Take Five: Fiery Tracks from Johnny Winter

Legendary Texas guitar slinger Johnny Winter released Saints & Sinners, his sixth studio album, 50 years ago. Winter was at the top of his game in the mid-’70s; his fiery approach combined the power of rock and roll with the historic musical values of the blues. One of fleet-fingered Winter’s unique skills was his ability to bend a song to his needs; even when playing the work of other songwriters, Johnny Winter put his own indelible stamp on the material. Winter’s recording career extended up until his death, and there are solid titles from every period of his recording years. Focusing here on his ‘70s output, here are five songs featuring the interpretive artistry of guitar hero Johnny Winter.

“Highway 61 Revisited” from Second Winter (1969)
In its original configuration, the album-and-a-half Second Winter was spread across three sides of vinyl (side 4 was blank). Winter’s definitive take on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” became a blues classic once the Texas guitarist recorded it. On this record, Winter was joined by brother Edgar on keyboards, sax and more; drummer “Uncle” John Turner and bassist Tommy Shannon; in later years the latter two would work with fellow Texas guitarist Steve Ray Vaughan. Here, Winter casts Dylan’s mythical lyrics into something much more hard-hitting and feral.

“Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” from Johnny Winter And (1970)
Rick Zehringer (later Derringer) was guitarist for the McCoys, famous for “Hang On Sloopy.” When that group began to work with Winter, they billed themselves as And. Derringer would score a hit with his immortal rocker “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” but not until re-recording it for his own album All American Boy some three years after the Johnny Winter And version. Both are excellent, but Winter’s commanding, roaring vocal arguably gives his version the edge.

“Rock Me Baby” from Still Alive and Well (1973)
Winter went to ground after releasing Johnny Winter And; he wouldn’t return until three years later. When he did, he used many of the same musicians as before, with Todd Rundgren and his then-Utopia band mate Mark Klingman guesting on a few tracks. The highlight of the pointedly-titled Still Alive and Well is its opening track, the swinging “Rock Me Baby.” A classic from Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur Crudup, it’s delivered by Winter in a style that recalls both Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

“Stray Cat Blues” from Saints & Sinners (1974)
This languid rocker from the pens of Mick Jagger and Keith Richard was first heard on the Rolling Stones LP Beggars Banquet in 1968. Johnny Winter’s reading of the song adds a busy, thundering bass line and sizzling lead guitar lines that weave in and out of the arrangement. And Winter’s inimitable vocals serve to make the song truly his.

“Walkin’ By Myself” from White, Hot & Blue (1978)
While Johnny Winter often had one foot in the rock idiom, at heart he was a bluesman. So while he would often venture off for rock and roll excursions, he’d always come home to the blues. Jimmy Rogers first recorded his classic “Walkin’ By Myself” in 1956; by the time Johnny Winter got his hands on the tune for his 1978 studio album, he infused the song with some stinging lead slide guitar, helped along by a bravura harmonica solo (from either Winter or Pat Ramsey).