JOHNNY WINTER BIOGRAPHY
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 a 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.
Today Johnny Winter is enjoying an unparalleled resurgence performing to sold out shows worldwide even after a long life full of honors and accomplishments such as a triumphant appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival with Derek Trucks, Buddy Guy and Clapton that has been immortalized on the Emmy award winning DVD. In a ceremony with Slash presenting in Nashville, Gibson Guitars released the signature Johnny Winter Firebird guitar that has been his beloved trademark for years. A Live through the 70s DVD is a hit along with his Live Bootleg Series CDs that have all entered the Top 10 Billboard Blues charts. Two unique instructional DVDs have been produced by Cherry Lane/Hal Leonard to the gratitude of players around the world. Always one for special appearances he recently performed with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on the 40th anniversary of their debut.
In addition Winter has been headlining such prestigious events as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Swedish Rock Fest, Warren Haynes X-mas jam and Europe’s Rockpalast viewed by millions just to name a few. Warner Bros. has now released a 40th anniversary DVD of Woodstock: 3 Days of Love and Peace the Director’s cut featuring, for the first time, Johnny playing his smoking classic “Meantown Blues.”
His recent Grammy nominated “I’m A Bluesman” disc on Virgin/EMI, has only added to his Texas-sized reputation. Joining him on this CD are guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray, 2 members of his current scorching road-tested touring band also consisting of drummer Vito Liuzzi. Performing now with a renewed vigor and fire to say that he is “back” would be an understatement. In fact, he never left. He
is just better than ever.
A LOOK BACK
John Dawson Winter III is born in Beaumont, Texas on Febrary 23rd. His brother Edgar is born three years later.
1953 – 1959
Johnny begins playing clarinet at age five; switches to ukelele and then guitar a few years later. Performing with his younger brother Edgar as a duo in an Everly Brothers vein, the Winters win a talent contest and appear on local television shows.
The Winter brothers travel to New York to audition for Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Soon thereafter, they receive their first taste of rock ‘n’ roll. The Winter brothers gain regional notoriety with the singles “School Day Blues” and “You Know I Love You” released on Houston-based Dart Records. During this time Johnny begins frequenting all black blues clubs and over the years he sits in with such heroes as Muddy Waters, BB King, and Bobby Bland.
At age 14, Johnny forms his first band, Johnny and the Jammers, with Edgar on piano.
1962 – 1965
Johnny cuts singles as a leader and sideman for regional labels such as Kroc, Frolic, Diamond, Goldband, Jin, and Todd. In 1963, he moves to Chicago to check out the blues scene but winds up playing twist clubs. He returns to Beaumont and records “Eternally,” a pop flavored number with horn arrangements by Edgar. The single is licensed by Atlantic Records and becomes a hit in the Texas/Louisiana region.
1965 – 1967
Johnny gigs relentlessly throughout the deep South, both with his own band (alternately known as The Cyrstaliers and It and Them) and in a band with Edgar (Black Plague).
After two and a half years of barnstorming, Johnny settles in Houston.
Surveying the Texas music scene, Rolling Stone magazine dubs Johnny Winter the hottest item outside Janis Joplin. The article creates a flood of interest in The Progressive Blues Experiment, an album of straight blues recorded by Winter’s trio with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer uncle John Turner, released nationally by Imperial.
1968 – 1974
Signed to a much bally-hooed contract with Columbia Records, Johnny’s scorching 1968 debut album Johnny Winter leads a steady stream of hard-hitting blues-rock albums, including Second Winter (1969), Johnny Winter (1970), Still Alive and Well (1973) and Saints and Sinners (1974).
1974 – 1977
Winter joins CBS Records affiliate Blue Sky and releases John Dawson Winter III (1974). Other Blue Sky gems include Captured Live (1976) and his acclaimed 1977 album Nothin But The Blues, which features Winter accompanied by Muddy Waters’ band.
1977 – 1980
Fulfilling a dream, Winter begins working with blues guitarist Muddy Waters. During the ensuing years they collaborate on a series of classic Blue Sky albums. Winter produces and plays on Waters’ Grammy-winning comeback album Hard Again, Grammy-winning I’m Ready (1978), Grammy-winning Muddy Mississippi Waters Live (1979) and King Bee (1980).
1984 – 1986
Guitar Slinger, Winter’s Grammy-nominated 1984 Alligator Records debut, ends a four-year recording hiatus and ushers in a new creative groove. His Alligator label output continues with the Grammy-nominated Serious Business (1985), Third Degree (1986) and producing/performing on Harmonica Sonny Terry’s Think I Got The Blues.
The Winter of ‘88 on the MCA-distributed Voyager label shows Winter experimenting with a more contemporary flavored sound. Johnny is inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Winter returns to his blues roots with a vengeance. His Grammy-nominated Let Me In marks a powerful debut on the Pointblank label. This CD boasted guest appearances by Dr. John and Albert Collins. Produced by Dick Shurman, the disc featured the memorable “Illustrated Man,” a song by the Nashville team of Fred James and Mary-Ann Brandon chronicling Johnny?s well-tattooed torso. Other tracks include Winter?s own title tune and his equally stand-out “If You Got a Good Woman,” as well as Dr. John?s “You Lie Too Much” with the good doctor on ivories.
Brandishing a tongue-in-cheek title and wicked no-frills blues, Hey Where’s Your Brother?, Winter’s sophomore Pointblank release earns him another Grammy nomination.
Winter performs on Highway 61 Revisited, a highlight of Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary tribute released by Columbia Records on CD and video.
Live in New York City ‘97, Winter’s third Pointblank record, offers a scorching collection of concert favorites. The first album of new Winter material in five years. Live in NYC ‘97 was recorded at New York’s Bottom Line in April 1997. The songs were selected by members of Winter’s fan club. The entire album is intended as a gesture of gratitude by Winter to his many fans worldwide.
This Grammy nominated disc titled “I’m A Bluesman” released Virgin Records, adds to Johnny’s Texas-sized reputation. For this release, Johnny again paired with his longtime producer Dick Shurman (Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan), as well as Tom Hambridge (Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood). Backing him on this disc is his scorching road-tested touring band of ace harmonica man James Montgomery, guitarist Paul Nelson who co -penned the title track, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Wayne June, Guest appearances feature such friends as keyboardist Reese Wynans (from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s celebrated backing group Double Trouble) among others.
Johnny and Edgar Winter inducted into the Southeast Texas “Walk of Fame” at Ford Park in their home town of Beaumont, Texas for their contributions to music and career accomplishments.
W.C. Handy Blues Awards. Johnny Nominated for W.C. Handy award for “Second Winter Legacy Edition”.
2007 and Beyond
Beginning in 2007, a series of live Winter albums titled the Live Bootleg Series and a live DVD all entered the Top 10 on the 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 latest 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 and earned him a grammy for Best Blues Album, a BMA and hit #1 on the Billboard Blues charts.
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 2009Sweden 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 2 of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals. Two guitar instructional DVDs were produced by Cherry Lane Musicand the Hal Leonard Corporation. The Gibson Guitar Company released the signature Johnny Winter Firebird guitarin a ceremony in Nashville with Slash presenting.
Winter was professionally active until the time of his death near Zurich, Switzerland, on July 16, 2014 in his hotel room two days after his last performance, at the Cahors Blues Festival in France on July 14, at the age of 70.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. The film “Down and Dirty” – The Johnny Winter Story was released in 2016 to a whole new generation of adoring fans.
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.