Johnny Winter Remembered

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Johnny Winter passed away yesterday, aged 70. Back in February, fans gathered in New York to pay tribute to the guitarist on his birthday, and Classic Rock's sister magazine The Blues was there. Johnny spoke about mortality, and fellow musicians paid tribute to the king of the slide blues guitar.

There were times it seemed he’d never make it, but on February 23, Texas legend Johnny Winter hit his 70s like a train with an all-star show at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York. “I’ve really cleaned up my act,” Winter told The Blues of his unlikely longevity, following past brushes with heroin, alcohol and prescription drugs. “I’ve stopped doing everything from the past that was hurting me. As long as there are bluesmen like me around, I’ll help carry the torch for as long as I can. I will be a bluesman until the day I die.”

As well as receiving a cake and a crowd-sung rendition of Happy Birthday, the night saw Winter and his band honoured by induction into the New York Blues Hall Of Fame. “It was one of the greatest times of my life,” the guitarist reflected afterwards. “All of my friends were there.”

Amid the backslaps, the music was still the main event, as Winter led a starburst of special guests through a set that was more old than new, often borrowed and frequently blues. As the guitarist told us, “I don’t listen to anything contemporary, only blues music from the 50s. My setlist is usually a case of whatever I feel like doing at any given time. I like to change it up.”

Highlights across the 90-minute show came fast, and The Blues was on hand to grill Winter’s guests as they took the stage. First on was Lance Lopez to warm up the crowd, who were treated to amp- burning versions of Johnny B. Goode and Good Morning Little School Girl (both songs that Winter covered on his opening brace of albums back in 1969). Next came a spin through Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working, featuring Frank Latorre on harp and Popa Chubby on guitar. “The first major concert I ever went to was Johnny Winter and Mahogany Rush,” recalls the man-mountain guitarist. “Johnny rocked me then and he still rocks me now. Happy 70th birthday, Johnny!”

Guitarist Debbie Davies and harmonica heavyweight James Montgomery were just as potent on their reading of Ray Charles’s Black Jack. “Johnny Winter is a living legend, a blues icon and one of America’s godfathers of blues-rock guitar,” noted Davies. “With his top-notch crack band, Johnny continues to keep the bar set high for all the young, aspiring guitar players who come to see his rockin’ show.”

Howlin’ Wolf’s deathless Killing Floor was next to get the Winter treatment, followed by Larry Williams’ 1957 single Bony Moronie, once again featuring Lance Lopez. “Johnny Winter was the beginning of the lineage of Texas blues-rock gunslingers,” the guitarist reminded us. “He entered the world of music when the envelope was being pushed by Hendrix and Clapton, and he pushed the envelope even harder by bringing the intensity of roadhouse music from Texas and Louisiana to the world stage, with the extra firepower that could only be delivered by Johnny. He’s been one of my main guitar influences since I was 12, and now he’s my good friend and teacher.”

Just as effusive was Royal Southern Brotherhood’s Mike Zito, who guested on another of Winter’s long-standing cover choices, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: “I heard Illustrated Man when I was 18 on KSHE 95 in St. Louis, and I immediately decided to become a blues guitarist. Johnny Winter is my absolute hero, and to be his friend is a dream come true.”

The bash kept booming with performances of Don’t Take Advantage Of Me, followed by Bobby and Shirley Womack’s It’s All Over Now, featuring Joe Louis Walker on stunt guitar. “Johnny Winter is the rare musician who has spanned many genres, from the blues with Muddy Waters to folk-rock with Bob Dylan and classic rock with Jimi Hendrix,” noted JLW, “as well as inspiring everyone from Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Rory Gallagher, just to name a few. And also, he influenced Joe Louis Walker – as a musician, an icon and a good friend.”

For the finale, Winter turned to the stone-cold classics, with Dust My Broom featuring his former bandmate Jon Paris on harp, and Highway 61 signing off in style. “Blues legend, guitar hero, rock star,” said Paris of his mentor. “It’s all been said and it’s all true. I learned a lot from Johnny. I’m honoured to have worked with him, glad to be his friend.”

After the show, Winter reflected on how the blues lured him away from the oil industry in his roughneck native town of Beaumont, Texas. “I heard a Howlin’ Wolf track on a local radio station called KJET,” he told The Blues, “and I was hooked for life. I wanted to listen to everything I could after that. As a kid, I was doing odd jobs just so I could buy blues records. My early blues influences were Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. My favourite musicians outside of my bands I’ve played with have been artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix – and the list goes on and on.”

Winter, too, goes on, informing us that February’s career-spanning 57-track True To The Blues boxset will not be his only release of 2014. “I’m currently working on my second album for Sony/Megaforce called Step Back, due out in a few months. Some of the guest artists include Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Brian Setzer, Leslie West, Joe Perry, Joe Bonamassa and many other notables…”

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This article first appeared in issue 12 of The Blues. You can subscribe at MyFavouriteMagazines.