Born John Dawson Winter III on February 23, 1944, in Leland, MS; son of an Army officer. Addresses: Record company--Voyager, 424 35th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122. Website--Johnny Winter Official Website: http://www.johnnywinter.net/.
In 1968 Larry Sepulvado and John Burks described Johnny Winter in Rolling Stone: "Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard." By 1969 Johnny Winter had signed with Columbia Records for a reported $300,000, and had soon released his self-titled debut LP. "He played the blues, real driving blues that had the heaviness of Chicago pumping underneath it and his darting lines dancing melodically over it," wrote Gene Santoro in The Guitar: The History, The Music, The Players. Santoro added that Winter "forced rock guitarists once again to pay attention to their musical heritage and draw from it."
Winter's own musical legacy began as a five-year-old playing clarinet in Beaumont, Texas. He continued on the instrument for four years but had to quit when an orthodontist informed the youth that he had a serious overbite. Winter switched to ukelele but that only lasted until rock and roll came out. His father advised him to switch to guitar because there weren't too many famous ukulele players that came to his mind. A local disc jockey named Clarence Garlow turned Winter on to the blues through his Bon Ton Show on radio station KJET. The two soon became friends as Winter began to build up an impressive record collection that allowed him to study the blues masters and copy their licks. "I would learn how to play a record note-for-note," Winter told Don Menn in The Guitar Player Book. "After I kind of got the feel of what was supposed to be going on, I just took what I heard and assimilated it, and I guess it would come out part mine and part everybody else's. ... l tried to make it my own after I got the basic things down."
He also learned country licks from Luther Nalley, a Beaumont music store employee, as well as from the current rock tunes of the late 1950s. Winter and his brother Edgar played together in various teenage bands, and the two albino brothers made quite an impression in their hometown. At age 15, Winter won a talent contest for "School Day Blues" and, after recording the tune on Pappy Dailey's Dart label, it immediately shot to number eight in Beaumont. Although Edgar appeared on Johnny's first two LPs, his style was much more jazz-based than blues, although he scored a monster hit with "Frankenstein" later down the road.
Johnny moved on to record for the Jin, KRCO, Pacemaker, and Diamond labels under various titles: Texas Guitar Slim, Black Plague, and Johnny and the Jammers. These first cuts were later released after Winter became famous, and are considered collectors' items today. "Winter's early recordings now stand as a testament to his youthful range and prowess, offering examples of blues, soul, rock, pop, and psychedelia far superior to many highly touted recent reissues by more obscure artists," wrote Larry Birnbaum in Down Beat. "Had he not become a celebrity, he would still have been a legend." It was during this period that Winter began jamming with black blues artists at a local club called the Raven, until problems began to surface. "The old stuff, blues, just went out," he recalled in The Guitar Player Book. "The black people were ashamed of it, and white people didn't like it yet. So there was just nobody to hear until the young English guys started picking up on it."
Winter dropped out of Lamar State College and headed north to Chicago to join his friend Dennis Drugan's band the Gents, but by 1963 he was back in Texas. He recorded the single "Eternity" for the Ritter label, which then leased it to Atlantic. It became a big regional hit and Winter found himself opening for major acts. In 1964 he toured the south with the Crystalliers and It & Them, before stopping in Houston to record with the Traits on the Universal label in 1967.
He then teamed up with drummer Tommy Shannon (who later played with another Texas guitar virtuoso, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan) and drummer Uncle John Turner to tour the Lone Star state. When the British kids began to make blues fashionable, Winter headed to England with a demo tape recorded on Sonobeat in hopes of making a name for himself overseas. With little success in the United Kingdom, he returned to the United States to find out that the aforementioned Rolling Stone article had come out singing his praises.
