Looking Back At Johnny Winter and ‘I’m a Bluesman’ Reissue

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One of the important comeback albums in blues-rock this century has just been reissued in the UK by a label devoted to his catalogue. Johnny Winter’s I’m A Bluesman (Talking Elephant Records TECD334), first released by Virgin/EMI in 2004 to acclaim (one of seven Grammy nominations in his career), the title was a sharp riposte to an interviewer: ‘I’m not a rock ‘n’ roller…’. Winter’s fame in the late ’60s was in the rock world, but his heart was in the blues from childhood in spite of the media’s own image-making. An icon in America, his career as a torch-bearer of its tradition is interesting.

johnnywinter2He had his own stand-alone style musically (he never learned to read music because didn’t want to copy or trust what others wrote) and visually. A gaunt, lanky albino festooned with tattoos accentuated by his pale skin, a card-playing, cigarillo-smoking, bourbon-drinking Stetson-wearer, he had alcohol and BBQ sauce brands named after him. One reviewer likened him to a ‘pagan apparition’, a nice variation on the hackneyed ‘cool dude’ epithet. Albino like his well-known younger brother Edgar (of the hit Frankenstein fame), he felt well-suited among a disadvantaged minority like those he paid tribute to live and in the studio—an international ambassador respected by other giants among white blues (what a great surname for it!). Never a prolific songwriter—there is just one song on the album completely by him—he modestly preferred to be known as an ‘interpreter’. When first recording in the 1950s, press-shots are like a photo-negative of Elvis.

Although he liked to say he was from the home of blues in Mississippi, where his father was a mayor with a struggling cotton business (he also played sax and sang in swing era bands and choirs), John Dawson Winter III was in fact born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944 because there was no hospital in Leland. The musical family had permanently moved there by the time Edgar was born almost three years later, and both played various instruments in their formative years. Johnny graduated from ukulele to guitar, a family heirloom, when he was 11 or 12 and started his first band. By the time he was 15 he’d cut one of his early songs for Houston’s Dart Records, School Day Blues with his 12 year-old brother as Johnny and the Jammers. He was starting the climb to be among the greats of Texan blues, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mance Lipscomb,  Lightnin’ Hopkins and his cousin Albert Collins, to T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and fellow-Gibson-touter Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Three years later the brothers were the only whites in the Raven club on the ‘wrong side’ of his hometown. Because Johnny kept badgering the performer to jam with him, he was asked if he had a musicians’ union card. When he said he had, B.B.King lent him a guitar and at the end was greeted by a standing ovation. He ventured into black areas even when National Guardsmen were sealing off towns due to racial unrest, but always welcomed because of his sincere interest in the music. Non-stop gigging and numerous local hits (one went on to Billboard 100 as The Traits with Harlem Shuffle in ’66; the popish Eternally was licensed to Atlantic and did well in Texas and Louisiana) led to the 24 year-old’s debut The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968), a trio’s recording of ten tracks split equally between covers (including his beloved Son House) and his own songs. Recorded at Austin’s Gas Works Club, it sports a Carnaby Street image with capes ‘n’ all. In December 1968 he got a guest spot in New York to jam with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, and combined with a prominent article on Texas calling him the best thing in music to come out of there aside from Janis Joplin (like Leonard Cohen, he had a fling with her and guested at her Madison Square Gardens show), a label bidding war started to sign him. CBS, later called Columbia, signed him for $600,000, a record at the time (Zepp for example were allegedly paid a third of that by Atlantic).

The year 1969 was his high point: an eponymous album with the same trio plus Edgar on keys/sax (who joined full-time), Walter ‘Shaky’ Horton on harmonica, and the upright bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon for powerful covers of B.B.King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II etc which peaked at 24 on Billboard. A second LP was issued later that same year, climbing to 55 (it might have done better if his ’68 debut wasn’t reissued as a cash-in), one of the few double albums issued as a three-sider! They didn’t have enough material for four sides but was too good to edit (the third side was exclusively his songs): Winter also wanted it to be as loud as technology could then achieve. It marked a slight shift to rock ‘n’ roll or at least a broader songbook (Johnny B. Goode; Highway 61 Revisited) recorded in Nashville with the renowned producer Eddie Kramer (Hendrix, Zeppelin, Stones, Kiss etc), who was sacked mid-way due to lack of attention (e.g. outside recording a rainstorm) and the brothers finished it. The band was being paid a huge $5,000 a night then.

