Blues legend Johnny Winter to perform
It was 1962, and 17-year-old Johnny Winter was holding out hope that blues legend B.B. King would let him play guitar onstage. After all, Winter and his band, Johnny and the Jammers, had released music on a Houston recording label two years before.
Winter and his brother Edgar waited in a club called the Raven in Beaumont, Texas, where they had come to see King perform. Both boys were Caucasian and born with albinism, and they clearly stood out in the crowd.
At first, King was reluctant to let him onstage, but Winter persisted and sent friends to ask on his behalf. Eventually, King turned over his guitar to the young man.
Winter performed and got a standing ovation. Even then, it was becoming clear Winter was a force to be reckoned with.
Now 69, Winter has enjoyed decades of success through his rapid slide guitar skills and passion for authentic blues. In addition to King, he has played with such greats as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1988, Winter was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. More recently, Rolling Stone ranked him 63 on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
On Aug. 24, Winter and his band will play at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. The taciturn musician talked with the Beacon about his long musical career and upcoming plans.
Early start in music
Winter was born in Leland, Miss., and grew up in Beaumont, Texas. His parents encouraged both their sons in their musical pursuits.
Winter first played the clarinet and the ukulele, but settled into guitar playing at age 11 when he fell in love with the blues of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Otis Rush.
Beaumont had endured a race riot in 1943, the year before Winter’s birth, and the town continued to be rife with racial tension.
But the Winter brothers never shied away from experiencing blues in the predominantly African American neighborhoods of the city. Winter has commented he always felt safe there, perhaps because the community saw he had a sincere interest in the music.
Success and Muddy Waters
Before fame, Winter had toured relentlessly to make a name for himself. His big break came in 1968, when Rolling Stone assessed the music scene in Texas and dubbed him “the hottest item outside Janis Joplin.”
Columbia Records eventually signed him after beating stiff competition from other labels. Winter remained with Columbia for about 10 years and recorded blues originals and many famous covers like Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” His performance at Woodstock in 1969 became legendary.
Winter later used his success to expose a new generation to blues legend Muddy Waters. As a child, Winter aspired to play with him, and he got the chance when Waters’ label Chess Record went out of business. Waters had nowhere else to record, so Johnny and his manager set up Blue Sky Records, which was distributed by Columbia.
“He has been a big influence on me,” Winter said of Waters. Playing with him “was the most fun I ever had.” For his part, Waters, who died in 1983, once said Winter had become like a son to him.
Winter produced Waters’ comeback album Hard Again for Blue Sky Records. Two more albums followed, and the music of Muddy Waters lived on.
Ever loyal to his roots, Winters says his early cover of B.B. King’s “Be Careful With a Fool” is his favorite song.
Addiction and sobriety
Unfortunately, after his rise to prominence, Winter became addicted to heroin in the 1970s. He has never been shy about talking about his experiences.
“It was OK as long as I wasn’t addicted to it, but I realized I was addicted. I really wanted to get off of it,” he recalled.
In the years that followed, he battled substance abuse, including anti-depressants, methadone and alcohol. His manager Teddy Slatus, now deceased, was also an alcoholic. There has been speculation that Slatus exploited and worsened the situation.
Winter’s career suffered from his substance abuse. His always small frame withered as he lost weight. Good friend and guitarist Paul Nelson eventually took over as his manager in 2005. Due in a large part to Nelson, Winter is currently clean and sober. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.
In 2007, he played at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, a benefit concert to raise money for the Crossroads Centre, an addiction facility on the island of Antigua. Clapton founded Crossroads to help others suffering from addiction, as he is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Winter said he hoped to play at the benefit again in the future.
New music and documentary
Winter continues to tour with his band; many of the members have been together for more than 15 years. “We have very good chemistry,” he said.
His band mates also appreciate Winter’s legacy. His manager Nelson said that working with Winter is “an honor. My first love was guitar. That’s how I met him. To play with one of your idols is great. It’s like getting a guitar lesson every day.”
Nelson produced Winter’s 2011 album Roots as well as his upcoming album Step Back, which is finished but awaiting release. Nelson estimates it will be available to the public in six months. Also slated for a late 2013 release is a documentary about Winter’s life, directed by Greg Oliver.
Step Back will have rock elements. The album will feature many special guest artists, including Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Dr. John and Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. Winter says he is most excited about his album’s collaboration with Eric Clapton.
“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a very good album. I’m very happy with it,” he said.
Music clearly runs in the Winter family. Winter’s brother Edgar has also made a name for himself in music. He is known as a multi-instrumentalist artist who specializes in keyboards, percussion, saxophone and vocals.
Edgar’s musical interests diverge from his brother’s, however. “Our styles are very different. He likes jazz and rock and roll, and I like the blues,” said Winter. They continue to play together, and Roots features Edgar on keyboards.
Johnny Winter defines blues as “emotion, feeling,” something he still connects with after all these years of playing. When asked how it feels to be known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, the man of few words said with a laugh, “very good.”
Johnny Winter and his band will play at the Birchmere, at 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. The Birchmere box office sells tickets from 5 to 9 p.m. on any performance night. Tickets are $35 at the box office. To purchase tickets online, visit Ticketmaster at https://www.ticketmaster.com/johnny-winter-tickets/artist/736475. The Ticketmaster price is $44.50.