Johnny Winter — passes at 70

Posted in Rock 'n' Roll at 11:16 am by George Smith

Sad, in Zurich.

A Los Angeles Times piece this morning noted in the early 70’s Winter “helped drive a germinating boogie rock movement.” Certainly true. Johnny Winter was all over big stages, as part of the Blue Sky roster of artists (think the Edgar Winter Group and Rick Derringer), he was one of the most influential and widely-seen hard rockers of that time.

And he looked the part, as seen in the segment from Don Kirshner: Top hat, glam rock platform shoes, a big white beard, well before ZZ Top took the image, only accentuating his albinism. And, of course, volume, big amplifiers and an unrelenting beat.

A nasty heroin put him on the bench for awhile and he returned around ’76 with “Still Alive & Well,” written by Rick Derringer and the title of the Winter album it appeared on. Johnny Winter would relapse to alcohol or drugs from time to time, the last crisis being in the mid-90s, I think.

But he got through it all, returning to the stage seated although it was clear his health had deteriorated.

I have half a dozen or so of his records and like them all, “Let Me In,” from 1991 being the favorite. The boogie rock is at its peak on a live album on Blue Sky in ’76 in front of a stadium crowd. That band minus a second guitar player is on display on the 20-minute segment from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Dig the bass player rocking the fake fur lady’s hat.

Another seller was an earlier live album with Derringer in Johnny Winter And although I like the debut studio record, self-titled, more.

I interviewed Winter in 1991 when he was in Allentown at the Fairgrounds opening for George Thorogood. He was quite the Texas gentleman.

Here it is, reprinted from here:

Johnny Winter talks with the kind of Texas drawl that makes you think he’d be a good neighbor, the kind you could share a beer with.

The tall, pale guitarist says that he had recorded a song about drinkin’ for “Let Me In,??? his new disc on Point Blank, but he decided to leave it off because … well, you know how that kinda thing got George Thorogood in hot water.

Winter said he’s never heard Thorogood’s “If You Don’t Start Drinkin’ (I’m Gonna Leave).??? “But I’ve heard plenty about it,??? he laughed.

Asked if he thought that anyone would have made a fuss about this song if it had been recorded five years ago, Winter said he didn’t think so.

Which makes one think about what’s going on with rock ‘n’ roll these days. Don’t rock bands advertise beer? And where do you often see them perform? Smoky bars, right? And what’s served in bars? Think about these things too much, and your head will throb.

So it’s time to move on and say why Johnny Winter’s opening for George Thorogood at the Allentown Fair tomorrow night. Mainly, it’s in support of “Let Me In,??? as fine a rock record as you’ll hear this year.

It should be a good show. After all, there’s lots of cool stuff from the disc that Winter can play. For instance, “Barefootin’,??? which was a great cover when Brownsville Station performed it as the B-side of “Smokin’ In The Boys Room??? many years ago. It still sounds pretty good on “Let Me In.???

And one could yell for “Sugaree,??? where Winter plays some lowdown stop-’n-start guitar boogie riffs that sound real fine in the summer time.

There’s plenty of blues on the record, too, so the purists that regularly rag Winter about whether he’s a rocker or a bluesman can still get their bile pumpin’ over whether “Let Me In??? is more “blooz??? or more “rock.???

“I was getting s— about that in the ’60s,??? said Winter. “I don’t really understand it — you’ll always have someone who isn’t comfortable unless there’s a title on it. But it’s just the way I play.???

Which brings to mind his last album, “Winter of ‘89.??? Produced by Terry Manning, some of it had a ZZ Top throb to it that made the purists scream blue murder. Actually, the record wasn’t bad — there was the usual helping of fierce playin’ and singin’ that you can find on just about every Johnny Winter album.

“It was an attempt to be more commercial,??? said Winter. “But it wasn’t that good an experience. I did my part and left and then the producer did his. I like to get more involved in the recording, so we didn’t get along too well.???

Why does Winter have to be “more commercial???? It’s hard to figure out, considering the big draw he was in the ’70s with records like “Still Alive And Well,??? “Second Winter??? and “Saints And Sinners.???

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Winter recorded for Alligator, an independent blues label for most of the ’80s. You do that kind of thing too much and businessmen start calling you uncommercial.

But Winter made his first and only video for Alligator. And then it went and got aired on MTV, but it was hard to tell if that helped much because fans of Winter apparently don’t watch MTV.

Although it’s up to Point Blank, his new label, Winter said he’d like to make another. “The one I did was fun. We found a guy who hadn’t done any videos, just commercials, and he agreed to do it. I couldn’t bitch. I don’t know anything about it.

“He’d say, `Walk over here,’ and then I’d do what he said.???

Which seems like a sensible way to make a video when you take a gander at those on MTV –most of which are “tasteless and horrible,??? according to Winter.

It is indeed hard not to like Winter. You can listen to his guitar-playin’ of which much great stuff has been written. You can remember when he used to wear a neat top hat, or you can recall that he’d been laboring in Texas backwaters for 10 years before one paragraph in Rolling Stone magazine made him “the next big thing??? more than two decades ago.

It was just a short blurb and, Winter said, “It surprised me to death. It was just what this one guy said. I couldn’t believe it; it still seems impossible.

“And then the same record company people that I’d been trying to talk to for 10 years were all calling me at once.???

A documentary, released this year, to what seems like virtually no distribution.


  1. hp said,

    July 19, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Every time I walk across the Congress Ave bridge, when I pass the old Vulcan Gas Co. I can still hear Rollin’ and Tumblin’ playing and just start singing along..

  2. George Smith said,

    July 20, 2014 at 11:28 am


    A 12-string for this one.

    And from the Austin newspaper:

    Johnny Winter’s first album, “The Progressive Blues Experiment,??? was recorded at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company nightclub in 1968 and got its initial release on Austin label Sonobeat. “The sessions took place during the daytime in the emptied-out club,??? author Ricky Stein noted in his recent book “Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the ’60s.??? “The musicians performed in a tight circle in the center of the Vulcan’s cavernous hall??? with no audience.