Steve Paul, owner of New York's The Scene nightclub, signed the hot ticket to a management contract and sent him off to Nashville to record his first LP with the help of Jimi Hendrix's engineer, Eddie Kramer. In addition to Turner and Shannon, blues stalwarts Willie Dixon and Shakey Horton also appeared on the album, and Winter quickly established himself as an authentic bluesician. Winter quickly began to experience hype and overkill as he was touted as the new sensation. "I had always thought of myself as a singer who backed himself up with a guitar," he told Guitar World. "But once I realized that people were thinking of me more as a guitar player than a singer, I gradually changed in my head the way I thought of myself."
On Winter's third release he recruited guitarist Rick Derringer and his McCoys (of "Hang On Sloopy" fame) to back him up. Derringer produced Johnny Winter And, while also penning the raunchy "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo." Winter capitalized on the hot lineup with Johnny Winter And: Live, but realized that the further he strayed from his blues roots with rock and roll renditions, the harder it became to please people. "I got really freaked out, once I had 'made it'," he told Guitar World. "Before that, everybody wanted you to play everything. Once you made it, they wanted to figure out which category to put you in, and they'd never let you do anything that was out of the ordinary." Winter's desire to delve into his R&B, Cajun, hillbilly, and rock roots created outside pressure on the artist. In addition, a wretched case of heroin addiction forced him to drop out of action for the next two years.
He recovered in a New Orleans hospital and came back with the scorching, aptly-titled Still Alive And Well in 1973. After jumping over to Steve Paul's Blue Sky label, his next few albums proved that he was stronger than ever in all musical styles. He teamed with his brother in 1976 on Johnny And Edgar Winter: Together, as the two blasted through a set of their favorite oldies like "Jailhouse Rock," "Soul Man," and "Baby Watcha Want Me To Do."
As Winter had made rock guitarists look at their roots in the late 1960s, he would also re-evaluate his music in 1977 after convincing his label to sign blues legend Muddy Waters. Winter produced and played guitar on four brilliant Waters LPs and was largely responsible for bringing the master back to his throne. "That really helped me immensely because it got me back into doing blues," Winter told Down Beat. "I kind of rededicated myself to the blues after the Muddy Waters thing."
The effect was also reflected on his own albums with White Hot And Blue ("An effective balance between force and polish," wrote John Milward in Rolling Stone) and Nothin' But The Blues, a predominantly acoustic blues outing featuring many of the same musicians used on Waters's Hard Again Grammy winner. "Winter simply has never recorded in as vital a blues context," stated John Swenson in Rolling Stone, "effectively [bridging] the gap between hard rock and the blues in a way that only great stylists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton have been able to, thus proving himself as one of our greatest musical resources." Winter's fingerpicking on the dobro slide guitar brought back memories of one of his main influences, the late Robert Johnson. After 1978's Raisin' Cain, Winter would have to wait a few years before signing with a small Chicago-based label named Alligator, where his first chore was to work with Sonny Terry on his fine Whoopin' LP. "The Muddy Waters records and the one with Sonny Terry were so much fun," stated Winter in Guitar Player. "For me, they are some of the things that make playing worthwhile. When you play with guys who have been doing it that much longer, you feel like you're playing with a part of history."
Winter released his own Guitar Slinger in 1984 with the assistance of labelmate Albert Collins's Icebreakers band. He recreated older R&B gems with horn backing, but the guitar playing was pure Winter all the way. "If he were paid on a per-note basis, just about any of these tracks would send him up a tax bracket," wrote Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player. Winter borrowed the Icebreakers' rhythm section for Serious Business, but dropped the horns in favor of a more stripped-down approach. He was then reunited with his old mates Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner on 1986's Third Degree. "It's almost as if his two previous Alligator LPs were detox stops, letting him gradually rediscover the leaner, hungrier sounds he burst out of Texas with some 20 years ago," stated Gene Santoro in Guitar World.
In 1995 Winter and his brother Edgar were used as models for a comic book, Jonab Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such. In the comic book, the "Autumn Brothers" were half-human, half-worm mutants who were killed by the title character, Jonab Hex. The Winters brothers were not consulted about the use of their images and did not consent to this use, so they sued the publisher, DC Comics. The suit was dismissed in 1998, but in 2002 the brothers revived it, citing a subsequent court ruling in another case, which stated that copyright-protected images cannot be used by others unless they are sufficiently "transformed" or changed. An attorney for the comic book publisher noted that the transformation of the Winters brothers into half-worm, half-man seemed transformative enough. The California Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the suit again.
