A Look Back at Johnny Winter Archival Releases

IMPORTANT NOTE: This review concerns the long out-of-print vinyl releases of early Johnny Winter material — The Johnny Winter Story, About Blues and Early Times — NOT any subsequent reissues. – bk

The phenomenon we call “overnight success” is, in reality, something that rarely if ever actually happens. It typically takes years for an artist to achieve a level of notability and success. And once they do, there’s a nontrivial segment of their audience that is curious and interested about the creative work they did before breaking through.

That helps explain the sustained interest in, say, those seven albums Bob Seger made before Night Moves (they’re nearly all out of print and likely to remain so; Seger largely disowns them). It also justifies the many reissues of pre-Allman Brothers Band recordings by Gregg and Duane Allman. And the surge of interest in the recently unearthed “Rockin’ Roxburgh” tape – a live Beatles recording from when the band was right on the cusp of fame – reminds us yet again that a certain segment of the public is curious enough to justify the reissue of little-heard material by their favorite artists.

Born in 1944, Johnny Winter’s musical career began when he was a teenager in Beaumont, Texas. He released his debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment on a small label in 1968, and shortly thereafter signed with Columbia. But Winter had been recording for years, and in the wake of his success, those early recordings found inevitable reissue as The Johnny Winter Story.

The 1969 LP was released on the GRT Records label. It featured 14 songs drawing from both original material and blues classics. Close on its heels came two other collections of juvenilia, 1969’s About Blues and Early Times from 1970. Winter had no involvement in the release of those records, and reputedly wasn’t happy about their existence. Today, used copies of those rushed-to-market cash-in releases circulate, though on discogs.com, Early Times is blocked from sale, suggesting that it’s considered a pirate, bootleg or otherwise unauthorized release.

Winter passed away in 2014, and Paul Nelson – his late-period manager who helped him regain control over much of his catalog – left us earlier this month.The upshot of all this is that if you want to hear this music, it’s back to those semi-legit vinyl releases for you. So once again, please note that this review concerns those out-of-print titles — The Johnny Winter Story, About Blues and Early Times — NOT any subsequent reissues.

Those new to this archival material shouldn’t expect production values or performances to rival Winter’s official catalog, but neither is this music any sort of embarrassment. For listeners who wish to place Winter’s high-profile Columbia (and post-Columbia) work in a larger context, the tracks on The Johnny Winter Story, About Blues and Early Times are revelatory.

Pete Welding’s essay included in The Johnny Winter Story attempts to place Winter’s work in historical context; as a result, Winter’s name isn’t mentioned – and then only briefly – until more than halfway through the essay. There’s no information at all regarding the when, where, who or how of these recordings. We do know that they were mostly cut in the first half of the ‘60s, some apparently as early as 1961. Welding does make plain that the goal (of Winter and/or whomever commissioned and paid for the original sessions) was little more than “trying to get a hit just like somebody else’s.”

Winter’s “Lucille” instrumental rewrite “Creepy” isn’t the most original thing in the world, but it does let us hear him play some tasty leads. And his old-school reading of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love” (released as a single) is a great deal of fun. And there is one shocker: with its jangling guitar lines and close vocal harmonies, “Spiders of the Mind” sounds like a West Coast folk/garage band exploring the sonic space between The Leaves, The Byrds and Bob Dylan. Few who didn’t know would even identify the artist as Johnny Winter, and it suggests that he could have gone a very different musical direction, had he wished.

Overall, compared to Winter’s signature style of the ‘70s and beyond (including those ace Alligator releases), the tunes on The Johnny Winter Story and its two sister releases are generally quite restrained and pedestrian. But they’re never less than interesting, and a reading of “Please Come Home for Christmas” hints at the howling vocal character he’d eventually make a major part of his persona) is a delight.

These recordings are certainly more “commercial” minded than Winter’s more well-known material, trafficking in r&b and blues-pop styles. There are horn charts on many of the tracks, and Winter’s searing lead guitar appears only occasionally. But none of that takes away from the enjoyment of these recordings. As long as one considers them for what they are – archival audio documents of an artist still developing – the tracks on The Johnny Winter Story, About Blues and Early Times deserve a listen. As Welding writes about these recordings in the final sentence of his essay, “Enjoy them.”

You might also enjoy my interview with Johnny Winter.