Johnny Winter: The Blues, Down To The Roots
An Exclusive Interview With Legendary Johnny Winter & Bandmate Paul Nelson
Interview By Vinny Cecolini
All Photos Courtesy of www.JohnnyWinter.net
On paper, Johnny Winter's upbringing was typical of many successful blues artists. Born John Dawson Winter III in Leland, Mississippi on February 23, 1944, Johnny's family relocated to Beaumont, Texas while he was still an infant. His home was always filled with music. His multi-instrumentalist father played in a variety of bands; his mother played classical piano. But it was the arrival of his brother Edgar two years later, that provide Johnny with a musical sidekick.
At the ripe old age of six, Johnny and Edgar picked up ukuleles and sang Everly Brothers songs. A few years later, the two were playing in rock and roll bands. Eventually, their musical tastes changed. Johnny embraced traditional blues and the guitar. Edgar became a jazz and rock enthusiast, picking up a variety of instruments, including the keyboards and the alto saxophone.
It sounds like the setup for an inappropriate joke - two albinos walk into an all-black blues club.
Not only did it happen, the scenario became part of music lore. Seventeen-year old guitar prodigy John Dawson Winter III and his younger brother Edgar ventured into the Beaumont, Texas club called The Raven to see B.B. King. The ballsy teen somehow convinced King to let him on stage to jam. John was so good, he received a standing ovation. A few years later, after being declared "The Next Hendrix" by Rolling Stone Magazine, he gained further attention with his head-turning set at Woodstock. Though he never quite became the next Hendrix, Winter would spend the next 40 years recording classic blues records, collaborating with his heroes, touring the world and cementing his status as a living musical legend. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988.
Like his boyhood idols, Winter has battled personal demons, which has taken a toll on his body, but not his passion for playing the blues. Now clean, sober and healthier than he has been in decades, the guitarist is now paying tribute to his heroes by covering the songs that shaped him as a musician. Roots, the first installment in what the musician hopes will be an ongoing series of disks, features the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Gatemouth Brown and Elmore James, among others. Each song also features guests from a variety of musical genres including Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi and Vince Gill. Brother Edgar contributed sax to the track, "Honky Tonk". Produced by Winter's band mate, producer, manager and confidant Paul Nelson, Roots has an intentionally raw sound that suggests it was recorded decades ago.
"You will never hear a Johnny Winter record that is overproduced," said Edgar. "He won't play a song more than two or three times while recording it. If it doesn't work, he'll move onto something else."
Winter is also releasing a series of live bootleg recordings that feature not only his hits, but a wide variety of cover versions. To this day, the legendary guitarist is still a man of few words. He prefers his music do the talking for him. Even at his most animated, Johnny Winter's responses to questions are short and to the point. Thankfully, Paul Nelson offered to prod his friend along during an introspective look at the life and times of John Dawson Winter III.
JAM: With another Rock 'n Blues Festival under your belt, the question beckons: Do you consider yourself more blues or rock?
Johnny Winter: Certainly more blues. I've only done two or three real rock and roll songs.
JAM: The Rock 'n' Blues Festival was previous called Hippiefest. Do you consider yourself a hippie?
Winter: Oh yeah, I'm still a hippie (laughing). There's not too many of us left.
JAM: What memory from your Woodstock performance resonates?
Winter: That is was rainy and muddy, and not one act knew exactly when they were going on. It was really a mess; very disorganized, but it was also the greatest musical festival ever. It was a lot of fun and we were lucky. It stopped raining when it was time for us to go on.
JAM: How did you feel about headlining the recent edition of the Rock 'n' Blues Festival, a tour that included such fellow legends as Savoy Brown's Kim Simmonds, Mountain's Leslie West and two people you've worked with throughout the years, brother Edgar and guitarist Rick Derringer?
Winter: We had sets that provided time for jam sessions with the other artists, but I still wish our sets were longer.
JAM: What was it like touring with your brother after all these years? Did you engage in some friendly on-stage competition?
Winter: No, not at all. We've played together for years.
JAM: Not even in a playful way?
Winter: Nah. Whenever Edgar played in my band, he was always content with staying in the background.
JAM: Your brother is so famous for playing the keyboards; many people fail to realize just how talented a sax player he is.
Winter: He can play just about any instrument.
JAM: Why did you both head in different musical directions?
Winter: He listened to the blues records, but he never was a big fan. He can certainly play it, but he'd rather play jazz. He really liked jazz, but he realized early on that he couldn't make money doing it. If he could have, I think he would have just been purely a jazz player.
JAM: What do you think about blues greats like BB King, who are still going strong today?
Winter: He's been around forever and I hope he goes on forever.
JAM: Is the legend true that you jumped up on stage to play guitar with him when you were just 17 years old?
Winter: That definitely is true. He didn't know if I could play or not and I showed him. I got a standing ovation for it. It was the first time I had ever played the blues in front of a black audience. I, my brother and a couple of our band mates were the only whites in the audience.
JAM: How difficult was it producing the '70s recordings of your childhood hero, Muddy Waters?
