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Johnny Winter is Still Alive and Well
By Jim Wormington
Johnny Winter (in case you didn’t know) is a much-respected blues/rock guitarist with an illustrious history of accomplishment and many accolades in the music world, including having a song written for him by both the Rolling Stones and John Lennon ("Silver Train" and "Rock and Roll People," respectively).
If real blues arises, at least in part, from personal suffering, then Johnny Winter can confidently claim his place among the great blues artists.
Born a cross-eyed albino, John Dawson Winter can certainly be placed in the category of a minority. His skin and hair white as paper, his eyes roaming around independent of one another and without normal pigmentation--his physical appearance gave him lots of opportunities to be misunderstood, feared, and ridiculed. Growing up in rural Texas in the 50s and 60s, Winter felt the pain of the outright cruelty people were capable of when they encountered someone different.
His parents encouraged his early interests in the clarinet and ukulele. But when he inherited his grandpas guitar (around age 12), he held the instrument that would ignite his souls creative passions and ultimately launch a career spanning more than three decades.
In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, Winter wandered fearlessly into black neighborhoods and clubs--despite the high racial tension in those days--to drink in a thrilling new discovery, still called race music then.
If Winter’s differences were impediments, clearly, he overcame them when he was seized by a burning drive to play and perform the blues.
He learned how to hold a guitar from taking lessons--the rest he learned from the records of Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters. He listened to all of the best black bluesmen and absorbed their deeply felt music with the obsessed delight of a true fanatic. Winters vision problems made reading music an unrealistic proposition; but whatever he may have lacked in technical knowledge, he made up for with heart and determination.
In an article from _Look_ magazine, July 29 1969, Winter said he felt a common bond with blacks. Their music was my music, he said.
In the same article, B. B. King was quoted as saying of Johnny Winter: He really feels the blues.
Building on what he learned from these players, Winter constructed his own style of playing and singing. With gravel in his vocal chords and dirt in his guitar sound, Winter sped up and shouted out the blues. Winters pale hands became a blur when he attacked the strings with a slide, breaking the speed barrier and forging a signature sound.
Hard work and constant gigging got the skinny, paler-than-pale guitar slinger noticed locally.
A late 1968 Rolling Stone article about the Texas music scene said that Winter was playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard. That was the beginning of his emergence into the national consciousness. It paved the way for a very heady 1969, which included the signing of a contract with Columbia Records that guaranteed him $100,000-a-year for three years.
The seventies would see him share the stage with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, Steppenwolf, Santana, The Byrds, Canned Heat, John Mayall, Donovan, Hot Tuna, Country Joe and scores of others.
With one foot in the blues and one in rock and roll, Winter set the stage for future Texas rockers like ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan even while he helped bolster the career of his blues guitar idol Muddy Waters.
Winter recorded dozens of albums throughout his career and appeared on many more, acquiring his fair share of Grammies and Grammy nominations along the way.
“Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” was a big hit for Winter, though it was written by one-time bandmate Rick Derringer. The instrumental “Frankenstein” was a monster hit for his younger brother, Edgar.
In 2004, Winter released the Grammy-nominated disc, I’m a Bluesman.
With time for just a few questions, here’s what Winter had to say in a recent interview:
Q: Which aspect of being a high-profile musician do you enjoy the most?
Winter: The freedom to do what I love, which is playing.
Q: Is there a style of music you like that might surprise people?
Winter: Cajun, especially Clifton Chenier. (Also) Zappa, the Beatles, and some Pink Floyd.
Q: Its assumed that music is your first love. Is there another pursuit or hobby that comes in a close second?
Winter: I used to like bowling and even did some snorkeling back in the day.
Q: Are there ever times when picking up a guitar is the last thing you want to do?
Winter: Never. I love playing. When I'm not playing, I'm listening.
Q: In the early years, while still learning to play guitar, can you point to a breakthrough in approach or technique that pushed your playing to the next level or was it just a gradual curve of improvement through practice?
Winter: It was learning slide (guitar) through listening to (Robert) Johnson and Son House. (I learned) the use of a thumb pick by listening to Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. And, like you said, a lot of practicing and listening.
Q: What do you like on your pizza?
Winter: (Laughs.) Pepperoni!
At the age of 63, Winter
is still doing what he loves and that makes true guitarheads everywhere