Johnny Winter was about to do a short tour of the UK when I managed to get a short interview for a regional newspaper The Sunday Sun
The word ‘legend’ is vastly overused in music circles these days, but it is a fitting adjective to describe Blues guitarist and singer Johnny Winter who has recently released his 18th studio album; called Roots.
One of the stars of the Woodstock Festival in 1969 Johnny has had his trials and tribulations over the years but the albino guitarist; who was born in 1944 has never stopped recording or performing and has influenced at least three generations of Rock guitarists.
I began our interview by asking what where his first memories were of hearing music.
“That would have been my Mother, who played piano at Church and the social gatherings around our town; she had a special touch that I’ve never heard since and when I was very young I acquired a clarinet that I struggled to get a tune out of; and then received a ukulele for my 9th birthday and when I was 12 I got a guitar and that changed my life. I would buy a new record every weekend from the 5 and Dime and spend hours trying to copy the players on the discs.
It wasn’t long before I got my first electric guitar and a tiny speaker and began forming bands at school. We didn’t get to see many live acts but I do remember seeing Ray Charles and later Fats Domino who were both great; but the most memorable night was when BB King came to a club called the Raven when I was 17. Arrogantly I kept asking if I could join him on stage for a jam; eventually he asked if I had a Union card; when I produced one from my pocket he graciously allowed me on stage. I only played one number but I got a standing ovation!
It still took a few years of playing every club around but we finally got a recording contract and released the PROGRESSIVE BLUES EXPERIMENT in 67 and then signed for Columbia and recorded the JOHNNY WINTER album in early 1969. It’s still my favourite today because I got to do exactly what I wanted to do on it and it was something of a success.
Looking back on my career my appearance at Woodstock that Summer brought me to a much wider audience than I could have dreamed of; but at the time it felt like ‘just another badly organised Festival’ to us. It was muddy and raining and I was really tired; so slept right until the time I was due on stage. It was a good set; we played really well…..I’m not sure how; but we did. Then we were back on the bus and on to the next Festival.
The next thing I knew was we were being sent back to the studio to record a follow up album and journalists from all over the world wanted to interview me. They were mad times and I enjoyed every minute; even looking back at the stage clothes that I wore – a cape? Silk flares and knee high boots? They were certainly different times but I chose everything myself and still do.
The next 10 years were a blur with touring, recording and touring and during that time I made some lifestyle choices that weren’t the best; but I’ve come through it even though some of my music wasn’t the best.
Looking back, the best part of those days for me was when I got to produce Muddy Waters. Muddy was still recording on Chess when it went out of business in ’77 and because I’d always been a fan a guy named Ron Alexenberg thought it would be a good idea if we did something together and convinced my management to sign him to my label Blue Sky. Muddy took no persuading and we recorded Hard Again with James Cotton on harmonica. I loved producing him; I always loved his music so still smile at the memory of being in the studio with him. We went on to record another couple of albums over the next couple of years and I think he made more money of those records than he ever did at Chess! Muddy once said in an interview that I knew his music better than he did! I don’t know if that’s true or not; but I did know it very well. (Laughter). That was one of the highlights of my life.
Because of my health it hasn’t always easy but I’ve never stopped recording and touring; but now it’s always on my terms; which is why I began releasing live recording as the Bootleg Series. Bootlegging concerts has been with us forever but the artist doesn’t make any money and the fans usually get ripped off; we only polish the tapes up a little and the fans get a great recording and we get to make a living. It’s been a success and a few other bands are looking into it now; too.
My latest album; ROOTS is something I’ve wanted to do for a lot of years but the time never seemed right; until my manager Paul Nelson put everything together last year and all I had to do was choose the songs; which took about 15 minutes. As they are all classic Blues tunes; (Got my) Mojo Working, Bright Lights; Big City, Fannie Mae and the rest everyone involved had been playing them in one form or another all of their lives. Apart from the harmonica player John Popper I’d worked with everyone else; including Vince Gill and Susan Tedeschi at different times; so we were all comfortable in the studio and the end result is as good as I’d hoped……and the next volume will be even better!”
# Johnny Winter died on July 17th 2014