Winter: Muddy was wonderful, and working with him was a dream come true. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened for me. I loved him and his music since I was 12 or 13.
JAM: Muddy and his generation of blues legends were not truly recognized until after they passed.
Winter: Sadly, he enjoyed his greatest success during the last three or four years of his life.
JAM: There is the famous story of The Stones witnessing Muddy Waters painting the ceiling when they visited Chess studios.
Winter (laughing): Keith Richards saw that. No one else, not even Muddy, did. Muddy would have never gotten his clothes messed up painting.
JAM: Â I discovered the blues through your music as well as through The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.
Winter: A lot of those English guys felt like they could play the blues. And I respect them a lot.
JAM: The blues seems to be a musical genre that never really has gotten its due. Any theories on to why that is?
Winter: The blues has never been as popular, or recognized as it should be, and it never will. Luckily, there are enough people out in this world that enjoy it so that I can tour and record. But it would certainly be nice if it was a lot bigger.
JAM: The music industry as a whole has suffered in recent years.
Winter: Music sucks. There is nothing new that I like. Most new music is simply no good. When I am off of the road, I watch Saturday Night Live. The musical acts they have on there are just not any good. I guess I just don't like modern music. I never listen to it.
JAM: Have you always had the same musical preference?
Winter: During the '50s, when rock and roll was the new music, I loved it. If it wasn't for the blues, there would have never have been rock and roll.
JAM: Ironically, your current record label, Megaforce, was formed to release Metallica's debut, Kill 'Em All.
Winter: The label is doing a good job, though it is kind of weird to be on what was originally a heavy metal label. But they've changed their identity and now have Willie Nelson and The Black Crowes, among others. But I am the only blues act on the label which suits me fine.
JAM: What inspired you to record Roots?
Winter: Paul Nelson suggested I record the songs that inspired me. I thought it was a great idea.
Paul Nelson: For years, record companies pushed Johnny to go pop or rock. I thought the time was right to go this direction. I said to Johnny, "Let's just do what everyone told you not to do. Let's do an entire CD of traditional songs, but let's put a little twist on it. Let's do one song by each artist that influenced you while you were growing up, so that people will know what makes you tick."
Winter: There were thousands I could have chosen, but I picked the songs I wanted included on this disc in 15 minutes.
Nelson: When the guest artists received their versions of the songs they would contribute to, I didn't include Johnny's solos. I didn't want them mimicking what he had done. I wanted them to feel like they were playing alone. I told them to play over the entire thing and I'll work with it in the studio. Then I blended what they did with what Johnny did.
JAM: How did you choose the guest artists that appear on Roots?
Winter: Paul suggested them. I had worked with everyone before except for Blues Travelers' John Popper.
JAM: Popper is among the best harmonica players in the world.
Nelson: How many harmonica players went to Julliard music school?
Winter: I love his playing. Few mouth harp players have such an identifiable sound. That's why we wanted him for "Last Night."
JAM: The Roots project is the blues equivalent of Frank Sinatra's Duets.
Nelson: Speaking of duets, Susan Tedeschi and Johnny's duet on "Bright Lights, Big City" is simply amazing. And she contributed a guitar solo as well.
JAM: Too bad she couldn't tour with Johnny.
Nelson: We often run into Susan and her band on the road. We just played a show with Sonny Langdreth (who plays guitar on the Roots track "T-Bone Shuffle") in Japan and then played a show with Warren Haynes (who appears on "Done Somebody Wrong") in France. The performances at Clapton's "Crossroads" concert also provided a lot of jamming opportunities.
JAM: One surprise was country superstar Vince Gill. I did not know he was such a great guitarist.
Nelson: Getting Vince was the icing on the cake for the record.
Winter: He did an incredible job on our cover of "Maybelline." The arrangement of the song is country in structure, but it's bluesy too.
Nelson: When Chuck Berry released the original, it was considered a country tune. Vince was one of the people we met at the Crossroads concert. I started taking phone numbers and once the Roots project came about, I started making calls. Within two weeks, I had grabbed everyone. There was a lot of work involved, but it was certainly worth it.
JAM: Johnny, Paul certainly wears a lot hats within your organization.
Winter: He certainly does a lot of stuff. He's been with me for about a dozen years and he is indispensable.
Nelson: It just happened. I started out as the guitarist. Now I'm the producer, which I was totally honored to become. I'm also guiding his career and I recently received an award for managing him, which I had no idea I'd be receiving. My favorite thing, however, is playing guitar.
JAM: Roots certainly does not sound overproduced.
Winter: I hate clean blues recordings.
Nelson: We recorded to analog. I went out and got '70s outboard gear to capture the right sound and I blended the music to make it sound as if everyone was in the studio together. Knowing that Johnny had handed me the baton to produce the record made me determined to do the right thing.
I hate fringe records, so I told everyone involved that they weren't coming to help Johnny Winter; they were coming to play. Once Johnny picked the songs he wanted to included, I told the band to learn the originals so we could communicate better with him. After that process, then we went to Johnny to "winterize" the music. When he said, "I used to love this when I was 12," we could respond, "Yes, that riff is great."
