the road and make it,” he said later. He would not make another album until Still Alive And Well (1973), a top 30 effort that featured Silver Train, written for him by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Back in the saddle, Winter cut Saints & Sinners (1974) and John Dawson Winter III (1974, including Rock & Roll People, written for him by John Lennon). Captured Live! (1976) was on Blue Sky Records, a custom label within Columbia created by Steve Paul. Also signed to Blue Sky was Muddy Waters, a fortunate coincidence.
Amid the albums he produced and played on for Waters, Winter recorded his own Nothin’ But the Blues (1977), for which he was accompanied by Waters’s band.
However, Winter’s Raisin’ Cain (1980) failed to chart and marked the end of his Columbia contract.
He made a trio of discs for Alligator Records, including the successful Guitar Slinger (1984) and Serious Business (1985), then moved to Voyager Records to make the unimpressive The Winter Of ‘88. The early 1990s brought the bluesier Let Me In (1991) and Hey, Where’s Your Brother? (1992, for Point Blank/Charisma).
Winter now suffered another period of decline, under the management of Teddy Slatus, who apparently exploited his continuing drug abuse while wreaking havoc with his finances. He bounced back with I’m A Bluesman (2004), earning another Grammy nomination.
He then devoted himself to issuing the Live Bootleg Series, collections of archival concert recordings, which reached Volume 10. In 2011 he was back on his erstwhile label Sonobeat for Roots. A new disc, Step Back, featuring a host of guest guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer, Joe Perry and Billy Gibbons, was scheduled for release later this year.
“I always knew, even when I was a little kid, that I had more musical talent than most people,” said Johnny. “But I was willing to be a musician without being a star and still am. Because my music is more important, in the end, than any rewards that might come from it.”
Winter is survived by his wife, Susan, and Edgar. – Guardian News & Media