The Texan gunslinger

By Sergio Ariza

On December 13, 1968, Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper gave a concert at the Fillmore East in New York. They had a record among the bestsellers, Super Session, and Bloomfield was considered, rightly so, to be the best white blues guitarist in the USA, but he was a nice guy, and was always more attentive to the new talented guitarists, just 2 months before he had given one a young Carlos Santana one of his first opportunities , so on this day he decided to invite a Texan guitarist that had impressed him a lot. They didn’t rehearse, Kooper hadn’t even met the guy personally, but Bloomfield was set on jamming with him, despite a 40º fever. On the second song, he took the mike and introduced a “guy who plays fucking great”. Who came on stage was a stranger, looking like a wild gunslinger, dressed completely in black which contrasted with his pale skin and an almost white long mane. Bloomfield begins the countdown to a slow Chicago blues riff and when the rhythm sections joins in, he launches into a heartfelt solo, when he finished, the gunslinger took the mike and sang the first verse of It’s My Own Fault by B.B. King. None of the thousands of people who filled the room could believe their ears , that powerful bluesman’s voice coming out of that fragile pale body. But the Texan albino hadn’t played his best card just yet, so when he started to play the guitar more than one jaw in the crowd dropped. By the time they had finished the show, some executives at Columbia Records, which released Super Session, were about to make an offer , which, just like Vito Corleone’s, couldn’t refuse, . And the big question on everyone’s mind was: Where did you find this guy?

John Dawson Winter III was born in Beaumont Texas on 23rd of February, 1944, and had been playing professionally since he was 15, in ‘59 he recorded his first single (School Day Blues, inspired by his idol Chuck Berry) under the name Johnny & The Jammers. However his love for original rock & roll went very well with his obsession for the electric blues by folks like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and B.B. King. It was precisely  King that he had  some great episodes with during  his learning stage. In 1962, alongside his brother Edgar (also albino) and two other members of his band went to see King live. They were the only whites in the room, and despite Texas being a segregated state at the time, Winter and his band had made a name for themselves and were allowed in. Johnny wasn’t daunted and decided to get up on stage to play but King was reluctant. After some coaxing by some  for the master to let him play, King called him onstage and gave him his guitar. Minutes later the whole venue was applauding. Winter wasn’t yet 17 and he had left unscathed after playing with the King, so it’s quite normal that 6 years of experience later, he didn’t flinch when Bloomfield gave him a shot. 

But before getting there, Winter was still making good money on a career in Texas and the rest of the south, recording as the leader of his own groups ( with names like The Crystaliers, It and Them and Black Plaque, usually with his younger brother Edgar) or as a session player (with people like Roy Head and the Traits). In 1968, together with bassman Tommy Shannon (who later played with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble) and drummer John Turner , The Progressive Blues Experiment,  he recorded his first record,  which was released across the country by Imperial. It included his version of It’s My Own Fault (BB King) that was going to bring fame and Tribute to Muddy where he pays his respects to the great Muddy Waters, without knowing that in a few years the father of Chicago blues himself would take him under his wing, like a son. The record wasn’t a success, but got the experts’ attention. On December 17 Rolling Stone magazine published an article on the Texas scene where they praised him to the max, calling him “ the hottest thing to ever come out of there, except for Janis Joplin”. Around the same time he signed Steve Paul as manager and they went to New York to play in his club, The Scene, a place where various rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison or Joplin herself, would often go. But it was his meeting Bloomfield that would be his big break. 

The concert was on Friday the 13th of December, and Winter signed with Columbia on Monday the 16th, and $600,000 up front, breaking the previous record reached by Jimmy Page a short while before, when he signed with his new group Led Zeppelin, for an up-front $200,000 at Atlantic. Overnight Winter went from being practically unknown to becoming the new white hope of blues/rock. He wouldn’t let them down and 1969 would be the most important year of his career. 

