GSTV Legend: Johnny Winter: “A Life in the Blues”

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GSTV Legend: Johnny Winter: “A Life in the Blues”

Check out this great Wall Street Journal article on Johnny!

Also: Check GSTV’s footage of Johnny & Edgar Winter jamming LIVE with Rick Derringer and Kim Simmons (ex-Savoy Brown) on the Stones’ classic “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

Johnny Winter: A Life in the Blues



Still touring at 70, the guitarist opens up



Marc Myers


Wall Street Journal Feb. 20, 2014 9:50 p.m. ET


Johnny Winter explains why black clubs welcomed him as a young guitarist because he was an albino and knew about being put down for his skin color. Corbis


In December 1968, guitarist Johnny Winter and his manager Steve Paul went to New York’s Fillmore East to hear blues-rockers Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Mr. Winter was staying with Mr. Paul, who ran a club in the city and had brought him up from Houston. Backstage, Mr. Paul nudged Mr. Winter to ask Mr. Bloomfield if he could sit in. What followed changed Mr. Winter’s career and influenced several generations of blues-rock guitarists.   “I had already known Mike from Chicago, and he said yeah, I could come on,” said Mr. Winter, who turns 70 on Sunday and whose four-CD box “True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story” (Sony) is due Tuesday. “After Mike introduced me, I came out and we played B.B. King’s ‘It’s My Own Fault.’ It was my solo shot and I went at it, but I had no idea who was out there.”

In the audience that night was an impressed friend of Clive Davis —then president of Columbia Records—who told Mr. Davis about Mr. Winter. Anticipating the shift from rock singles to albums, Mr. Davis beat out RCA and Atlantic and signed Mr. Winter in February 1969 to a deal that paid $50,000 an album for six albums over three years with an option for four more—with each of Mr. Winter’s albums for the label eventually selling nearly 400,000 copies.   “My whole life changed overnight—going from playing little clubs to huge concert halls,” said Mr. Winter, who is known for his searing, high-speed playing style. “I was trying to play the blues like the Mississippi guys, but I had my own thing. I didn’t sound like any other rock guitarists then. My feeling was more intense.”

The new Sony box set is a retrospective sampling of Mr. Winter’s work across eight labels and 27 albums, from 1968 to 2011. It includes previously unreleased tracks from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival. This spring, Mr. Winter will release “Step Back,” a follow-up to “Roots” (2011), featuring duets with Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Mark Knopfler and others. “My favorite Columbia album was the first one,” he said. “It was my first chance to do what I wanted with the blues.”

Mr. Winter was born in 1944 in Beaumont, Texas, an oil-refinery town. His father was a contractor who built homes while his mother raised him and his younger brother Edgar —himself a recognized blues musician. “My parents loved music from the 1920s and ’30s—things like barbershop quartets,” Mr. Winter said. “My dad sang in one and I’d play ukulele. I listened to KJET—the only black radio station in town—and bought every blues record I could find at The Harmony Shop. The owner stocked jukeboxes in black clubs, so he always had great records.”

After hearing Chuck Berry in 1955, Mr. Winter embraced the guitar. “I didn’t take lessons—I had a good enough ear to play what I heard on the radio and on records. I also listened to Muddy Waters. I loved his playing and singing—like he was having a conversation with his guitar.”   Soon Mr. Winter was playing gigs at local black clubs, where he was welcomed. “Like my younger brother, I was born an albino and was put down for looking different—too white. The black people I knew could relate to what I went through and I understood their situation from my own experience. I had to find a way to deal with it.”

A Woodstock appearance followed his record deal in August 1969. “I was sleeping on a bag of garbage in the trailer near the stage and woke up close to midnight,” he said. “The guy sending acts out on the stage looked at me and my band and said, ‘You guys are all here. You’re on next.’ Five minutes after I woke up, we were performing.”   But Mr. Winter doesn’t appear in the “Woodstock” documentary. “That was my manager’s fault—he didn’t think it was a good idea. He said the festival was losing money and he didn’t see any benefit in being in there. Obviously, he was wrong.”

In the late 1970s, Mr. Winter produced Mr. Waters’ last four albums, resulting in three Grammys. “I wanted to get him to sound the way he did in Mississippi,” he said.   “I miked everyone separately but added a boom mike for the room, which made everything sound more mono. Muddy was so happy with those records. When I was a kid, I had dreamed about playing with him. For me, it was the most fun I ever had playing. Every minute spent with him was like being in heaven.”   Mr. Winter said that many blues guitarists from the late 1960s and early ’70s—except for Mr. Clapton and Keith Richards —never much impressed him. “I agree with Sonny Boy Williamson. He said those ‘Those English boys, they want to play the blues real bad—and they do, real bad.’ ”

Mr. Winter continues to tour today, often playing while sitting down, but continuing to energize audiences. “I always play to knock everyone out who came to hear me,” he said. “I’m competitive. I want to prove I’m better than other guitarists. And better schooled in the blues.”


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