Johnny Winter (born February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014)
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John Dawson “Johnny” Winter III was an American blues guitarist, singer, and producer. Best known for his late 1960s and 1970s high-energy blues-rock albums and live performances, Winter also produced three Grammy Award-winning albums for blues legend Muddy Waters. Since his time with Waters, Johnny Winter has recorded several Grammy-nominated blues albums and continues to tour extensively. In 1988, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and in 2003, he was ranked 74th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”
Johnny Winter, along with his brother Edgar Winter, was nurtured at an early age by his parents in his musical pursuits. Both he and his brother, who were born with albinism, began performing at an early age. When he was ten-years old, Winter appeared on a local children’s show, playing ukelele and singing Everly Brothers songs with his brother.
His recording career began at the age of fifteen, when his band Johnny and the Jammers released “School Day Blues” on a Houston record label. During this same period, he was able to see performances by classic blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the early days Winter would sometimes sit in with Roy Head and The Traits when they performed in the Beaumont, Texas area, and in 1967, Winter recorded a single with The Traits: “Tramp” backed with “Parchman Farm” (Universal Records 30496). In 1968, he released his first album The Progressive Blues Experiment, on Austin’s Sonobeat Records.
Signing with Columbia Records
Winter caught his biggest break in December 1968, when Mike Bloomfield, whom he met and jammed with in Chicago, invited him to sing and play a song during a Bloomfield and Al Kooper concert at the Fillmore East in New York. As it happened, representatives of Columbia Records (which had released the Top Ten Bloomfield/Kooper Super Session album) were at the concert. Winter played and sang B.B. King‘s “It’s My Own Fault” to loud applause and, within a few days, was signed to reportedly what was then the largest advance in the history of the recording industry–$600,000.
Winter’s first Columbia album, Johnny Winter was recorded and released in 1969. It featured the same backing musicians with whom he recorded The Progressive Blues Experiment, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner, plus Edgar Winter on keyboards and saxophone, and (for his “Mean Mistreater”) blues legends Willie Dixon on upright bass and Big Walter Horton on harmonica. The album featured a few selections that became Winter signature songs, including his composition “Dallas” (an acoustic blues, on which Winter played a steel-bodied, resonator guitar), John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson‘s “Good Morning Little School Girl”, and B.B. King‘s “Be Careful With A Fool”.
The album’s success coincided with Imperial Records picking up The Progressive Blues Experiment for wider release. The same year, the Winter trio toured and performed at several rock festivals, including Woodstock. With brother Edgar added as a full member of the group, Winter also recorded his second album, Second Winter in Nashville in 1969. The two-record album, which only had three recorded sides (the fourth was blank), introduced a couple more staples of Winter’s concerts, including Chuck Berry‘s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”.
Beginning in 1969, the first of numerous Johnny Winter albums was released which were cobbled together from approximately fifteen singles (about 30 “sides”) he recorded before signing with Columbia in 1969. Many were produced by Roy Ames, owner of Home Cooking Records/Clarity Music Publishing, who had briefly managed Winter. According to an article from the Houston Press, Winter left town for the express purpose of getting away from him. Ames died on August 14, 2003 of natural causes at age 66. As Ames left no obvious heirs, the ownership rights of the Ames master recordings remains unclear. As Winter stated in an interview when the subject of Roy Ames came up, “This guy has screwed so many people it makes me mad to even talk about him.”
Johnny Winter And
In 1970, when his brother Edgar released a solo album Entrance and formed Edgar Winter’s White Trash, an R&B/jazz-rock group, the original trio disbanded. Johnny Winter then formed a new band with the remnants of The McCoys–guitarist Rick Derringer, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs, and drummer Randy Z (who was Derringer’s brother, their family name being Zehringer). Originally to be called “Johnny Winter and The McCoys”, the name was shortened to “Johnny Winter And”, which was also the name of their first album. The album included Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” and signaled a more rock-oriented direction for Winter. When Johnny Winter And began to tour, Randy Z was replaced with drummer Bobby Caldwell. Their mixture of the new rock songs with Winter’s blues songs was captured on the live album Live Johnny Winter And. It included a new performance “It’s My Own Fault”, the song which brought Winter to the attention of Columbia Records.
Winter’s momentum was throttled when he sank into heroin addiction during the Johnny Winter And days. After he sought treatment for and recovered from the addiction, manager Steve Paul courageously put Winter in front of the music press to discuss the addiction candidly. By 1973, he returned to the music scene with Still Alive and Well, a basic blend between blues and hard rock, whose title track was written by Rick Derringer. The follow-up album, Saints & Sinners, continued the same direction; this was followed by another concert set, Captured Live!, which featured an extended performance of “Highway 61 Revisited”. In 1975 Johnny returned to Bogalusa, Louisiana to produce an album for Thunderhead, a local band which included Pat Rush and Bobby “T” Torello, who would later play with Winter.
