Johnny Winter: The Blues' Last Bona Fide Outlaw
By: Jarrod Dicker
When Old Man Winter comes to town
He's got a special way of dropping in
And spreading cheer around
You know [the blues] is around the bend
And he won't let you down
When Old Man Winter comes to town
-Old Man Winter (Revisited) by The Moffatts
It's been a cold 40 years of Winter.
Since 1969 Johnny Winter has conquered all that there is to seize in the blues race." He has been awarded Grammy accolades, performed at the original Woodstock festival, been recognized as one of the supreme guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone, and been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. He has collaborated, live and in studio, with myriad musicians of various genres, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Muddy Waters and B.B. King, even jamming with the young guitar proteges Derek Trucks and a href="http://www.jambase.com/Artists/Artist.aspx?artistID=7600">John Mayer. Johnny's ridden to hell and back, warding off a grave dependence on heroin and booze to continue his journey of manufacturing marvelous blues music. So, what's left to natter about concerning the fast-fingered blues legend?
Well, it's been an exceptionally hot year in the 65-year-old's wonderland. The two-disc The Johnny Winter Anthology, Johnny Winter Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience, and the Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director's Cut 40th anniversary DVD with never before seen live footage of Winter, were all released in 2009. And at the end of 2008 the DVD Live Through The 70's was received very well and we can look forward to the upcoming biography, Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter", expected release around May of 2010, covering anything and everything throughout the guitarist's entire career.
JamBase sat down with the Texas talent to discuss these recent events and also the nitty and gritty details that have made Old Man Winter the legendary bluesman he is today.
JamBase: It has been 40 years since you signed your first record contract with Columbia Records. Today, your new bootleg CD series, Volumes 1-5, have all charted top ten on the Billboard blues charts. How does it feel that after 40 years people are still listening, and, most importantly, purchasing your material?
Johnny Winter: It feels great. I'm really pleased with how well my live series has been received. I had so much material from over the years and was very happy to find the right way to distribute it all. Also, it was great finding a label to release it as a series in such a way as it's being presented.
JamBase: It's also been 40 years since the original Woodstock festival. What were you able to take away from that experience, and what do you now cherish from it?
Johnny Winter: There is a saying that goes around stating that if you REALLY played Woodstock the memories are forever blurry. Let's put it this way, I don't remember a thing! At that time, to me, it was just another gig. But once I saw how it began developing I knew it was going to be a bigger and greater show than the 150,000 seaters we were already frequently playing. I knew then that this was something I had to be a part of. I played Jimi's original offered time slot on Sunday at around 12:00 midnight. There was no rain and it was absolutely packed. I will tell you that it's great that after all these years Warner released their Director's Cut of the 40th anniversary Woodstock DVD. It finally features my performance of Mean Town Blues." Also, it's wonderful that Sony released my whole audio performance [Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience]. I guess, like most who were there, I'll always cherish the time spent and memories.
There is also a book pending publication on May 1, 2010 called Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter". Are you the writer and what will it cover?
I had a ghostwriter for this. The book covers my whole life, both private and professionally, my dealings with Janis Joplin, time on tour, musicians I've spent time playing with, my relationship with Muddy, I mean seriously, my whole life, all the ups and downs, everything! It was very emotional for me to read. The writer really nailed it. It's right on.
You specialize in American blues and have become a legend amongst both historic musicians in the Delta regime and modern performers such as Eric Clapton and Jack White. Who were your inspirations and encouraging artists while you were steppin' into the music world?
I've always loved the blues since I was a child. Listening to musicians like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Slim, Gatemouth Brown, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King all influenced my playing from the start. To me, the blues is such a strong musical style that I don't feel it will ever go away. The blues adds to every musical style. That's why it's necessary to have a blues background in whatever style of music you play.
I've read that your parents pushed you and Edgar [Winter, Johnny's keyboard/sax playing younger brother] to participate in music. What did they casually play around the house? How else were they motivating to yourself and Edgar?
They didn't exactly push us. We just really wanted to play music and they were very supportive. Daddy played sax and banjo in college. He taught me my first chords on a ukulele when I was young. Momma played piano. So, they were both very musical. Secretively, I think they really wanted me to be a lawyer [chuckle].
How is your current relationship with Edgar? Do you two still collaborate musically?
Our relationship is great! We're good friends. We still do shows together from time to time. I just recorded on the song Rockin' the Blues" on his latest album, Rebel Road.
One of your first big breaks was when Mike Bloomfield invited you to sing and engage in the Super Session jam at the Fillmore East in New York. What was this experience like for you? Did you maintain a relationship with Mike Bloomfield?
