Winter’s Return A Guitar Legend Triumphs Once Again
On Thursday night Johnny Winter will make his first network television appearance in three decades when he performs on the Late Show with David Letterman. To mark the occasion, we share this feature story that ran in our December-January 2010 issue.
Photo by Paul Natkin
The faithful have lined up in the warm sun on this Saturday afternoon in September, chatting excitedly as they lounge against the outside wall of The Birchmere, a legendary music club in Alexandria, Va., just over the Washington, D.C. border.
It’s hours before blues legend Johnny Winter, 65, is scheduled to take the stage, but the fans—ranging in age from children to flower children—have arrived early hoping to catch a glimpse of the only white man that many claim epitomizes the blues.
Inside a tour bus parked at the side of the club, Winter sits on a canvas-covered bench clad in a dark T-shirt and jeans, chain-smoking cigarettes as he kills the hours before the show. Band members scoot in and out of the bus, chatting with guests and remaining alert to any of guitarist’s needs. These days Winter is dealing with complications from his albinism and, more noticeably, various addiction-related ailments which no one around him will discuss in any detail out of politeness versus protection. If there’s one thing that Winter’s entourage conveys, it’s a deep respect for the man.
The band sleeps in hotels while on tour but rents buses to travel around towns, store their gear and give Johnny a haven where he can sit back, watch reruns of classic comedies such as The Andy Griffith show and relax.
It’s also where Johnny meets his fans after gigs.
“Johnny always has time for his fans,” says manager Paul Nelson, who also plays guitar in Winter’s band. “Everyone wants to touch him, to tell him how when they first saw him, when they first heard his music. We have men come in, Vietnam Vets, who just kneel down by Johnny and cry. We just had one guy who told him, ‘Johnny you saved my life.’”
Winter, who often seems content to let Nelson do the talking, exhales another long drag of a cigarette that swirls around his trademark white hair and wipes his ever-watering right eye with a tissue.
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Winter was around five year old when he first began to play the clarinet that his father—a saxophone player who was also a member of the church choir and a barbershop quartet—bought him. He and his brother Edgar were hooked on Artie Shaw and other swing bands, so when an overbite forced him to stop playing saxophone, Winter was crushed. His father bought him a ukulele—which was the right size for the small boy’s hands—and taught him to play classic standards including “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”
When he was about 12, his dad gave him a guitar that had belonged to his grandfather. A career U.S. Army officer who later worked in the cotton business, his father said that there wasn’t much of a call for ukulele players. However, those that learn guitar just might make it in the business.
At the same time, the family’s housekeeper, Lily, was constantly listening to a local blues station on the radio while she worked. That was enough for the 15-year-old Winter, who also had absorbed large doses of rock and roll from listening to disc jockey J.P Richardson—The Big Bopper of “Chantilly Lace”—to team with his 12-year-old keyboard playing brother and start a band.
Winter spent all of his time buying blues albums—any he could find—and teaching himself to play. While he took a few lessons, he generally developed his style and technique by ear listening to the records over and over and over again. “I never really thought of myself as a musician,” says Winter amidst a swirl of smoke. “I just always really loved the blues and the guitar. I loved the feel of it.”
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