The “Texas Tornado” Johnny Winter did to rock/blues what bees do to honey; make it dripping delicious. In a career that started in 1968, releasing almost twenty studio albums, and nine live copies, he played up until the very end of his life, in 2014, on tour in Zurich, where he was found dead in his hotel room, it was thought to have been a medical accident.
Today we take a look at some of what we think was his best solo work on songs that sizzle and crack, material that puts him shoulder to shoulder with the elites like Tony Iommi, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, and Eddie Van Halen to name just a few...la crème de la crème.
Let’s kick off events with the classic Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo, written by Rick Derringer, who was in the band, and appears on the Johnny Winter And album (1970). It became standard radio play throughout the 70s and still howls across the airwaves today. It was one of Winter’s first shots at rock, (being a Texas bluesman thus far). As told by Derringer, “The first song I wrote for Johnny was Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. Rock and Roll to satisfy the rock ‘n’ roll that I was supposed to be bringing to the picture, and Hoochie Koo to satisfy the king of blues sensibility that Johnny was supposed to maintain. And it worked out great.” Derringer also did his own version along with a host of other bands; the song has been covered by Van Halen, Suzi Quatro, Canadian rockers Bootsauce, Nashville Pussy, and the Japanese band Superfly.
Not unlike what Jimi Hendrix did to Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, (made it his own), Winter brings the Beaumont Texas (his hometown) blues punch to another of Dylan’s masterpieces: Highway 61 Revisited. Here the throbbing cadence behind incendiary riffs and barking vocals mix to blues/rock perfection, so delicious that Dylan himself adapted the style for his live performances.
On one of his early albums Saints and Sinners, (1974, Columbia) he flashes his Gibson Firebird V on several numbers including Bad Luck Situation, which contains some of his finest rhythm riffs and a glorious solo to enhance his powerful voice. Another slower rock/pop track is Hurts So Bad, as well as Dirty, a dusty soulful slide blues offering, with the sweet flute floating in the back contrasting with his raunchy voice singing, “I’m gonna make a change for the better baby, I’m gonna kill my goddamn wife.”
As with many astounding guitarists, he struggled to find a fit between his emotional and technical prowess, but at the end of the day, he could spray notes down like rain on the hot Texas black-top. His sizzling fingerwork rode the guitar like a champ. Some clear examples of this are on pieces like I’m Yours and I’m Hers, with Winter on lead and slide guitar, Tommy Shannon on bass, and drummer Uncle John Turner keeping the beat. It opens on a solo bass line then Winter ‘slides’ in and puts his ax to work on the overdubbing that beautifully serves the duelling guitar feature of the song.
Winter covered (and improved) numerous numbers by the Rolling Stones, like the razor-sharp Let it Bleed, a much dirtier Stray Cat Blues, and Keith Richards’ Silver Train. However, it was his take of Jumpin’ Jack Flash that caught them all by surprise, transforming the familiar running riff into one of his most famous solos to date.
On his 1977 release Nothin’ But the Blues, he teams up with Muddy Waters and his band: comprising guitarist Bob Margolin, harp wizard James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins on piano and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. It was a tribute to one of his idols, he explains, “I’d like to dedicate this album to all the people who enjoy my kind of blues and especially to Muddy Waters for giving me the inspiration to do it and for giving the world a lifetime of great music.” The package contains traditional Chicago blues style numbers, featuring Tired of Tryin’, Walkin’ Thru the Park, and Drinkin’ Blues, in set that just drips the blues, with Cotton’s howling harp head to head with Winter’s greasy slide and solo work. It won him a Grammy in 1977. (one for the collection)
For some good ‘ol Texas-style string pulling, check out 1986’s Third Degree, housing a cover of J.B. Lenoir’s Mojo Boogie which sizzles and stews behind Winter’s wailing slide and relentless groove from the rhythm section.
In 2014 Legacy Records released True to the Blues, an anthology of Winter’s material, on a 4CD selection of some of most cherished songs spanning over 6 decades. It includes some tasty performances such as the punchy Illustrated Man (..”got tattoos everywhere”) from 1991’s Let Me In, the funky rocker Hard Way from 1992’s Where’s Your Brother, and a cover of Robert Johnson’s gem Dust My Broom, made pretty with Derek Trucks’ wicked riffs and Winter’s slippery slide work.
John Dawson Winter III first picked up a guitar at 11, learned to play note for note his rock & roll heroes like Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, then soon fell in love with the Chicago blues vibes of Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, and the pre-war sounds of gents like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, together with the Brit invasion pressed the artist into a new outlook, “I mixed all that stuff up, I would learn how to play a record note-for-note. After I got the feel of what was going on, I just took what I heard and assimilated it, and it would come out part mine and part everybody else’s.” All performed with his warehouse of instruments, among them his Gibson ES-125, a 1966 Fender Mustang, a twin-pickup Epiphone solid body, and also his stellar acoustic slide work on National resonator guitars.
Winter’s influence among young guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Warren Haynes hit like a tidal wave, trying to catch some of the Texas Tornado in a bottle, and the world is better for it.
As Rolling Stone magazine wrote after his passing, “Winter was one of the first blues/rock guitar virtuosos, releasing a string of popular and fiery albums in the late 60s and early 70s, becoming an arena-level concert draw in the process…[he] made an iconic life for himself by playing the blues.”
Johnny Winter was and still is a formidable force in the rock/blues world today. Young guitar players the world over have this maestro to aspire to, a man who broke racial barriers and did what he did best: rock our world.