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Winter’s Return: A Guitar Legend Triumphs Once Again (Relix Revisited)

by Nancy Dunham on July 17, 2014

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. “It was never a problem,” he says. “I just liked the music like everyone else there—I thought going there was a good idea.”

Perhaps that’s 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. There’s 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 Johnny’s union card, he handed the young man his guitar. “I got a standing ovation and he took his guitar back!” says Winter with a laugh.

While Winter boldly lobbied to play with B.B. King, he was already developing his style—a combination of old country, zydeco, gospel, New Orleans’ 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 Edgar’s group Johnny and The Jammers the opportunity to lay down the tracks “School Day blues” and “You Know I Love You.” The songs were released on Dart Records and rated high on local charts.

Louisiana slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth—who recently sat in with Winter during a Bellingham, Wash. show—speaks wistfully of the early days of Winter’s career. “I missed that era. I wished I could have gotten to hear him play local clubs. Nonetheless, this was an experience,” says Landreth. “As 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 1970s—that’s when Hendrix, Clapton, Mike Bloomfield were coming forth —Johnny 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.”

Guitar phenom Derek Trucks, now 30, was 10 or 11 when he first remembers hearing Johnny Winter Captured Live. “He played with such urgency and fire—for me his playing is so fearless and wide open—I burnt that record out,” 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. “Every time I see Johnny now, it’s always great. He is beyond legitimate. He is that music that he studied. I don’t know many others that can make a jump from admiring certain music to becoming that music.”

Gregg Allman, who leads the Allman Brothers Band, says that Winter’s guest appearance earlier this year at the group’s 40th anniversary celebration at New York’s Beacon Theatre was a high point. “Everything he plays gets to me,” says Allman. “I knew when I met him that albinos don’t [generally] have a long life span and I’m amazed he is older than me and is still such a good player, such a powerful player.”

Winter smiles warmly remembering the Beacon event. “Yeah, that was fun. I like Gregg,” says Winter who goes on to mention something of a musical encampment at Allman’s Georgia home in the ‘70s. “He invited me over and we spent a couple days playing. He wanted to absorb the whole blues thing.”

He went to the right man. Winter—whose many awards include producing two Grammy Award winning albums for Muddy Waters—has played and collaborated with a who’s 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. “Even if they’re still working on technique, there’s a passion, an attitude,” he says of the budding talent. “You can tell,” he says of Trucks in particular, “he has it.”

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 façade. Others still feel used, years after they worked with him.

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