Michael Corcoran, the noted Texas music critic, tells a story about Johnny Winter, who died Wednesday. In 1968, Winter was recording for local labels and playing regular gigs at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company. “Winter and his rhythm section of Uncle John Turner and Tommy Shannon were to open for the Muddy Waters Band for two nights,” Corcoran writes. “Muddy and band drove all day to get to the Vulcan and arrived just as their headlining set was to start.
“They performed a rather perfunctory hour and change set, which meant it was only about 11:15 p.m. so Winter played a set after Muddy, who was in his dressing room and came out to hear that amazing blues guitar playing. Muddy called a friend on the payphone, held it out for a minute of Johnny’s music, and got back on the line. ‘He white!’ Muddy exclaimed. ‘He REALLY white!’”
Johnny Winter and his brother Edgar were both born albino—without pigmentation in their eyes or hair, a condition that caused them medical and social problems throughout their lives. “Most people in Texas didn’t like black people because they were too dark,” Johnny told journalist Ted Drozdowski, “and they didn’t like me because I was too white. I got that even when I was 12 and started playing guitar.” The albino condition exaggerated the gap that has always existed between the African-American originators of the blues and their European-American and English admirers.
Winter’s ability to cross that divide is reason enough to stop and contemplate his passing. He would eventually produce and play on the four best albums of Muddy Waters’ post-Chess Records career. Three of those won Grammy Awards, as did Nothin’ but the Blues, which featured Winter fronting the Waters Band. Waters, who had been so surprised by strange-looking 24-year-old beanpole with the long, straight snowy hair, came to embrace him.
It wasn’t because Winter was a great singer or songwriter—he was neither. “I’m not a good writer,” he told me in 2004. “Rather than force it, I try to rely on my strengths.” Waters liked him because Winter grasped the truth that so many rock ‘n’ roll guitarists who played the blues never understood: It’s not enough to play fast and wild; you’ve got to play in the groove at the same time.
Listen, for example, to the version of B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool” on his first major-label album, 1969’s Johnny Winter. The guitarist produces a gushing geyser of notes, but the phrasing is shaped so the accents fall on the one of each measure in time with the rhythm section of bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Uncle John Turner and pianist Edgar Winter. The music was working at both ends of the spinal cord: At the same time the solos were blowing your mind, they were also moving your hips. It was that combination that eluded most blues-rock musicians and made Winter special.
The Winter brothers grew up Beaumont, Texas, which boasted a lively country music scene. But when the teenagers heard Muddy Waters’ “She’s 19 Years Old” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Somebody Walking in My Home” on the radio, they were hooked on the blues. Within a few years they were among the few white people at the Raven, a cavernous nightclub that hosted touring acts such as B.B. King, Albert King and John Lee Hooker.
“In those days,” Winter said, “you could turn on the black AM radio stations and hear the new singles by Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, Bobby Bland, Muddy Waters, Junior Parker, everybody. Very few kids my age were listening to the blues, but for some reason I loved it; it just turned me on. There wasn’t much else to do in Beaumont but play music, so that’s what I started to do. From the beginning, I always included Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf songs in my set.”
When it did a story on the hippie-rock scene in Texas in 1968, Rolling Stone highlighted two East Texas acts: Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. Suddenly the young guitarist was pulled out of the local scene to play at Manhattan’s The Scene and the Fillmore East as several labels bid for his services. Columbia won the battle with a record-setting $600,000 advance.
“I really like those early Columbia albums,” Winter said in 2004. “I think I did a good job on them. When that first band broke up and I started working with the McCoys, I started doing more rock ‘n’ roll and rock-blues. I didn’t like doing it, because I liked regular blues better, but there just wasn’t a market for the blues then. To mix rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, you really have to love the blues rather than just sticking the blues in there without knowing what you’re doing.”
While he wrestled with finding the right proportions of rock and blues, commerce and art, Winter developed a nasty heroin habit. By 1977, both he and Waters were down on their luck. It had been three years since Winter’s last studio album, and Chess Records had closed shop, leaving Waters without a label.
Winter’s manager Steve Paul, who also ran Blue Sky Records, signed Waters and put him the studio with Winter as guitarist/producer. Winter was determined to strip away all the wah-wah pedals, horn sections and British guests that had marred Waters’ recent albums and go back to basics. Winter even brought harmonica whiz James Cotton back into the fold.
“As a producer,” Winter remembered in 2004, “I wasn’t trying to add something so much as I was trying to stay out of the way. I got the sounds right, made sure everything was working and then just let Muddy be Muddy. He already had the songs picked out. Even at 62, Muddy was a real vibrant guy. There’s something about the blues that enables people to keep going strong as they get older.”
Winter continued to play the blues, recording for such labels as Alligator, Point Blank and Virgin. His tremendous influence on the blues-rock bands who followed him is perhaps best exemplified by his bassist Tommy Shannon, who went on to anchor such groups as Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. But few of his followers were able to combine improvisation and rhythm the way Winter did.
“The blues just aren’t as good as they were when I was a teenager,” he told me in 2004. “There’s not as much soul in it. The guys playing it aren’t as good, and the new songs aren’t as good as the old stuff. The fact that it’s not played on black radio has something to do with it; I miss the old black radio stations.”