Sunday, February 23, 2014

Johnny Winter at 70


Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting the man I consider the greatest blues guitarist who ever walked the planet, Johnny Winter. He was just as I expected: soft-spoken, gracious, and very frail ... the very antithesis of the almost superhuman musical energy he has displayed in his live and studio performances for more than 40 years.

Winter with Jimi Hendrix (playing Tommy Shannon's bass upside down!)
and Buddy Miles at The Scene, New York, February 1969
As a young trumpet player I was always drawn to musicians who exhibited the skills and inventiveness to which I aspired at the time. In jazz that meant trumpeters like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Maynard Ferguson. In more popular music that preference thankfully moved me away from the simple pop-rock acts of the day to the more substantial work of blues-rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and the English Yardbirds triumvirate of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. When I first heard Winter (on his highest-selling 1971 album Johnny Winter and ... Live), I was duly impressed by the speed, precision, and clean lines of his playing on the Chuck Berry 1958 rock 'n roll standard "Johnny B. Goode." Yet after that Winter seemed to fall off the planet. It wasn't until 1984 that, while living in Texas after the rise of Stevie Ray Vaughan to national prominence, the Texas-born Winter once again jumped into my consciousness by virtue of the first of his three straight blues albums for Alligator, Guitar Slinger, with the shirtless, heavily-tattooed Winter gracing the cover in full axe-slinging mode. Listening to his feral vocal growl and stunning technique, versatility, and improvisational ability was revelatory. As a consequence I explored his past recording catalog more thoroughly and finally took his advice (and that of Clapton and Mick Jagger) to explore the pioneering greats of the genre: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, and others.

Winter with James Cotton and Muddy Waters
The story of Johnny Winter is well known. Discovered while playing with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at New York's legendary Fillmore East in December 1968, Winter was offered the largest contract to that time by Columbia, and subsequently played at Woodstock the next summer. While his first two Columbia albums remain blues/blues-rock classics, Winter never attained the mass appeal Columbia had hoped. And while turning in a more rock-oriented direction with And, Johnny slipped into the occupational hazard of the time, heroin addiction. After cleaning himself up (sort of), Winter released a couple more rock-oriented records. But it was in 1977 that Winter performed perhaps the most significant service of his career: between 1977 and 1980 Winter produced and performed (with appropriate deference) on the great Muddy Waters's final four albums, rejuvenating the great bluesman's career and re-establishing his own blues credentials, which would culminate in his becoming the first white person inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988 (it would not be until 2000 that Stevie Ray Vaughan would become the second).

My copy of Winter's most recent album,
signed by Johnny yesterday (photo by author) 
After 1992's formidable Hey, Where's Your Brother?, Winter once again seemingly disappeared. Subsequent recordings (1997's Live in NYC and 2004's I'm a Bluesman) showed a much-diminished performer lacking both the vocal growl and instrumental agility that were his trademarks. As it turns out, health issues (a broken hip, carpal tunnel syndrome, and continued methadone addiction), exacerbated by criminal malfeasance by his former manager, contributed to his decline. Thankfully, to the rescue came Paul Nelson, a Berklee-educated guitarist, who became Winter's manager and rhythm guitar player in the new Johnny Winter Band. Since that time, Winter has finally gotten completely clean and, consequently, has become relatively more physically robust and regained much of the fire in his performances that had gone dormant. The first fruit of this partnership was the 2011 album Roots, which found Winter in collaboration with other luminaries in a number of blues and rock 'n roll classics. Most importantly, the album found Winter in good form once again (for my money, "Last Night" with harpist John Popper and "Maybelline" with Vince Gill are worth the price of the album). Thankfully, Roots's success has led to a follow-up, to include performances by Clapton, Mark Knopler, Billy Gibbons, and others, to be released later this year.

Today happens to be Johnny Winter's 70th birthday. As a grateful fan, I would like to say, "Happy Birthday, Johnny. May you have many more to come." I leave you with three live performances which display perfectly Winter's eminent musicianship: (1) his incendiary performance of B. B. King's smoldering slow blues "It's My Own Fault" at Royal Albert Hall, London in April 1970; (2) his staggering performance of Hendrix's classic shuffle "Red House" from 1991; and (3) his definitive live performance of Berry's immortal "Johnny B. Goode" from 1984. Enjoy!