It was a lot of fun. I don't remember who the other musicians were other than Mike and Al [Kooper]. Like I said, my early introduction to the blues was through listening to Muddy Waters, and this was primarily one of the main reasons why I eventually made the trek to Chicago. I only stayed there for about a year, and that's where I first met Mike Bloomfield at a club called The Fickle Pickle. I wasn't too happy there in Chicago, so I soon went back to Texas. But yes, through meeting Mike it later led to him also helping to officially launch my career.
After that you signed what was then the largest advance in the history of the recording industry at Columbia Records, $600,000, did this unlock an overwhelming amount of musical opportunities for you?
Oh yes, for sure it was nonstop from there. Sadly, this also led to many of the problems I dealt with with drugs. I'm happy to say I'm all over with that now. The credit is all thanks to my other guitarist Paul Nelson. He is an amazing player and is the one who helped me guide my career back on track. It's all good now and I feel great!
You are notorious for your cover of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited." Why this specific song and have you ever had the opportunity to play it with its creator?
I just simply liked the song and wanted to do a cover of it. I never actually played it with Dylan, but I did perform my rendition of Highway 61 Revisited" at the Madison Square Garden party for him. Of course, he was there. There is a video of me playing it floating all around the Internet on YouTube and other such video sites.
Tell me a little bit about Muddy Waters, specifically, what he meant to you and how it felt to finally record with him? I mean, you got him a Grammy award. It must have been one hell of a solid relationship. [Editor's note: Johnny Winter produced a trio of brilliant Muddy albums - Hard Again (1977), I'm Ready (1978), and King Bee (1981), as well playing on Grammy winning live album Muddy Mississippi" Waters - Live (1979)].
It was three to be exact. I produced and performed on four of his albums. Working with Muddy was the absolute high point of my career. Throughout that and after we became great friends. He was an excellent person and above that, an honest and real gentleman. He would always drink champagne; Dom Perignon was all he drank. He had a ton of class and a lot of true, real dignity. He'd been through a lot of ups and downs. I miss Muddy. If he were alive, we'd still be recording together.
You're currently on tour. I heard through various media outlets that you are strictly playing the blues and no more R&R. Is this correct?
Yes. I am and forever will always be on the road. Actually, my show is now more like 80-percent blues and the rest is rock & roll. I've been changing my set more and more so it's different every time. But, as I said before, my true love is the blues.
Where do you enjoy playing most on tour?
Amsterdam is one of my favorites [winks].
In 1988 you were inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame among the all time legends in that genre. Is it comforting to know that your music was and will forever be respected as some of the all time best in blues?
Of course! It's an extremely great and exciting honor. I'm at the point in my career where I love receiving awards [laughs].
Rolling Stone ranked you 74th on the list of all time greatest guitarist, which is a remarkable feat. Do you think this ranking is accurate?
To be absolutely honest, I haven't talked to ONE person that has had anything good to say about that poll.
You grew up in Texas during a time of excessive racial tension. Was it difficult to go to the predominately black blues clubs at that time? Were establishments judging and/or rejecting your admittance?
No, not at all. It was in an all black club in 1962 that my brother Edgar and I went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont club called The Raven. We were the only white guys in the crowd, and there was no doubt that we clearly stood out. I was about 17 and B.B. didn't want to let me onstage at first. I kept asking and asking and asking. He asked me for a union card, and I had one. Also, I kept sending people over to ask him to let me play. Finally, he decided that there were enough people who wanted to hear me that no matter if I was good or not it would be worth it for him to let me onstage. He gave me his guitar and let me play. I got a standing ovation! After that, he took his guitar back [laughs].
Another Texas legend was the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. How did you feel about his hard rock blues infiltrating the Austin city scene, as well as other Texas great such as Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top]?
Stevie was a great player as is Billy. They both have added so much in keeping the blues alive. Great guitarists, the two of 'em.
Who was the most pleasurable artist that you've ever collaborated with live besides Muddy Waters?
Hmmm, I'd have to say John Lee Hooker and Sonny Terry. Sonny Terry and I did an album called Whoopin' on my label, Mad Albino Records. It was a great moment that I will never forget.
What are your sentiments on modern music today?
I am not a fan of it that much at all. I enjoy listening to artists and music of the past, which helps me keep my current playing fresh. I have over 14,000 songs on my iPod. I do like some [contemporary artists], of course. Well, Derek Trucks for instance. He's an absolutely great and skilled guitar player.
What should we expect from Johnny Winter in the near and far future?
More music, more shows, and more blues guitar.
Do you really plan to stay on the road forever?
Son, I'll be playing the blues on the open road 'til the day I die.
Johnny Winter tour dates available here.