From the get-go his presence at The Scene made him a regular in jam sessions set up by Hendrix. Winter was amazed by the left-handed guitarist and even got to go to the recording studio with him where they recorded a demo on May 9, 1969, The Things That I Used to Do where he lets rip on the slide.  His way of playing slide (with a piece of drainpipe) would become one of the traits of his identity. In April, 1969 he released Johnny Winter, his first album at Columbia, which opens with one of his best songs I’m Yours & I’m Hers, where he shows off his playing style and a much more rock sound than usual, although on this record he didn’t yet use his iconic Firebird but a 6-string ‘66 Fender XII . He also had time to play a magnificent rural blues on acoustic with his own Dallas. Another treat on this album is Be Careful With a Fool, by B.B. King. It’s one of the greatest blues/rock albums in the decade, and Winter himself thinks it’s his best.

Suddenly Winter was the new sensation, through his friendship with Hendrix he got together with Joplin, and got her to come on stage with him (the two ‘hottest’ Texans), in July the Rolling Stones opened a tribute concert to Brian Jones in Hyde Park playing I’m Yours & I’m Hers, and in August of the same year Winter would play at the mythic rock festival in Woodstock, the night of  the 17th to the morning of the  18th. By that time, the trio, formed by Shannon and Turner, added his brother Edgar on keyboards, sax, and vocals. At Woodstock he gave an amazing performance with an incredible solo in Mean Town Blues and closed with Johnny B. Goode, a song that would appear on his next record. The fact that his manager decided not to include a part of his show in the movie always hit a nerve with him. 

The year ended with a bang with the release of Second Winter, possibly his best studio work, where his passion for 50’s rock & roll and the blues would go hand in hand to produce  a magical style. His most remembered song is his cover of Dylan’s Highway 61, a song originally played by Bloomfield, where he’s back and outstanding on slide. The demand for Winter was so big that his old work began to flood the market with his pre-Columbia recordings.

In 1970 his Brother Edgar started his own solo career and his band broke up. But Winter saw an opportunity in this and formed a new band with what was left  of the McCoys, a group that enjoyed enormous success in 1964 with Hang On Snoopy. On it was the guitarist Rick Derringer who would give him  one of his most emblematic songs, Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, which would appear on the next record Johnny Winter And. It’s the most ‘rock’ record  of his career, almost a hard rock record with a blues feeling, as you can see on another one of the greats written by Winter, Guess I’ll Go Away. The following year,  at the commercial peak of his career, he put out Johnny Winter and Live, with yet one more version of It’s My Own fault and a wink to the Rolling Stones with Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It was on this tour when he started using the Firebird as his main axe, especially, a Firebird V from ‘63. Winter had found the guitar that would be with him the rest of his run, but his golden age was coming to an end. His heroin addiction put him aside  in his finest moment. 

He came back in 1973 with Still Alive and Well, a very fitting title indeed. Winter had recuperated and was still playing spectacularly, but he would never have the same magic as in those early years. Yet, the happiest moment of his career was still to come. In 1977 Chess Records folded, which left Muddy Waters without a label. Winter had always recognised Waters as his biggest idol and just like that decided to sign him on his own new label, Blue Sky Records. That’s where he produced the marvelous Hard Again, where he also plays guitar, a job among the best discography of the legendary bluesman. Together they would record 2 more studio records and one live. Waters would end up calling him his son.

Winter kept playing and recording non-stop all through the 80s, 90s, and 2000, although his fragile health and past excesses led to him having to play seated, and he had trouble with digitisation technology. Still, every time he put that piece of drainpipe on his finger and started to play his Firebird, anyone present knew that he was one of the chosen. On his last studio record, there are also appearances by Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Ben Harper, and Joe Perry, paying tribute to Winter who died on July 16, 2014. The gunslinger who never shied away from a duel, little wonder then, his career took off with a memorable night with Mike Bloomfield.   

(Images: ©CordonPress)