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

by Nancy Dunham on July 17, 2014

Photo by Paul Natkin

“I always knew I had it,” says Winter. “I wasn’t ever nervous. I was always sure I’d be successful. I just didn’t know when.”

Winter got his first taste of commercial success in December 1968. That’s 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 around—after Janis Joplin.

Record companies flocked to hear the bluesman in action and Columbia triumphed in the bidding war. In 1969, Winter’s official debut album Johnny Winter. John Lennon and members of The Rolling Stones praised the work and the Stones opened the band’s famous Hyde Park concert with the Winter song “I’m Yours and I’m Hers.”

Paul Stanley, who co-founded KISS, says Winter’s albums are among the best music that he’s ever heard. “Johnny Winter—boy, that guy is killer,” says Stanley. “I was just telling my son about him and when he first came on the scene. It’s interesting, when somebody now experiences the blues they think of Clapton. Eric Clapton didn’t because Eric Clapton wasn’t listening to Eric Clapton. This is the guy he listened to.”

The same year that Winter released his debut, he played the legendary Fillmore East. “That’s when I knew I really made it,” he says. “I knew I had arrived. But I wasn’t surprised. In my mind, I was the best White blues player around.”

With that mindset, he had no hesitation taking the stage at Woodstock. Although his performance wasn’t 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 Winter’s performance well.

“At Woodstock, we were mostly involved in life support and didn’t hear a lot of music,” recounts Gravy. “I 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 blues—I close my eyes to this day and see them holding forth together. I’m surprised they were able to be separated.”

***

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. “I told him to get the hell out,” 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.

“It’s great to have people admire your work,” says Winter. “But to be worshipped—I don’t want to be worshipped. That’s why I started taking heroin. Then I just didn’t care. You don’t think about anything anymore.”

Musician Rick Derringer—who has played and collaborated with Winter for decades—watched as the man he considered a brother became increasingly enveloped in drug use.

The two met in the early 1970s when Winter’s former manager wanted him to start playing rock more. Winter met and started jamming with Derringer and his band The McCoys—well known for their pop work including the 1965 hit “Hang on Sloopy.” The group, called Johnny Winter And…, had several hits including “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” which had a resurgence of popularity after its inclusion on the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s 1993 movie Dazed and Confused.

“It became the perfect marriage of bubble gum and blues,” says Derringer. “I was blessed to find him. He was blessed to find us. The music is still alive today.” Surprisingly, so is Winter who spiraled deeper into addiction for decades.

“From a professional point of view, it never affected him,” says Derringer. “We 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 you’re a drug addict, you get methadone and you don’t have to worry about getting bad drugs.” Of course, physicians work to wean addicts off those drugs but Winter avoided that by perpetually changing doctors.

At the same time, Winter’s popularity—and ego—continued to grow. He systematically replaced managers, producers and others members of his team that challenged him, opting for “yes” men. When a young and somewhat inexperienced Derringer, who was brought in as a producer for Winter’s albums, criticized a song take, the guitarist shot back, “What do you mean? How could it be better than that?” Derringer recalls, imitating a gruff, antagonistic voice. “A good producer has to offer insights, but he didn’t want that.”

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