John Dawson “Johnny” Winter III (February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014) was an American singer and guitarist. Winter was known for his high-energy blues rock albums and live performances in the late 1960s and 1970s. He also produced three Grammy Award-winning albums for blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters. After his time with Waters, Winter recorded several Grammy-nominated blues albums. In 1988, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and in 2003, he was ranked 63rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.
Johnny Winter was born in Beaumont, Texas, on February 23, 1944. He and younger brother Edgar (born 1946) were nurtured at an early age by their parents in musical pursuits. Their father, Leland, Mississippi native John Dawson Winter Jr. (1909–2001), was also a musician who played saxophone and guitar and sang at churches, weddings, Kiwanis and Rotary Club gatherings. Johnny and his brother, both of whom were born with albinism, began performing at an early age. When he was ten years old, the brothers appeared on a local children’s show with Johnny playing ukulele.
His recording career began at the age of 15, when his band Johnny and the Jammers released “School Day Blues” on a Houston record label. During this same period, he was able to see performances by classic blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Bobby Bland. In the early days, Winter would sometimes sit in with Roy Head and the Traits when they performed in the Beaumont area, and in 1967, Winter recorded a single with the Traits: “Tramp” backed with “Parchman Farm” (Universal Records 30496). In 1968, he released his first album The Progressive Blues Experiment, on Austin’s Sonobeat Records.
Winter caught his biggest break in December 1968, when Mike Bloomfield, whom he met and jammed with in Chicago, invited him to sing and play a song during a Bloomfield and Al Kooper concert at the Fillmore East in New York City. As it happened, representatives of Columbia Records (which had released the Top Ten Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills Super Session album) were at the concert. Winter played and sang B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” to loud applause, and within a few days, was signed to what was reportedly the largest advance in the history of the recording industry at that time—$600,000.
Winter’s first Columbia album, Johnny Winter, was recorded and released in 1969. It featured the same backing musicians with whom he had recorded The Progressive Blues Experiment, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner, plus Edgar Winter on keyboards and saxophone, and (for his “Mean Mistreater”) Willie Dixon on upright bass and Big Walter Horton on harmonica. The album featured a few selections that became Winter signature songs, including his composition “Dallas” (an acoustic blues, on which Winter played a steel-bodied, resonator guitar), John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl”, and B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool”.
The album’s success coincided with Imperial Records picking up The Progressive Blues Experiment for wider release. The same year, the Winter trio toured and performed at several rock festivals, including Woodstock. With brother Edgar added as a full member of the group, Winter also recorded his second album, Second Winter, in Nashville in 1969. The two-disc album only had three recorded sides (the fourth was blank). It introduced more staples of Winter’s concerts, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”. Johnny entered into a short-lived affair with Janis Joplin, which culminated at a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where Johnny joined her on stage to sing and perform.
Contrary to urban legend, Johnny Winter did not perform with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison on the infamous 1968 Hendrix bootleg album Woke up this Morning and Found Myself Dead from New York City’s the Scene club. According to Winter, “I never even met Jim Morrison! There’s a whole album of Jimi and Jim and I’m supposedly on the album but I don’t think I am ’cause I never met Jim Morrison in my life! I’m sure I never, never played with Jim Morrison at all! I don’t know how that [rumor] got started.”
Beginning in 1969, the first of numerous Johnny Winter albums was released which were cobbled together from approximately fifteen singles (about 30 “sides”) he recorded before signing with Columbia in 1969. Many were produced by Roy Ames, owner of Home Cooking Records/Clarity Music Publishing, who had briefly managed Winter. According to an article from the Houston Press, Winter left town for the express purpose of getting away from him. Ames died on August 14, 2003, of natural causes at age 66. As Ames left no obvious heirs, the ownership rights of the Ames master recordings remains unclear. As Winter stated in an interview when the subject of Roy Ames came up, “This guy has screwed so many people it makes me mad to even talk about him.”