He hit the world stage that year with a steaming appearance at Woodstock, especially with his version of John Lee Hooker’s classic “Mean Town Blues.” Winter was one of the few to be paid at that financial fiasco—just under four grand, but his manager messed up big-time by not getting a royalty for film rights, though film versions now show the fiery, virtuoso axeman in full sway. Allegedly Hendrix was paid $18,000, and they shared not only the same stage nearly a dozen times but also the studio: it seems only one New York-recorded track has survived (Things I Used To Do).

One of the great live albums of the era was issued—though less than perfect for various reasons, including low-fi mixes cobbled together from more than source by the label. It went to #40 and certified gold, partly due to a high-energy Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but his career was blighted and dogged by many of his earlier demos being illegally released by managers etc who never paid him, especially when he was out of it due to an increasing heroin addiction. CBS wanted a white clone of Hendrix, perhaps a clean-cut image like Clapton, but he wanted to be an original stand-alone not a competitor, a white bluesman accepted as a natural tapping a rich musical vein, as did Rory Gallagher: both saw themselves as musicians not ‘stars’.

In 1970 Edgar left to form White Trash and a jazz-funk career. One of Johnny’s new quartets including the Derringer brothers, who charted with “Hang On Sloopy”in 1965 as The McCoys but a few years on were disillusioned with being seen as a bubble-gum pop act. Winter’s pre-CBS manager, Steve Paul, ran the Scene club in New York (hence the famous gig with Bloomfield/Kooper at the Fillmore East) and as manager of The McCoys put them together for a more rock-orientated style. Rick Derringer of course achieved his own status as a guitarist and wrote Winter’s live-set staple Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo, also producing Winter’s albums. This band was called Johnny Winters And on the previously mentioned live album, Still Alive And Well (1973), Saints And Sinners, John Dawson Winter III (both ’74), and Captured Live! (1976).

These marked the end of his association with CBS, and also a stronger focus on his first-love of blues. Asked at this time why he didn’t do slow ballads, he said because he thought his audience didn’t want them, they wanted to rock. He would like do them but had become ‘pigeon-holed and categorized’, and ‘I never had anything to make a single’. Since his teens he had bought every blues album he could find, he had thousands, but his studio work shows a breadth that did include R ‘n’ B, rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, funk and jazz, alongside traditional (country) blues, electric urban blues and southern fry boogie (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top all admitted their debt) for a potent brew, tight but relaxed in a way even the famous could learn from.

His style came from his earliest days, a finger-picked country/delta blues accentuated by thumb pick on a Gibson, like Robert Johnson who was also heavy on the top strings. Also fellow-Texan Albert Collins, who used thumb and forefinger (sometimes with gloves!) for extra ‘snap’ instead of a plectrum (some of his trademarks were adapted by Hendrix for Voodoo Chile). Howlin’ Wolf’s sidekick Hubert Sumlin, like John Lee Hooker, preferred Gibson too. As we know, each stylist had their own preference: Jeff Beck (born the same year as Winter), Peter Green and Rory Gallagher toted the Fender like Buddy Holly. Johnny Winter wanted a custom Gibson ‘sounding like a Strat with a Gibson feel’. Like all the best guitarists in trios, he could play both rhythm and lead ‘simultaneously’ and was one of the best slide guitarists in history, harking back to Son House, J.B. Hutto and fellow-Texan Blind Willie Johnson. Using the same piece of plumbing pipe for his last 30 years, electric or acoustic, he said he’d never tried a plectrum! There is an uploaded appearance on Danish television in 1970 showing his pre-Firebird or Flying V days, and more recently on the Letterman Show for a blistering version of Rory Gallagher’s staple Dust My Broom (Robert Johnson, Elmore James etc), effortless as a snake in the playground.

