Johnny Winter

Serve me right to suffer
Serve me right to be alone
Hey, to be alone

My friend Steve is about as big a Johnny Winter fan as you will find. So it was with great sadness that I had to be the first to alert him that Johnny passed away in July of last year. (We saw him together in Philly in the early ’70’s; I saw him again at a small club in Boston years later, somewhat on the downside of his career). The good news is that he lived to be 70 and if anybody had a full life – if anybody was a true bluesman who saw the ups and downs – it was Johnny Winter.

He came out of Beaumont, Texas which is about twenty miles from Port Arthur where his friend, sometime lover and fellow blues great Janis Joplin hailed. I don’t know if it’s still the same down there, but apparently in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s, that strip from Beaumont to Port Arthur was a hell-raisers’s paradise – dive bars playing all sorts of down n’ dirty blues n’ boogie. (Apparently some of the guys from ZZ Top used to hang out and play with the Winter Brothers during this period and their wild drinking, playing and partying adventures are legendary.)

Johnny, like Janis, was a self-proclaimed misfit. She was not pretty, not popular; he was an albino who had to do a lot of fighting. Fortunately they were both able to channel their outsider-ness into their considerable blues talents. (BTW, both Janis and Johnny played at Woodstock, though separately. You can hear a clip of them playing together in 1969 at the Boston Music Hall – now Wang Center – here).

Winter had done some recording (including with his brother Edgar) without getting much notice. But he hit the music world hard when he released “Second Winter” in late 1969. (This disc has the distinction of being almost a double album. They had enough material for three sides, not for four. So side four on vinyl is completely blank).

The record starts off with one of my favorite Winter tunes, “Memory Pain.” Winter is the real deal here – playing, singing, it’s all there in abundance. It does not get any ballsier than this.

Ohh, everytime I see a woman
Oh, it make me think of mine
Make me think of mine

According to johnnywinter.net, there’s a famous story about a time in 1962 when Johnny and Edgar (also albino, also talented) went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont club called the Raven. The only white guys in the crowd (white face, white hair), they no doubt stood out. But Johnny already had his chops down and wanted to play with the revered B.B. (Who at that time was well-known only to black audiences).

”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 were 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.”

Here’s a nice slow blues, in fact it’s a B.B. King tune, “Be Careful With A Fool.” (You know someday he may get smart).

When I get home in the evenin’
Hey, hey, my woman would be gone
Yes she would be gone

Winter not only learned from the masters, but like all the blues guys I respect, he gave back. In the late ’70’s, Muddy Waters’ label – the renowned Chess – went out of business. Johnny not only got Muddy over to his own label, Blue Sky, he recorded Waters on a terrific album called “Hard Again.” (So called, because that’s how Muddy said it made him feel, if you catch my drift). As much as I want to do a song here from that album, this is Johnny’s post. So I’ll save that one for when I write about Muddy.

In the meantime, here’s a nice upbeat, Chicago-style shuffle from an early ’90’s album called “Hey Where’s Your Brother.”

Winter suffered the bluesman’s curse of a years-long heroin (and later, methadone) addiction. Couple that with the fact that his brand of pure blues fell out of fashion and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that he fell upon hard times. (Unlike guys like Clapton, he was never able to play pop or try to make the Top 40 charts. For better or worse, he was what he was.) But in addition to being a bluesman, he was a total rocker. Here’s his madman dash on “Johnny B. Goode” which he’d sometimes accompany with his hell-raising cry of “Rock n’Roll.”

As a quick side note, I want to here mention Johnny’s guitar-slinging partner in crime, Rick Derringer, who went on to play as a sideman with Steely Dan and others. Derringer was a key part of Johnny’s bands for a while and is still out there touring with his own band. Among other tunes he wrote and eventually recorded the classic rock staple “Rock n’ Roll, Hootchie Koo.”

In 1988, Johnny Winter 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. Grammy-nominated himself, his three Muddy Waters albums all received Grammys. It just so happens they released a documentary about his life last year. Just pre-ordered it for March.

RIP Johnny Winter. You were the real deal, a true bluesman. They don’t make ’em like you any more.

‘Cause I’m still livin’ with a memory
Of the days that’s passed and gone
The days that’s passed and gone

Next post – back to jazz.

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