July , 2014
By Kirk Lang
Johnny Winter: 1944 ~ 2014
Texas Blues Legend Passes Away In Switzerland, Dead At 70
Johnny Winter, one of the true icons of the blues/rock world, died Thursday, July 17, 2014, at the age of 70. Blues fans are truly in mourning, as his passing comes a relative short time after he rid his body of all addictions and was playing and singing better than he had in decades.
Born in Mississippi, raised in Beaumont, TX, Winter eventually settled in Easton, CT, the most unassuming municipality for a man rated among the greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine to call home. But then again, Winter has always been different. A legally blind albino (white hair and very pale skin), he could play blues with the best of them, and he did, from Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix, both of whom considered Winter a friend. In fact, Waters even referred to Winter as his "adopted son." Winter would revive Waters' career in the late 1970s after Chess Records folded, producing albums for the Blue Sky label that saw Muddy win multiple Grammys.
This writer had the chance to talk to Winter before one of his shows at New Haven's Toad Place in early 2013. Inspired by Chuck Berry, Winter first began learning guitar at 12 years old, on a Gibson ES-125 his great grandfather had bought him. "I said I've got to learn how to do this," said Winter, noting that the first Chuck Berry song he figured out was "Maybellene." An early local mentor was Clarence Garlow, a DJ for the Beaumont-based radio station KJET. Garlow was a versatile guitarist who had a song, "Bon Ton Roula," make the U.S. Billboard R&B chart in 1950. Winter spent five to six hours a day practicing his instrument.
In addition to Chuck Berry, he grew up fascinated by the music of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Little Walter. And when Winter was a mere teenager, King eventually relented and let a then unknown Winter take the stage at the Raven club in Beaumont. Winter said King was hesitant to say yes to Winter's request to play but the "King of the Blues" knew what it was like to be denied gigs because he was black, and so, he didn't want to say no to Winter just because he was as white as can be, in a club filled with black patrons.
"He thought we were the IRS cause he was having tax problems," said Winter. "He didn't know if I could play or not. I still can't believe he let me (play). I could have been horrible for all he knew." Over the years, Winter and King would get to jam together at various events, including Eric Clapton's annual Crossroads guitar festival, but unfortunately they never got to link up on an actual track. Winter was hoping to get King in the studio sometime in the future for an album.
In 1988, Winter became the first white musician named to the Blues Music Hall of Fame. As Winter considers himself a blues musician more than a rocker, that is the only induction it would seem he would need. However, while chatting on his tour bus last year, he did state he had one goal, and perhaps another. "I'd like to win a Grammy on my own," said Winter. "I won three with Muddy. Also, it'd be kind of nice to get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but that's not a big want." Asked if he had any real regrets regarding his career, Winter said without hesitation: "Heroin."
Winter produced three Muddy Waters albums (and also played on them), the first of which was titled Hard Again. Winter explained: "He said this music is so good, it makes my pee pee hard again." Winter said one of his goals when he was younger was to "get white people into blues music." He added, "You couldn't do it (play for white audiences) before the hippies started liking it." Asked last year what he would want people to say about him after he departs this world, Winter responded, "He was a good blues musician, a good blues player. That's all I want."