Edgar Winter recently described his brother’s style (a guest on the former’s Rebel Road in 2008) as ‘relentless intensity as a soloist. A lot of blues players would be very conscious of space…but Johnny broke the mold; he was full-bore, more like a blues shredder’, an original who listened to a song to play it unlike anyone else with his own spin. Jagger & Richards gave him Silver Train (later on Goat Head Soup), and it’s rumoured Lennon wrote “Rock And Roll People” in his honor but actually gave it to the American when he couldn’t finish it.

In the mid-70s he returned to his roots, in fact one of his idols Muddy Waters, to mostly single-handedly orchestrate the legend’s revival before he died in 1983. He did most of the guitar work (especially on Hard Again which Muddy thought recreated well his classic Chess sessions) while producing three studio and a live album by Waters, who called Winter an ‘adopted son’. He ‘played eight notes to my one!’ in his trademark fluid, high-octane pyros that were flamboyant and gutsy with oodles of technique.  Winter’s Nothin’ But The Blues (1977) used Water’s band. With rasping-snarl vocals (‘banshee-like vocal prowess’ wrote a reviewer) studded with appropriately-placed yelps, whoops and moans, like a Native American frenzied by ritual and peyote, the atmosphere was literally electric. If sometimes going beyond the standard wrap up, it’s worth remembering that many didn’t have the chops to go on in the first place. Often he let the guitar do the singing.

He returned for three rootsy, well-received albums on Alligator Records in the 80s. Guitar Slinger (1984) charted with a Grammy nomination, then Serious Business (1985) and Third Degree (1986), with his original trio and guests. MTV, in its fledgling days, aired one of his videos for months. A year after marrying, his blistering 5-minute version of” Highway 61 Revisited” was performed at the 30th anniversary tribute for Bob Dylan in 1992, which Columbia issued on CD and video. Most famous now for Neil Young’s “All Along The Watchtower” at what he called the ‘Bobfest’, the four-hour Madison Square Garden bash is a highlight for all there.

By the 90’s the Lone Star bluesman often gigged sitting down, a ‘ghostly presence’ according to one witness, showcasing blues standards and obscurities along with Dylan, Derringer and Chuck Berry. Numerous compilations appeared, then and since, but according to one biography only about 15% were legitimate releases with his sanction. A prey to drug addiction, instead of the earlier heroin it was mostly due to prescription drugs for anti-depression and vodka combined with 100 to 165 gigs per year with medication for pre-show panic attacks. Such problems are a cliché regarding modern musicians, of course, part of a gruelling profession’s territory perhaps, unlike John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne being once a prison-serving burglar. Before the acclaimed guitarist Paul Nelson helped his mentor back to health, Johnny Winter (who was always partly cross-eyed as a condition of his albinism) was near-blind.

It’s good to hear again his first album of new material in a dozen years—reissued a dozen years later albeit without the Japan-only bonus track. I’m A Bluesman, mixed by his long-time producer Dick Shurman (Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan etc) and also Tom  Hambridge in Boston and Connecticut where Winter had moved to for rural seclusion, reproduces the original evocative artwork of photos together with lyrics. Hambridge has been drummer with George Thorogood, who surely has been influenced by the albino dynamo, as well as with Buddy Guy, Buchanan, and Lynyrd Skynyrd the year before this album. Five other guests include Reese Wynans on keys from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble plus his touring band: guitarist Paul Nelson, Scott Spray on bass (Harry Chapin, and Edgar Winter as far back as ’81), Wayne June (a session drummer/vocalist in the band 2001-07), and harmonica-player James Montgomery. This ex-president of the New England Blues Society has fronted his own band with six albums since 1973, when it was as hot on the Boston blues-rock scene as J. Geils Band and Aerosmith. As well as working with those bands, and Springsteen and Steve Miller among countless others, he was paid $250,000 as a sign-on fee with The Allman Brothers. This Johnny Winter Band played sell-outs around USA and a Euro tour which also stopped off in Scandinavia and Turkey. A long-time manager was sacked soon after, and Nelson took over.

