According to his publicist, legendary guitarist John Dawson Winter III died on July 15 in his Zurich, Switzerland hotel room.
I count myself lucky to have interviewed Johnny Winter twice (please see the list of links at bottom of this essay), and to have seen him play onstage once. I know very little about albinism, but what little I have read suggests that those with the condition tend to have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. And the same is true of junkies; though Johnny was a great talent, nobody will deny that he was hooked on hard drugs for a major portion of his life. Those two facts taken together make it all the more remarkable that the Beaumont, TX-born guitarist made it past his 70th birthday.
In his last decade or so, Johnny really did turn things around. The stories I heard strongly suggested that he had been at the mercy of manipulative and exploitative management for many years. But my the time I first connected with him (2007) he had hooked up with Paul Nelson, who served as his manger and second guitarist. Nelson worked with Johnny to reassert control over parts of his catalog, and was clearly a very positive figure in Winter’s life and career.
The qualities that came through to me about the man were his forthrightness and his taciturn nature. Even though Nelson had warned me in advance (“Hit him hard,” he coached me in advance of my first interview with Johnny), I found myself unable to get much out of the guitarist. If there were any conceivable way to answer one of my questions with a single word – usually “yup” or “nope” – Johnny would find it.
I did manage to draw him out a bit in our first talk, enough to have him tell me about the time he had a date with one Janis Joplin; they went to see Candice Bergen‘s Myra Breckenridge in a movie house. But the cliché “He prefers to let the music do the talking” may as well have been written to describe Johnny Winter.
When we spoke again in 2011 about his involvement with the latest “comeback” album from Sly Stone, he made it clear that he – like everyone else associated with the project – had never met the enigmatic artist. Though he never came right out and said it, the clear implication was that Winter’s guitar playing on one of Stone’s tracks was just a job, nothing more.
That certainly wasn’t true of Johnny Winter’s rock and blues recordings released under his own name. Even when his health was poor and he was (reportedly) being exploited by those close to him, the music rarely suffered. His Alligator releases of the 1980s have worn well, and are happily free (for the most part) of the era’s production/arrangement clichés. And of course his output in the 1970s is virtually without peer. My favorite of all his recordings are a pair of tracks form his 1978 LP White, Hot and Blue: “Walking By Myself” and the Junior Wells standard “Messin’ with the Kid.” On both of these Johnny is joined by a second guitarist, freeing Winter to spit out blistering solos. And that –along with Winter’s growling vocals – is what draws people to Winter’s music.
I didn’t manage to meet Johnny in person when he played Asheville’s Orange Peel in 2007, but I did manage to snap a number of photos. As my own tribute to the man and his music, I’m sharing a few of these below. With the exception of the one in which he’s seated at the front of the stage (with the “Bar” neon sign clearly visible behind him), these are all previously unpublished shots form my private collection.
At the close of our first interview, I thanked Johnny for taking the time to speak with me, and made a point – as I often do – to thank him for his music. I thank him again and send positive thoughts to those – his band mates, business associates and his wife – that he leaves behind.
For more of my writings on Johnny Winter, feel free to explore these links:
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