The many facets of Johnny Winter

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 29, 2014
Photo by: Columbia Legacy Records An iconic image of Johnny Winter.

Owls Head — In the midst of the 1960s British invasion of blues-based artists such as Eric Clapton and even the Beatles, Johnny Winter was probably the first American blues artist I followed, until I discovered Chess Records by going to school outside of Chicago. Winters was to have been part of Saturday night's show at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, but he died July 16 while on tour in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the third of the brief interview clips in the "Live From Japan" DVD, reviewed below, Winter was asked why he still performed and the then 67-year-old musician answered it was because he loved playing. Then he added, "I'm going to keep playing until I'm dead ... maybe a little after." His younger brother, Edgar Winter, also part of the Rock 'n' Blues Fest tour, has decided that Saturday's show will go on as a tribute to his brother. Those also performing include members of Vanilla Fudge, Pete Rivera of Rare Earth and Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown.

Johnny Winter: True to the Blues, The Johnny Winter Story (Columbia/Legacy, 4 CDs, 4:28:44). Issued to celebrate the 70th birthday of Winter last February, this is the first comprehensive overview of the Texas guitar phenom's career. The four CDs provide a chronological sequence of studio and live material that  are sourced from no less than 27 separate albums on the Imperial, Columbia, Blue Sky/Epic, Alligator, Point Blank (Virgin), Friday Music, Megaforce, and Columbia/Legacy labels.  These range from his independently recorded and released "The Progressive Blues Experiment" in 1968 (“Bad Luck And Trouble,” “Mean Town Blues”) through 2011’s all-star duets project, "Roots" (“Maybelline” with Vince Gill, “Dust My Broom” with Derek Trucks).

Winter grew up a student of the blues masters -- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and their slide guitarists, Pete Hare, Jimmy Rogers and Hubert Sumlin -- learning to feel the blues. Trying to figure out how Robert Johnson and Elmore James created their slip-slide sound, he finally found a pipe in a plumbing supply store and had some pieces cut to the right length, creating the custom steel slide he used throughout his career. When he first started to gain attention in 1968 as a fleet-fingered albino guitarist, he landed one of the largest advances in the history of the recording industry. The memorable evening he sat in with Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the Fillmore East in New York City is captured here in an 11-minute version of B.B. King's "It's My Own Fault."

In his liner notes for the box set, Guitar World Editor-in-Chief Brad Tolinski discusses how Winter's "rapid-fire guitar slithers and skitters like liquid mercury around his nuanced vocals filled with self-mockery and fleeting moments of real pain" on "Be Careful with a Fool" from his 1969 CBS debut album. Tolinski testifies that "no one has ever played slide guitar with the pure, lusty abandon of Winter. His bottleneck sound is so loose and free you can't even compare it to a rollercoaster ride, because tracks and rails restrain rollercoasters."

Highlights of Winter's slide work include "Dallas," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Mean Town Blues." There was an epic performance at the Woodstock Festival ("Leland Mississippi Blues" is included here), but he was not in the famous film because his manager thought he would not make any money. Nonetheless, with his second album, 1969's "Second Winter," Winter moved towards rock with covers of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bob Dylan. (The album was unique in that he was double vinyl, but music was only pressed on three sides.)

Some of my favorite Winter work came in the early Seventies, when he hooked up with guitarist/songwriter Rick Derringer from the McCoys ("Hang on Sloopy").  Derringer's compositions here include the hit "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," "On the Limb" and "Still Alive and Well." Previously unreleased live material from Atlanta Pop, with Derringer, Randy Hobbs on bass and brother Edgar filling in for the ill drummer, are a cover of "Eyesight to the Blind" and Winter's own "Prodigal Son." Other live tracks, which sizzle, from this period include "Mean Mistreater," a cover of the Rolling Stones "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "Mean Town Blues."

While Winter stuck with rock through the mid-Seventies, including the 1976 album "Together" with brother Edgar, that period ended with 1976's live album, "Captured Live." He was then drawn back to the blues, playing on and producing Muddy Waters' last four albums. The first three were studio albums, each of which won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Album; the fourth was a live album. In all, this is an outstanding collection. Grade: A+

Johnny Winter: Live From Japan (MVD Visual DVD, NR, 86 min.). The concert was recorded on April 15, 2011 in Tokyo, the final night of a three-night stand. The band includes Winter on guitar and vocals, Paul Nelson on guitar, Scott Spray on bass and Vito Liuzzi on drums and vocals (he sings lead on the rocker "Tore Down"). One nice part of the presentation is the frequent close-ups of Winter's fingers while he is playing.

However, as always, it is the music that is impressive, ranging from Freddie King's "Hideaway" to the bluesy trio of "Sugar Coated Love" and "She Likes to Boogie Real Low" (it is wonderful how Winter's guitar answers his vocal lines). After a brief interview bit about working with Muddy Waters, it is back to onstage and a cover of Waters' "Got My Mojo Working." A rocking "Johnny B. Goode" follows, before it is back to the blues with "Blackjack" (a tribute to Ray Charles). The blues of "Don't Take Advantage of Me" turns into a rocking "Bonie Maronie and "It's All Over Now" (popularized by the Rolling Stones). For the encores of "Dust My Broom" and "Highway 61," Winter plays his 1964 Gibson Firebird slide guitar. Grade: A

Leslie West: Still Climbing (Provogue CD, 45:47). Johnny Winter also was a frequent guest on other artists' records, an example of which is when h e plays the second half of the solo on the bluesy "Busted Disgusted or Dead" on the latest album by West. West, of course, was the titanic guitarist/frontman of Mountain. This is his first release since having his right leg amputated in 2011.

West and his wife, Jenni, co-wrote six of the songs, the best of which are "Not Over You at All" (with Arno Hecht of the Uptown Horns on sax) and the stripped down "Tales of Woe," which is pretty. West also reaches back to 1969 and his first album, "Leslie West Mountain," for "Long Red," which he makes much heavier. In his liner notes, West writes that he read on Wikipedia that "Long Red" is one of the most sampled songs in hip hop, used by, among others, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Common and NAS. Plus, Lana Del Ray recently sampled it. West's brother, Larry, who was also in his first group, The Vagrants, plays bass on the track.

The album also has some surprising, and surprisingly effective, covers, including "Fade into You" from the TV show "Nashville." His version goes big on the choruses. He dips into Broadway for Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's "Feeling Good" (from "The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd") with co-vocals by Dee Snider (Twisted Sister and who actually has a whole album of show tunes out, "Dee Does Broadway"). Two other highlights are the muscular "Dyin' Since I Was Born," a new song by his co-writer Leslie A. Weinstein and Jon Tiven (as is "Busted Disgusted or Dead") that features guitarist Mark Tremonti of Creed and Alter Bridge on the last two solos, and a cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman," with Jonny Lang co-singing and playing the guitar on the right, while West plays the guitar on the left. Grade: A-

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