In 1970, when his brother Edgar released a solo album Entrance and formed Edgar Winter’s White Trash, an R&B/jazz-rock group, the original trio disbanded. Johnny Winter then formed a new band with the remnants of the McCoys—guitarist Rick Derringer, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs, and drummer Randy Z (who was Derringer’s brother, their family name being Zehringer). Originally to be called “Johnny Winter and the McCoys”, the name was shortened to “Johnny Winter And”, which was also the name of their first album. The album included Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” and signaled a more rock-oriented direction for Winter. When Johnny Winter And began to tour, Randy Z was replaced with drummer Bobby Caldwell. Their mixture of the new rock songs with Winter’s blues songs was captured on the live album Live Johnny Winter And. It included a new performance of “It’s My Own Fault”, the song which brought Winter to the attention of Columbia Records.
Winter’s momentum was throttled when he sank into heroin addiction during the Johnny Winter And days. After he sought treatment for and recovered from the addiction, Winter was put in front of the music press by manager Steve Paul to discuss the addiction candidly. By 1973, he returned to the music scene with the release of Still Alive and Well, a basic blend of blues and hard rock, whose title track was written by Rick Derringer. His comeback concert at Long Island, New York’s Nassau Coliseum featured the “And” line-up minus Rick Derringer and Bobby Caldwell. Also performing on stage was Johnny’s wife Susie. Saints & Sinners and John Dawson Winter III, two albums released in 1974, continue in the same direction. In 1975, Johnny returned to Bogalusa, Louisiana, to produce an album for Thunderhead, a Southern rock band which included Pat Rush and Bobby “T” Torello, who would later play with Winter. A second live Winter album, Captured Live!, was released in 1976 and features an extended performance of “Highway 61 Revisited”.
In live performances, Winter often told the story about how, as a child, he dreamed of playing with the blues guitarist Muddy Waters. He got his chance in 1974, when renowned blues artists and their younger brethren came together to honor the musician (Muddy Waters) responsible for bringing blues to Chicago, and the resulting concert presented many blues classics and was the start of an admired TV series: Soundstage (this particular session was called “Blues Summit in Chicago”). And in 1977, after Waters’ long-time label Chess Records went out of business, Winter brought Waters into the studio to record Hard Again for Blue Sky Records, a label set up by Winter’s manager and distributed by Columbia. In addition to producing the album, Winter played guitar with Waters veteran James Cotton on harmonica. Winter produced two more studio albums for Waters, I’m Ready (with Big Walter Horton on harmonica) and King Bee and a best-selling live album Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live. The partnership produced three Grammy Awards for Waters and an additional Grammy for Winter’s own Nothin’ But the Blues, with backing by members of Waters’ band. Waters told Deep Blues author Robert Palmer that Winter had done remarkable work in reproducing the sound and atmosphere of Waters’s vintage Chess Records recordings of the 1950s. AllMusic writer Mark Deming noted: “Between Hard Again and The Last Waltz [1976 concert film by The Band], Waters enjoyed a major career boost, and he found himself touring again for large and enthusiastic crowds”.
In 1996, Johnny and Edgar filed suit against DC Comics and the creators of the Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such limited series, claiming, among other things, defamation: two characters named Johnny and Edgar Autumn in the series strongly resemble the Winters. The brothers claimed the comics falsely portrayed them as “vile, depraved, stupid, cowardly, subhuman individuals who engage in wanton acts of violence, murder and bestiality for pleasure and who should be killed.” The California Supreme Court sided with DC Comics, holding that the comic books were deserving of First Amendment protection.
After his time with Blue Sky Records, Winter began recording for several labels, including Alligator, Point Blank, and Virgin, where he focused on blues-oriented material. In 1992, he married Susan Warford. In 2004, he received a Grammy Award nomination for his I’m a Bluesman album. Beginning in 2007, a series of live Winter albums titled the Live Bootleg Series and a live DVD all entered the Top 10 Billboard Blues chart. In 2009, The Woodstock Experience album was released, which includes eight songs that Winter performed at the 1969 festival. In 2011, Johnny Winter released Roots on Megaforce Records. It includes Winter’s interpretation of eleven early blues and rock ‘n’ roll classics and features several guest artists (Vince Gill, Sonny Landreth, Susan Tedeschi, Edgar Winter, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks). His last studio album, Step Back (which features appearances by Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Leslie West, Brian Setzer, Dr. John, Paul Nelson, Ben Harper and Joe Perry), was released on September 2, 2014. Nelson and Winter won a Grammy Award in the Best Blues Album category for Step Back in 2015. Nelson said Winter knew it was an award winner and Winter told him “If we don’t win a Grammy for this, they’re nuts.”
