Johnny Winter Looks Back, Through the Songs That Made Him Famous

Johnny Winter, who turns 70 this month, recalls the stories behind some of the songs that made his career after he was discovered in Austin in 1968.

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Johnny Winter

EDITOR’S NOTE: Johnny Winter died in a Zurich hotel room yesterday, July 16, at the age of 70. He has an album coming out in September with guest appearances from Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Joe Perry, and Billy Gibbons. We spoke with him about his career earlier this year.

In 1968 a 24-year-old Johnny Winter was playing half-empty nightclubs in Austin when a Rolling Stone article announced his arrival as “a cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, playing some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.”

Winter, who turns 70 on February 23, credits that quotation with earning the attention of CBS Records, which almost immediately signed him to a six-figure deal, pretty much unprecedented at the time, and put him on the road to Woodstock less than a year later.

Tracks from the six albums he made for the CBS Columbia Records imprint and from 21 other albums have been collected by Columbia/Legacy for a new four-CD box set, “True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story” (in stores February 25). While the Beaumont-born Winter is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has earned the respect of his peers: the liner notes include enthusiastic endorsements from Pete Townshend, Eddie Van Halen, and Carlos Santana. In addition, Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top give testimony in “Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty,” a new feature-length documentary set to have its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Last week at his home in Connecticut, Winter told his story by annotating four songs featured on “True to the Blues.”

“Mean Town Blues”

From “The Progressive Blues Experiment”

In 1968 Winter began playing with the Houston drummer known as Uncle John Turner and the Dallas bassist Tommy Shannon, who went on to be half of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble. The three settled in Austin and played regularly at the Vulcan Gas Company, the short-lived ground zero for Austin’s psychedelic rock movement. Winter’s first album, “The Progressive Blues Experiment,” was recorded in the club in 1968 and released twice, first on Sonobeat Records in Austin and again in 1969 by Liberty Records, to capitalize on his CBS Records deal.

“I wrote ‘Mean Town Blues’ in Dallas,” Winter said. “But we recorded it when we moved to Austin. Austin was an amazing place at that point. There was a lot of music and psychedelic drugs. It was like San Francisco in Texas. I loved it. And I had big aspirations. I was trying to make it really hard, no question. And there’s no question I learned a lot of what I’d later do in Austin.”

“Leland Mississippi Blues”

From “The Woodstock Experience”

Although his self-titled debut album for CBS was already in stores, Winter was one of Woodstock’s least-known acts. And yet the trio—augmented by Winter’s brother Edgar on the keyboard and saxophone for some of the set—fell into a prime midnight Sunday slot, a time that Winter said had originally been offered to Jimi Hendrix, who declined it.

“They say if you remember Woodstock, you weren’t there, and that’s pretty much right,” Winter said. “I don’t remember a whole lot. I was tired and asleep on the bus when we got the call to be onstage. I’m surprised it’s as good as it was because I was half-asleep when we began. We played and left. And of course we weren’t in the movie. It was my manager’s idea to not be in the movie; the festival lost money, so he figured the movie would too. He always said it was the biggest mistake he ever made.”

“I Done Got Over It”

Live with Muddy Waters and James Cotton, from “Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down”

In 1977 Winter won his dream gig: producing Muddy Waters. Beginning with the Grammy-winning “Hard Again,” Winter produced a live album and three consecutive studio albums for Waters. The 1977 live recording of “I Done Got Over It” features Waters and a trio of his longtime associates: James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie Big-Eyes Smith.

“I’d been listening to Muddy since I was twelve or thirteen. I knew the music,” Winter said. “He actually said: ‘Johnny knows my music better than I do. He reminds me of things I’ve already forgotten.’ He was a tough character who knew exactly what he wanted but, for me, easy to work with. He was a hard guy to please but very happy with what we did together, so we must have done something right.”

“Dust My Broom”

Featuring Derek Trucks, from “Roots”

In 2011 Winter released “Roots,” a collection of blues standards recorded with a roster of special guests that included Haynes, Vince Gill, and Susan Tedeschi. Winter said he was particularly proud of his collaboration with a guitarist he believes is one of the few carrying on the real blues tradition, 34-year-old Derek Trucks, of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Allman Brothers Band.

“Being around the young guys is fun,” Winter said. “I think about legacy a lot. Hopefully at the end of the day they say I was a good bluesman. That’s all I want.

“I have zero plans for retiring. It’s fun to have been around this long and still be doing it. A lot of my friends didn’t make it. I guess the secret to my longevity is that I quit doing everything that was bad for me. It’s really that simple.”

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