Winters took time off from touring for two years, then hit the road again in 1997. In 2000 he moved from New York City to a house in the country near Easton, Connecticut. With a wild dragon tattoo adorning his chest and wielding a futuristic Lazer guitar, Johnny Winter is still a one of a kind, easily distinguishable from any of his contemporaries by both sight and sound. His live shows present a creative mixed bag, but his roots are definitely identifiable. "As long as I can do blues, I don't mind rock & roll, but I wouldn't do just rock & roll and no blues," he said in Down Beat. "I like rock & roll, too, but I love the blues more."
by Calen D. Stone and Kelly Winters
Johnny Winter's Career
Solo recording and live performance artist and sideman, 1960--; began playing the clarinet at age five, switched briefly to the ukelele; won a talent contest playing "School Day Blues" on guitar when 15 years old, scored a local number eight hit with the recording; recorded for various labels until signed with Columbia in 1969; toured the south in 1964.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Johnny Winter Columbia, 1969.
- The Progressive Blues Experiment Liberty, 1969.
- First Winter CBS, 1970.
- Second Winter Columbia, 1970.
- Johnny Winter And Columbia, 1970.
- First Winter CBS, 1970.
- About Blues Janus, 1971.
- Early Times Janus, 1971.
- Johnny Winter And: Live Columbia, 1971.
- Still Alive And Well Columbia, 1973.
- Saints And Sinners Columbia, 1974.
- John Dawson Winter Ill Blue Sky, 1976.
- Austin Texas United Artists, 1976.
- Johnny and Edgar Winter: Together Blue Sky, 1976.
- White Hot and Blue Blue Sky, 1978.
- Nothin' But The Blues Blue Sky.
- Raisin' Cain Blue Sky, 1978.
- The Johnny Winter Story Blue Sky, 1980.
- Guitar Slinger Alligator, 1984.
- Serious Business Alligator, 1985.
- Third Degree Alligator, 1986.
- The Winter of '88 Voyager/MCA, 1988.
- Let Me In Pointblank, 1991.
- Hey Where's Your Brother Pointblank, 1992.
- Live in New York City '97 Pointblank, 1998.
- Best of Johnny Winter Sony, 2004.
- I'm a Bluesman Virgin/EMI, 2004.
- Johnny B. Goode Alligator, 2005.
- With others
- (With Muddy Waters) Hard Again Blue Sky, 1977.
- (With Muddy Waters) I'm Ready Blue Sky, 1978.
- (With Muddy Waters) Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live Blue Sky, 1979.
- (With Sonny Terry) Whoopin' Alligator, 1980.
- (With Muddy Waters) King Bee Blue Sky, 1981.
- (With Lonnie Brooks) Wound Up Tight Alligator, 1986.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Evans, Tom, and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars: From The Renaissance To Rock, Facts on File, 1977.
- The Guitar Player Book, by the editors of Guitar Player, Guitar Player Books/Grove Press, 1979.
- Kozinn, Allan, Pete Welding, Dan Forte and Gene Santoro, The Guitar: The History, The Music, The Players, Quill, 1984.
- Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, compilers, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1977.
- Marsh, Dave, editor, with John Swenson, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- Billboard, March 23, 1996, p. 95.
- Down Beat, September 1984; October 1984; February 1986; May 1987.
- Guitar Player, June 1984; November 1986.
- Guitar World, November 1985; March 1987; March 1989.
- Intellectual Property and Technology Journal, September 2003, p. 13.
- Reason, August 2003, p. 10.
- Rolling Stone, August 25, 1977; November 2, 1978.
- Texas Monthly, April 2003, p. 54.
- Johnny Winter Official Website, http://www.johnnywinter.net/ (January 25, 2006).