JAM: What did you learn from this whole process Paul?
Nelson: We learned that less is more. Learning these blues numbers that Johnny wanted to record improved us as musicians and improved our live show. It gave us the impetus to look for that authentic sound. We were unlike a lot of bands that believe that they can just breeze through and play the blues. You really have to learn and feel the blues. It was important, because when we submitted our music to these guest musicians, they had no choice but to be tight.
JAM: It extended all the way down to the recording equipment you used as well.
Nelson: I knew the record would be released on vinyl. That's why we also used older instruments and amps, some of which were the size of a clock radio. Basically, I did everything and anything to capture that authentic sound. I knew that when Johnny heard what we were creating, it would turn him on. When we recorded "Honky Tonk," even Edgar said it sounded the same as when the brothers played the song when they were in high school. We intentionally sequenced the tracks on the disc so there are no two mouth harp songs in a row and no two slide-guitar songs in row. Everything was thought out so that the album flows like one of those classic CDs that you can put on in a car or party and just let it play. And it is the same formula that we're going to use on the next record.
JAM: The next record?
Nelson: We're already discussing Roots, Part Two. Billy Gibbons is on board. Clapton wanted to be part of this album, but he was on tour at the time. I'm sure he'll be a part of the second one. Gregg Allman, Mark Knopfler, Dr. John and Eric Johnson, who we couldn't fit on the first record, will also be a part of the second record. This could be an on-going thing for us, and we're pretty psyched, because there are a lot of songs to choose from and a lot of artists who want to be a part of the recordings. No one has refused.
JAM: Roots concludes with a great version of Ray Charles' "Come Back Baby."
Nelson: You have to listen to the music over and over again. There are a lot of cool things hidden throughout the track. Mike DiMeo, the keyboardist, really wasn't feeling his part in the studio. So I told him to hold on for a second. I ran in to the studio with a pair of dark sunglasses. Mike put them on, started swaying back and forth then unleashed his inner Ray Charles. He nailed "Come Back Baby" perfectly on the very next take. There were a lot of very cool, very funny moments during the recording.
JAM: Did you film the sessions?
Nelson: Sadly, no. But we are planning to do it in the future.
JAM: How difficult was it to give direction to so many big names?
Nelson: During the recording process, I often had to be forceful. I had to get it done. I had to talk with artists I idolized, but I couldn't be star struck. I had too much work to do. I had to think of Johnny. I told all of them one by one, "I need this, this and this."
JAM: Egos were checked at the door.
Nelson: I think they respected the authority. They respect the fact that I wouldn't let them sound bad either. Boy, did we work. I will tell you that all of the vocals on Roots were captured in one take. After Johnny was done for instance, he said, "Now I'm going to back to watching television."
JAM: Johnny recently completed the Rock 'n' Blues Festival, which included a variety of fellow blues and rock legends, including Leslie West.
Nelson: I booked a gig with Leslie a while back to find out how he got off of Methadone, so I could help Johnny. Once I talked with Leslie in private, I knew I could get Johnny off of it. Leslie was able to wean himself off the stuff with help of his doctor. I needed to know what the physical effects were and what to look for. I started working on getting Johnny off of that crap. Today, Johnny is totally clean - no drinking, smoking or drugs. It has made a huge difference in life. His voice in the studio has never been better. His playing has improved and during shows, he is even standing during some songs, which he hadn't done in nearly 15 years. Our performance last year on David Letterman was it. It really helped Johnny. It showed that he was healthy and viable and people should not miss out on a chance to experience a living Hendrix. There are only three blues guitar legends left - B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Johnny.
JAM: Let's hope he stays healthy. I'm sure he still has a lot of great music to create.
Nelson: He is the only musician I know who seems to get younger as he gets older. Johnny was the youngest of that generation of blues guitarists. When he worked with Muddy Waters during the '70s, he was more than 20 years younger.
JAM: For a while there, it wasn't looking good for Edgar's older brother.
Nelson: Johnny consumed twice the amount of stuff that the other notorious musical artists who fell victim to. It's a miracle he is still around and creating great music. His old management was bad.
JAM: He aspired to be like his idols and paid the price for it.
Nelson: He constantly reads about his musical heroes, but he would never pick up a book about an artist with a dull life. The artist had to drink, womanize and do all of this stuff. Those were the cool things to do when Johnny was growing up. Then all of a sudden Johnny and his musical peers were like those guys and it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.
Johnny Winter: 1944 ~ 2014
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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. Read Review »
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Johnny Winter: The Blues, Down To The Roots
An Exclusive Interview With Legendary Johnny Winter & Bandmate Paul Nelson
On paper, Johnny Winter's upbringing was typical of many successful blues artists. Born John Dawson Winter III in Leland, Mississippi on February 23, 1944, Johnny's family relocated to Beaumont, Texas while he was still an infant. His home was always filled with music. His multi-instrumentalist father played in a variety of bands; his mother played classical piano. But it was the arrival of his brother Edgar two years later, that provide Johnny with a musical sidekick. Read Article »
By Vinny Cecolini