Winter’s Return: A Guitar Legend Triumphs Once Again (Relix Revisited)
Alongside Muddy Waters and B.B. King - photo by Susan Winter
He loved the blues so much that in Texas and Louisiana he ventured into Black clubs even in the racially charged environment of the South. âIt was never a problem,â he says. âI just liked the music like everyone else thereâI thought going there was a good idea.â
Perhaps thatâs because Winter had made friends in the blues community. Clarence Garlow, a DJ at the Black radio station KJET, introduced Winter to rural blues and Cajun music. Thereâs also a famous story about a time in 1962 when Winter and his brother went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont, Texas club called The Raven. Johnny wanted to play with B.B. and kept sending people over to plead his case. After B.B. inspected Johnnyâs union card, he handed the young man his guitar. âI got a standing ovation and he took his guitar back!â says Winter with a laugh.
While Winter boldly lobbied to play with B.B. King, he was already developing his styleâa combination of old country, zydeco, gospel, New Orleansâ R&B, Cajun, swamp blues and pop. He won a radio station contest in connection with the movie Johnny Be Good which gave him and his brother Edgarâs group Johnny and The Jammers the opportunity to lay down the tracks âSchool Day bluesâ and âYou Know I Love You.â The songs were released on Dart Records and rated high on local charts.
Louisiana slide guitar legend Sonny Landrethâwho recently sat in with Winter during a Bellingham, Wash. showâspeaks wistfully of the early days of Winterâs career. âI missed that era. I wished I could have gotten to hear him play local clubs. Nonetheless, this was an experience,â says Landreth. âAs a guitar player, the thing that set him apart from all the rest during that incredibly creative era from the mid to late 1960s to the early 1970sâthatâs when Hendrix, Clapton, Mike Bloomfield were coming forth âJohnny was right there with them using that unique finger picking approach that is deeply rooted in the Delta blues. He fuel injected blues and rock in such a way that it was ferocious but fluid.â
Guitar phenom Derek Trucks, now 30, was 10 or 11 when he first remembers hearing Johnny Winter Captured Live. âHe played with such urgency and fireâfor me his playing is so fearless and wide openâI burnt that record out,â says Trucks whose playing with The Allman Brothers Band and his own group The Derek Trucks Band has prompted critics to knight him one of the best guitarists in the world. âEvery time I see Johnny now, itâs always great. He is beyond legitimate. He is that music that he studied. I donât know many others that can make a jump from admiring certain music to becoming that music.â
Gregg Allman, who leads the Allman Brothers Band, says that Winterâs guest appearance earlier this year at the groupâs 40th anniversary celebration at New Yorkâs Beacon Theatre was a high point. âEverything he plays gets to me,â says Allman. âI knew when I met him that albinos donât [generally] have a long life span and Iâm amazed he is older than me and is still such a good player, such a powerful player.â
Winter smiles warmly remembering the Beacon event. âYeah, that was fun. I like Gregg,â says Winter who goes on to mention something of a musical encampment at Allmanâs Georgia home in the â70s. âHe invited me over and we spent a couple days playing. He wanted to absorb the whole blues thing.â
He went to the right man. Winterâwhose many awards include producing two Grammy Award winning albums for Muddy Watersâhas played and collaborated with a whoâs who list of great guitarists including John Lee Hooker and Waters, who called Johnny his adopted son. Now he finds himself reaching out to younger players. âEven if theyâre still working on technique, thereâs a passion, an attitude,â he says of the budding talent. âYou can tell,â he says of Trucks in particular, âhe has it.â
Still, like every great musician, Winter not only has a devoted following, but also some detractors. A few that worked with him early on in his career note that what seems to be a humble, gentle nature is either newly acquired or a faĂ§ade. Others still feel used, years after they worked with him.