Winter’s Return: A Guitar Legend Triumphs Once Again (Relix Revisited)
Photo by Paul Natkin
âI always knew I had it,â says Winter. âI wasnât ever nervous. I was always sure Iâd be successful. I just didnât know when.â
Winter got his first taste of commercial success in December 1968. Thatâs the month that Rolling Stone published a cover story on the Texas music scene. In the article, journalists Larry Sepulvado and John Burks included three paragraphs about a little-known, 24-year-old bluesman named Johnny Winter that they had seen playing in a local club. They dubbed him the hottest musician aroundâafter Janis Joplin.
Record companies flocked to hear the bluesman in action and Columbia triumphed in the bidding war. In 1969, Winterâs official debut album Johnny Winter. John Lennon and members of The Rolling Stones praised the work and the Stones opened the bandâs famous Hyde Park concert with the Winter song âIâm Yours and Iâm Hers.â
Paul Stanley, who co-founded KISS, says Winterâs albums are among the best music that heâs ever heard. âJohnny Winterâboy, that guy is killer,â says Stanley. âI was just telling my son about him and when he first came on the scene. Itâs interesting, when somebody now experiences the blues they think of Clapton. Eric Clapton didnât because Eric Clapton wasnât listening to Eric Clapton. This is the guy he listened to.â
The same year that Winter released his debut, he played the legendary Fillmore East. âThatâs when I knew I really made it,â he says. âI knew I had arrived. But I wasnât surprised. In my mind, I was the best White blues player around.â
With that mindset, he had no hesitation taking the stage at Woodstock. Although his performance wasnât included on the Woodstock album or film because of the insistence of his former manager, it is often cited as legendary for his powerful playing and onstage antics, which sealed his reputation as a guitar god.
Wavy Gravy, the political activist and Prankster who was an integral part of Woodstock, working security and entertaining the crowd, remembers Winterâs performance well.
âAt Woodstock, we were mostly involved in life support and didnât hear a lot of music,â recounts Gravy. âI remember his interaction with Janis Joplin was as naughty as it gets without getting arrested. Janis was a good friend of mine and to see her and Johnny Winter tangled up in bluesâI close my eyes to this day and see them holding forth together. Iâm surprised they were able to be separated.â
Fame and notoriety began to have a detrimental effect on Winter and he began isolating himself. Everywhere he traveled, fans would try to touch him, get autographs and speak to him. One night, a fan crawled into his hotel room through an open window. âI told him to get the hell out,â says Winter, raising his voice for the first time in the interview as he recalled the incident. Such constant attention, adulation and idolatry tipped him into depression and addiction for years.
âItâs great to have people admire your work,â says Winter. âBut to be worshippedâI donât want to be worshipped. Thatâs why I started taking heroin. Then I just didnât care. You donât think about anything anymore.â
Musician Rick Derringerâwho has played and collaborated with Winter for decadesâwatched as the man he considered a brother became increasingly enveloped in drug use.
The two met in the early 1970s when Winterâs former manager wanted him to start playing rock more. Winter met and started jamming with Derringer and his band The McCoysâwell known for their pop work including the 1965 hit âHang on Sloopy.â The group, called Johnny Winter AndâŚ, had several hits including âRock and Roll Hoochie Koo,â which had a resurgence of popularity after its inclusion on the soundtrack of Cameron Croweâs 1993 movie Dazed and Confused.
âIt became the perfect marriage of bubble gum and blues,â says Derringer. âI was blessed to find him. He was blessed to find us. The music is still alive today.â Surprisingly, so is Winter who spiraled deeper into addiction for decades.
âFrom a professional point of view, it never affected him,â says Derringer. âWe had toured in England and he went into rehab. Everyone thought he had gone in there to get straight, but he went in to get drugs. If you go [to rehab in England] and they determine youâre a drug addict, you get methadone and you donât have to worry about getting bad drugs.â Of course, physicians work to wean addicts off those drugs but Winter avoided that by perpetually changing doctors.
At the same time, Winterâs popularityâand egoâcontinued to grow. He systematically replaced managers, producers and others members of his team that challenged him, opting for âyesâ men. When a young and somewhat inexperienced Derringer, who was brought in as a producer for Winterâs albums, criticized a song take, the guitarist shot back, âWhat do you mean? How could it be better than that?â Derringer recalls, imitating a gruff, antagonistic voice. âA good producer has to offer insights, but he didnât want that.â