Winter continued to perform live, including at festivals throughout North America and Europe. He headlined such prestigious events as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, the 2009 Sweden Rock Festival, the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, and Rockpalast. He also performed with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater in New York City on the 40th anniversary of their debut. In 2007 and 2010, Winter performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals. Two guitar instructional DVDs were produced by Cherry Lane Music and the Hal Leonard Corporation. The Gibson Guitar Company released the signature Johnny Winter Firebird guitar in a ceremony in Nashville with Slash presenting.
Winter was professionally active until the time of his death near Zürich, Switzerland, on July 16, 2014. He was found dead in his hotel room two days after his last performance, at the Cahors Blues Festival in France. The cause of Winter’s death was not officially released. According to his guitarist friend and record producer Paul Nelson, Winter died of emphysema combined with pneumonia.
Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, after Winter’s death, David Marchese said, “Winter was one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos, releasing a string of popular and fiery albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, becoming an arena-level concert draw in the process” … [he] “made an iconic life for himself by playing the blues”.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Johnny Winter among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Winter produced three Grammy Award-winning albums by Muddy Waters – Hard Again (1977), I’m Ready (1978), and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live (1979). Several of Winter’s own albums were nominated for Grammy Awards – Guitar Slinger (1984) and Serious Business (1985) for Best Traditional Blues Album, and Let Me In (1991) and I’m a Bluesman (2004) for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2015 Winter posthumously won the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album for Step Back. The album also won the 2015 Blues Music Award for Best Rock Blues Album. At the 18th Maple Blues Awards in 2015, Winter was also posthumously awarded the B.B. King International Artist of The Year Award.
In 1980, Winter was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar World. In 1988, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the first non-African-American performer to be inducted into the Hall.
Multiple guitarists have cited Winter as an influence, including Joe Perry, Frank Marino, Michael Schenker, Adrian Smith, and Alex Skolnick. (wikipedia)
And here´s his eponymous debut album for Columbia Records:
What do you look for when you listen to a blues record? Is it great guitar playing with interesting licks? Is it comfort and solace when somebody has mistreated you? Is it curiosity to discover the roots of you favorite genre of music? Surely, you will definitely find a lot of excellent guitar licks, you’ll find comfort but most of all blues is all about emotions. It’s about listening to grown men or women telling stories about how they were mistreated, abused, taken advantage or harmed by people of the opposite sex most of the times. What really separates the blues though from other genres and artists that simply whine or bitch about how everything is awful and without hope, is that the blues aren’t depressing per se. The blues convey a sense of pride to the listener. They communicate that pain and anguish are indeed part of our lives and as such cannot be avoided. However, those dreadful feelings can be put in context through music in order to relieve their symptoms and this is what the blues is all about. It’s about music taking away the pain and as such the blues are all about pride and empowerment.
Whenever a discussion about the blues is started, there are people who tend to support that only the original blues players had what was needed and all those who came after them were simply faux. The reason most times seems to be that blues players from the 60s onwards added few rock elements to their sound and as a result strayed away from the original sound. Another argument is that the OG’s music was much more emotional. In Johnny Winter’s case I can assure you that there aren’t many more emotional players around and he has all those elements that the older statesmen of blues possessed. Unlike most guitar players around, Johnny Winters uses a thumb pick; a guitar playing technique that was developed by early country and blues musicians. To the untrained ear, this doesn’t make much difference but it certainly helps Winter with his soloing. Johnny Winter, as can be demonstrated by his self titled release, is one of the most technical bluesmen combining tasty licks with fiery solos. And talking about the Johnny Winter album, it has to be noted that apart from the fiddler himself, some exceptional musicians such as his brother Edgar who handles the keyboards and even the legendary Willie Dixon on acoustic bass have provided some brilliant arrangements. Johnny Winter’s sophomore release came one year after his successful debut The Progressive Blues Experiment and a couple of months prior to his appearance on the Woodstock Festival.