The title-track leads off the 13 songs with a boogie manifesto of his life—past and near future, ‘…gonna stay that way till I die’. Signature solos, fluid as ever, with tight rhythm section including Nelson on rhythm guitar. Tom Hambridge’s “Cheatin’ Blues” is a slightly slower chugger, with Tom West on Hammond filling out the space, slowed further with “I Smell Smoke” about loss and aftermath with an earlier band sounding like a 70s R ‘n’ B hit. Lone Wolf returns to his signature gutsy blues with slide and howls on backing-vocalist Hambridge’s song—all too short with a long fade-out. Straight 12-bar (“So Much Love”) features Montgomery’s harmonica and the tour band without Nelson, written by Jon Paris from Winter’s Raisin’ Cain and Serious Business albums. The full band return including harp for the longest track, “Monkey Business,” in the urban style of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Great lead opens and underpins “Shake Down”, with Winter’s sole write “Sweet Little Baby” as a trio for his belting slide skills. A time-honored lament about a lying, cheating evil woman (“Pack Your Bags”) such as Groundhogs and Gallagher made their own, speeds up with “Last Night” on a similar theme when time to move on. The next two show Winter’s liking for reviving the obscure. A solo acoustic slide version of “That Wouldn’t Satisfy” by Hop Wilson is a few-line country blues about wishing a woman a happy life with another man. The Texan Wilson (1927-75) recorded very little but is cited as an influence: he played 8-string slide on an upright stand to local fame, partly because he hated touring.

“Sugar Coated Love,” mid-tempo with faster solos in a rockier vein, is by Jay Miller (1923-96) a Cajun guitarist of Louisiana. He also owned record labels and was one of the few to record the harmonica-player Lazy Lester among some better-known blues and Cajun legends. The choice is a little surprising: he was tainted by racism during the time of his Reb Rebel label in the 60s. Perhaps he recorded Johnny Winter in his early days? His heirs were involved with Winter’s Live Bootleg Series Volume 5 in 2009. The album closes with a Winter/Montgomery co-write, “Let’s Start All Over Again”, a Canned Heat style take on depression and second thoughts after a relationship. Winter takes on both lead, with a subtle extended solo, and rhythm roles. Some say speed has made way for a fatter tone—certainly the latter applies—but still the varied chops are present. Close your eyes and sit back: you are there, in a beery joint or old 50s studio for the authentic stuff.

Nelson (who still continues Winter’s legacy) and Spray reconvened for Winter’s last two albums, Roots (2011) and Step Back (2014) which featured Clapton (at whose festivals Winter played), Bonamassa, Lesley West of Mountain, Dr. John and Billy Gibbons among others, many also appearing in the documentary film Down And Dirty by Greg Olliver that came out soon after. Johnny Winter featured in both 100 Best Guitarists Of All Time lists in Rolling Stone (2003, 2011), but apart from the famous that they felt obliged to include in the top five, there is an expected slant to its homeland. In the lower half, incredibly, are Winter, John McLaughlin and Gallagher (when Hendrix was asked ‘What it felt like to be the best guitarist in the world, he replied ‘I don’t know. You’d better ask Rory Gallagher’) yet no Del Bromham (who has done a Winter tribute album; both preferred a Firebird guitar), nor his exact contemporaries Mick Abrahams or Tony McPhee, to name a few fine English gun-slingers.

In 2014 Johnny Winter died in a hotel room near Zurich while on a European tour; his last gig was the Cahors Festival in France. Once asked how he wanted to be remembered, he replied ‘As a good blues player’. ‘His brilliance,’ said his friend Billy Gibbons, ‘is frozen for all time. We’ve lost another of the gifted guitar greats and a truly soulful spirit’. Lightning fast and propulsive, segued with subtle finesse for both a distinctive style and look, Rolling Stone got it right in calling him ‘a genuine phenomenon’. The 70 year-old left a true legacy and this release is among his best. If he wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller as he said, he sure as hell rocked—in the sense the pre-war bluesmen would have understood it.

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