Muddy Waters sessions
In live performances, Winter often told the story about how, as a child, he dreamed of playing with the blues guitarist Muddy Waters. In 1977, after Waters’ long-time label Chess Records went out of business, he got his chance. Winter brought Waters into the studio to record Hard Again for Blue Sky Records, a label set up by Winter’s manager and distributed by Columbia. In addition to producing the album, Winter played guitar with Waters’ veteran James Cotton on harmonica. Winter produced two more studio albums for Waters, I’m Ready (with Big Walter Horton on harmonica) and King Bee and a best-selling live album Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live. The partnership produced three Grammy Awards for Waters and an additional Grammy for Winter’s own Nothin’ But the Blues, with backing by members of Waters’ band. Waters told Deep Blues author Robert Palmer that Winter had done remarkable work in reproducing the sound and atmosphere of Waters’s vintage Chess Records recordings of the 1950s. The albums gave Waters the highest profile and greatest financial successes of his life.
In 1984, Winter began recording for several labels, including Alligator Records and Point Blank Records, where he has focused on blues-oriented material. He continues to perform live, including festivals throughout North America and Europe. Winter has headlined such prestigious events as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Swedish Rock Fest, Warren Haynes X-mas jam, and Europe’s Rockpalast. He also performed with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on the 40th anniversary of their debut. In 2007 and 2010, Winter performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals. Two guitar instructional DVDs have been produced by Cherry Lane Music and the Hal Leonard Corporation. The Gibson Guitar Company released the signature Johnny Winter Firebird guitar in a ceremony in Nashville with Slash presenting.
In 2004, Winter received a Grammy nomination for his I’m a Bluesman album. Backing him are guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray, and drummer Vito Liuzzi. Beginning in 2007, a series of live Winter albums titled the Live Bootleg Series and a live DVD have all entered the Top 10 Billboard Blues charts. In 2009, The Woodstock Experience album was released, which includes eight songs that Winter performed at the 1969 festival. Johnny Winter is signed to Megaforce Records, who will release a new studio album titled Roots on September 27, 2011. It will include Winter’s interpretation of eleven early blues and rock ‘n’ roll classics and feature several guest artists.
Winter produced three Grammy Award-winning albums by Muddy Waters, Hard Again (1977), I’m Ready (1978), and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live (1979). Several Winter albums were also nominated for Grammy Awards. In 1980, Winter was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar World and in 1988, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Throughout his career, Johnny Winter has been dogged by bootleg recordings and unauthorized re-releases of singles from his early pre-Columbia Records days. According to one biographer, only about fifteen percent of Winter’s commercially-available recordings are legitimate, leaving 85 percent that he had no control over. Some of the releases were doctored with later overdubs by other musicians. Royalties were not Winter’s primary concern, “I just don’t want that bullshit out … It’s just bad music”. The following lists Johnny Winter’s official albums.
The Progressive Blues Experiment (Sonobeat 1968, re-released by UA/Imperial 1969)
Johnny Winter (Columbia 1969)
Second Winter (Columbia 1969)
Johnny Winter And (Columbia 1970)
Still Alive and Well (Columbia 1973)
Saints & Sinners (Columbia 1974)
John Dawson Winter III (Columbia 1974)
Nothin’ But the Blues (Blue Sky 1977)
White, Hot and Blue (Blue Sky 1978)
Raisin’ Cain (Blue Sky 1980)
Guitar Slinger (Alligator 1984)
Serious Business (Alligator 1985)
Third Degree (Alligator 1986)
The Winter of ’88 (MCA/Voyager 1988)
Let Me In (Point Blank 1991)
Hey, Where’s Your Brother? (Point Blank 1992)
I’m a Bluesman (Virgin 2004)
Roots (Megaforce 2011)
Live Johnny Winter And (Columbia 1971)
Captured Live! (Blue Sky 1976)
Together with Edgar Winter (Blue Sky 1976)
Live In NYC ’97 (Virgin 1998)
Live Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–7 (Friday 2007–11)
The Woodstock Experience (Sony/Legacy 2009)
Johnny Winter Live Fillmore East 10/3/70 (Collectors 2010)
The Johnny Winter Story aka Raised on Rock (Columbia 1980)
Scorchin’ Blues (Columbia 1992)
A Rock N’ Roll Collection (Columbia 1994)
Anthology (Columbia 1995)
Return of Johnny Guitar (The Best of Johnny Winter 1984–86) (Empire 1996)
White Hot Blues (Sony 1997)
Deluxe Edition (Alligator 2001)
The Best of Johnny Winter (Sony 2002)
The Johnny Winter Anthology (Shout 2009)
As producer and guitarist
Hard Again – Muddy Waters (1977)
I’m Ready – Muddy Waters (1978)
Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live – Muddy Waters (1979)
King Bee – Muddy Waters (1980)
Whoopin’ – Sonny Terry (1984)
Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down – Muddy Waters & James Cotton (2007)