Johnny Winter has been a guitar hero without equal. Signing to Columbia records in 1969 called largest solo artist deal of it’s time, Johnny immediately laid out the blueprint for his fresh take on classic blues a prime combination for the legions of fans just discovering the blues via the likes of Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Constantly shifting between simple country blues in the vein of Robert Johnson, to all-out electric slide guitar blues-rock, – Johnny has always been one of the most respected singers and guitar players in rock and the clear link between British blues-rock and American Southern rock (a la the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.) Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Johnny was the unofficial torch-bearer for the blues, championing and aiding the careers of his idols like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
Growing up in rough-and-tumble town populated by oilfield wildcatters and shipyard workers, he spent long hours listening to a local deejay named J.P. Richardson – The Big Bopper of “Chantilly Lace” fame – and became hooked on 50’s rock & roll. He formed his first band, Johnny and the Jammers, in 1959 at the age of 15, with his 12-year-old brother Edgar on keyboards. Racial tensions in Beaumont were still high in those days. The town had been side to one of the worst race riots in Texas history just nine months before Johnny’s birth. Mobs wandered the streets, businesses burned, martial law went into effect, and more than 2,000 uniformed National Guardsmen and Texas Rangers sealed off the town from the rest of the world until tempers cooled. Despite the brutal legacy, Johnny remembers never hesitating as a kid to venture into black neighborhoods to hear and play music. Looking back, he believes people in the black community knew that he was sincere, that he was genuinely possessed by the blues. “Nothing ever happened tome. I went to black clubs all the time, and nobody ever bothered me. I always felt welcome.” He also became friends with Clarence Garlow, a deejay at the black radio station KJET in Beaumont. Who opened Winter’s eye’s and ears to rural blues and Cajun music. Clarence, who recorded for the swamp boogie specialty label Goldband, KRCO, Frolic, Diamond, Moon-Lite, Hall-Way and other regional labels.
There’s a famous story about a time in 1962 when Johnny and his brother went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont club called the Raven. The only whites in the crowd, they no doubt stood out. But Johnny already had his chops down and wanted to play with the revered B.B. “I was about 17,” Johnny remembers, “and B.B. didn’t want to let me on stage at first. He asked me for a union card, and I had one. Also, I kept sending people over to ask him to let me play. Finally, he decided that there enough people who wanted to hear me that, no matter if I was good or not, it would be worth it to let me on stage. He gave me his guitar and let me play. I got a standing ovation, and he took his guitar back!”
Winter’s big breakthrough came a few years later in 1968 when Rolling Stone writers Larry Sepulvado and John Burks featured him in a piece on the Texas Music scene, which prompted a bidding war among labels that Columbia eventually won. Johnny’s self-titled 1969 disc announced loudly that there was a new guitar-slinger on the new national scene. The disc included audacious covers such blues classics as B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool,” Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Good Morning Little School Girl,” Robert Johnson’s “When You Got a Good Friend” and fellow Texan Lightin’ Hopkins’ “Back Door Friend.” It also featured two prime original Winter songs, “Dallas”and the controversial “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” that went into heavy rotation on FM underground radio. The album peaked at No.24 on the billboard chart and was promptly followed by Second Winter later that same year.
Looking back, writer Cub Koda described the period as one when “Straight out of Texas with a hot trio, Winter made blues-rock music for the angels.” That trio, by the way, included bassist Tommy Shannon who would go on to be part of SRV’s Double Trouble and drummer Uncle John Turner. Winter stayed with Columbia and it’s boutique Blue Sky label for more than a decade, turning out such well-received platters as “Johnny Winter And” (1970), “Still Alive and Well” (1973) and “John Dawson Winter III” (1974). He also helped to introduce blues giant Muddy Waters to another generation of listeners by producing and playing guitar on the Grammy-winning “Hard Again” (1977), as well as the Grammy-nominated “I’m Ready” (1978), Muddy “Mississippi Waters Live” (1979) and “King Bee” (1981). The collaborations were so successful that Waters took to referring to Johnny as his “adopted son!”
Johnny joined Alligator Records in 1984. His desire to record nothing but authentic blues made for a perfect fit. When Johnny released Guitar Slinger later that year, it was widely hailed as his best (and bluesiest) album ever; it charted in both Billboard and Cashbox as well as earning a Grammy nomination. The next year, Johnny followed up Guitar Slinger with Serious Business. The powerhouse album won Johnny his second Grammy nomination with Alligator Records. Third Degree, his final Alligator release, came out in 1986. The album featured several special guests and an array of blues styles. Original blues cohorts, Tommy Shannon and Uncle John “Red” Turner, as well as Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, all made guest appearances. Johnny also played two solo acoustic cuts on the National Steel guitar (the first time he’d played the National in the studio since 1977).
Johnny was living his artistic dream, recording nothing but pure blues.His Alligator albums earned their way onto rock radio and a video for the song Don’t Take Advantage of Me played on the fledgling MTV network for over six months. But no matter how much commercial success Johnny’s Alligator albums received, they never compromised his commitment to his roots.