Friday, July 18, 2014

Godspeed Johnny Winter

Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter died 16 July 2014 at the age of 70. He had emphysema and had recently had pneumonia. That having been said, a cause of death has not yet been established.

Johnny Winter was born on 23 February 1944 in Beaumont, Texas Along with his younger brother Edgar Winter (who would go onto his own successful career in rock music), Johnny Winter took music lessons from a young age. When Johnny Winter was ten years old the two brothers performed with ukuleles in a local talent contest. The contest earned them an audition with Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour. They did not pass the audition.

Johnny Winter began playing clubs in the Beaumont, Texas region when he was in his teens. When he was only fifteen years old he recorded his first song "School Day Blues", along with his band Johnny and the Jammers, on a regional label. He attended Lamar State College in Beaumont for two years before moving to Chicago to pursue a career as a blues musician. He returned to Texas only a few months later. He then started performing at local clubs again. When  Roy Head and the Traits were in the Beaumont area he would sometimes play with them. In 1967 he even recorded a single ( "Tramp" backed with "Parchman Farm") with the Traits.

It was in 1968 that he was mentioned in a Rolling Stone article on the Texas music scene. That same year he released his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, on the Sonobeat label. It was the following year, in 1969, that he signed with Columbia Records. His first album, Johnny Winter, was released later in the year. It peaked at #24 on the Billboard albums chart. It was followed in 1969 by his second album, Second Winter. It was also in 1969 that Johnny Winter performed at Woodstock, as well as various other music festivals. He formed a band with what was left of The McCoys called simply "Johnny Winter And". Johnny Winter And released a 1970 self titled studio album, followed by a live album in 1971.

In the early Seventies Johnny Winter's career stalled as he struggled with heroin addiction. Eventually he sought treatment for the addiction and returned to recording with the album Still Alive and Well in 1973. It proved to be the most successful studio album of his career, reaching #22 on the Billboard chart. The Seventies proved to be his most successful period.  His fifth album for Columbia, Saints and Sinners (released in 1974), went to #42 on the Billboard chart, while his sixth album for Columbia, John Dawson Winter III (also released in 1974) went to #78. His next few albums did not fare as well. In 1977 Nothin' but the Blues only went to #146.  In 1978 White, Hot and Blue only went to #141. In 1980 Raisin' Cain did not even chart.

The early Eighties would see Johnny Winter with a new label, the independent blues label Alligator Records. His next three albums, Guitar Slinger (1984), Serious Business (1985), and Third Degree (1986), were all released on that label. In 1988 he released one album recorded for MCA, Winter of '88. With the Nineties Mr. Winter's output slowed down. He released two albums on Virgin subsidiary Point Blank (Let Me In and Hey, Where's Your Brother, both in 1992) and one album on Virgin Records itself (I'm a Bluesman in 2004). In 2011 he released the album Roots on the Megaforce label. His final studio album, Step Back, is due to be released on 2 September 2014 on Megaforce.

Starting with Live Johnny Winter And in 1971, Johnny Winter released several live albums throughout the years. In addition to Woodstock in 1969, Johnny Winter performed at several music festivals throughout the years, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and others. He also served as a producer on Muddy Waters' albums Hard Again (1977), I'm Ready (1978), and King Bee (1980).

There can be little doubt that Johnny Winter was one of the greatest blues guitarists of the late 20th Century. He was a virtuoso when it came to the guitar. He could play incredibly fast, playing the guitar with a speed matched only by a few in the late Sixties and early Seventies. At the same time, however, there was a richness, an emotiveness to his music. Indeed, unlike many white blues artists, the music of Johnny Winter actually sounded as if it could have been recorded by African American blues musicians earlier in the century. In the end there was a sincerity and truthfulness to Johnny Winter's music that was sometimes lacking in that of his contemporaries. It is perhaps for this as much as his virtuosity with the guitar that he will perhaps be remembered.

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