Musically Johnny Winter is similar to his debut, meaning that it contains generous doses of well played electric and acoustic blues from the main scenes of the genre. However, what separated this album and in general all of Winter’s releases back then is that he did all that with a hard rock wrapping. Nevertheless, purists don’t need to be discouraged at all because the soul of the blues is very much present on Winter’s self titled release. Take for example one of the standouts of this album, “Be Careful With a Fool”. Originally performed by BB King, Johnny Winter adds his personal touch by adding an extra grittiness to the song with his hard and precise playing. Naturally as a BB King tune, “Be Careful with a Fool” is a Chicago/Memphis tune as is “Mean Mistreater” with its typical and intentional 50s blues sound. Going back to what was mentioned in the beginning of this review, the blues aren’t always downbeat and depressing and a perfect example of that is “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. A well known song originally by Sonny Boy Williamson, it was firstly recorded pre-war and has been covered numerous times with Junior Wells’ rendition being probably the most renowned (appropriately may I add). One of my all time favorites, it’s one of the most uptempo tracks of the album and a perfect example of how anguish can be expressed in a rather buoyant manner.
Going back to the acoustic side of the album, “When You Got a Good Friend” is one of Robert Johnson’s most well known and loved songs. Covered by Eric Clapton too, Johnny Winter does an excellent job of keeping the feeling of the original and adds his personal touch with some excellent slide guitar playing. His decision to not stray away much from the original is a wise one. Another Delta song is “Dallas”, an original composition by Johnny Winter that could have easily been mistaken for an original Mississippi blues tune. Being a Texas native himself, Johnny Winter has included three blues tracks from his birthplace. ” I’m Yours and I’m Hers “, “Leland Mississippi Blues” which is an original composition by Winter, with its guitar playing that follows the vocal line and “Back Door Friend” a raw and dirty acoustic turned electric Lightnin’ Hopkins tune are excellent examples of Winter’s ability to cover all styles of the blues. In addition, one of the standout tracks if there is such in an album like this one is “I’ll Drown in My Tears”. It features one of Winter’s most emotional vocal deliveries ever. Brass instruments and piano dominate this song while you can feel BB King or even Ray Charles’ influence in Winter’s music. Lastly, the production which was done by Winter himself with the help of the great Eddie Kramer suits perfectly the overall mood of the album.
Objectively and as a fan of the blues, the only drawback that I can find on this album is its short duration. At only 34 minutes, it always leaves you asking for more but that alone cannot take away any of the magic of this album. For blues fans this is a must whereas for fans of hard rock or blues rock this is an album that should at least be listened once in your lifetime. It will make you realize why Johnny Winter is truly a legend and an often underrated guitar player. (by manosg )
Tommy Shannon (bass)
Uncle John Turner (drums, percussion)
Johnny Winter (guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, vocals)
A. Wynn Butler (saxophone on 06.)
Willie Dixon (bass on 04.)
Karl Garin (trumpet on 06.)
Walter “Shakey” Horton (harmonica on 04.)
Norman Ray (saxophone on 08.)
Stephen Ralph Sefsik (saxophone on 08.)
Edgar Winter (keyboards on 08., saxophone on 06.)
background vocals on 08.:
Peggy Bowers – Carrie Hossel – Elsie Senter
01. I’m Yours And I’m Hers (Winter) 4.32
02. Be Careful With A Fool (King/Josea) 5.17
03. Dallas (Winter) 2.49
04. Mean Mistreater (Gordon) 3.55
05. Leland Mississippi Blues (Winter) 3.31
06. Good Morning Little School Girl (Level/Love) 2.46
07. When You Got A Good Friend (unknown) 3.42
08. I’ll Drown In My Tears (Glover) 4.47
09. Back Door Friend (Lewis/Hopkins) 2.58
10. Country Girl (King) 3.08
11. Dallas (with band) (Winter) 3.37
12. Two Steps From The Blues (Brown/Malone) 2.36
More from Johnny Winter: