Texas Guitar God Johnny Winter Is Forever True to the Blues

The quintessential Texas bluesman: Johnny Winter
The quintessential Texas bluesman: Johnny Winter
Michael Weintraub/Sony

A December 1968 edition of Rolling Stone featured Texas musicians who were at the time making inroads into the magazine's home city of San Francisco. Featuring a cover photo of cowboy-hatted Doug Sahm (balancing toddler son Shawn on his knee), it mentioned players and singers both known (Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs) and others familiar only to hardcore fans.

But it was a mention of a shit-hot blues player, Johnny Winter, that seemed to generate the most buzz. Soon, the Beaumont native found himself in demand. The article described "A cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues you ever heard."

A guest appearance with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the Fillmore East gave a major audience their first real look at this mythical figure. Columbia Records execs were in the audience, and it led to a then-unheard of advance for an unknown act -- a reported $600,000 -- resulting in Winter's 1969 self-titled debut.

And while his career and personal life have seen plenty of ups and downs, Johnny Winter has always stayed the quintessential Texas bluesman, true to the genre even when seeing other guitar heroes reap more popular acclaim.

So it's fitting that in time for his 70th birthday on February 23, he's feted on disc with the career spanning 4-CD box set True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (Columbia/Legacy).

"I was very happy with the way it turned out. They did a good job picking stuff," says Winter, ever succinct in answering questions, from somewhere on the endless road. "I'm happy with it"

True to the Blues features 56 tracks culled from a whopping 27 albums (as well as unreleased material), and spans tracks recorded in 1968 at legendary Austin club the Vulcan Gas Company to 2011 collaborations with Vince Gill and Derek Trucks, taken from 2011's Roots CD

Also making their appearance for the first time are incendiary live cuts from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, as well as Woodstock. Sadly, Winter's management didn't think much of the event at the time, hence his absence from the movie.

"It was very emotional music with a lot of feeling. More than I'd ever heard," Winter says of his first attraction to the blues, which he shared with brother Edgar. His similarly albino sibling also carved out a career as a musician, albeit in a more rock direction ("Frankenstein"). The two would play with each other's bands for decades.

But this was also back in the day where, say, having any song by any artist of any era instantaneously at the click of a computer mouse was something akin to science fiction. The Winter brothers had to become something of musical detectives to find the blues.

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"Yeah, there were several radio stations that played it. Beaumont had a black station, KJET," Winter remembers. "There was WLAC in Nashville, a 50,000-watt station. In Shreveport that was KWKH and a big station in Mexico, XKRS that Wolfman Jack was on. You could get those stations all the way up to Canada."

He adds that there was a good record store in Beaumont run buy a guy who owned few juke joints: "He had a good blues selection."

Houston has also played a role in Winter's life. "I loved Houston," he says. "We lived there several years and had a lot of good gigs there. A place called the Act III. There were holes in the dance floor!

"That must have been '66 or '67," he reflects. "And we played Rockefeller's a lot."

Among his many collaborations with musical heroes, peers and spawn, it's his relationship with Muddy Waters that stands above all. Winter produced the blue giant's last four records, including his 1977 comeback effort Hard Again.

"I loved Muddy," he offers. "We got to be great friends, real close. He liked me a lot too. I'd go over to his house in Chicago and he'd cook dinner for me."

Of any Texas musicians he feels never got the credit due them, Winter goes for an obscure one: Joey Long.

"Joey Long was really good," he says. "He played all over Texas and Louisiana, but never got successful. He was the first black guy I knew who made a living playing blues."

Today, as always, Winter is on the road, and is planning a series of celebratory birthday-night shows at B.B. King's in New York City. A new record is in the can and ready to be mixed, featuring collaborations with Dr. John, Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Joe Perry and Joe Bonamassa.

Finally, a trailer has just been posted for Down & Dirty, the documentary on Winter's life and career in music making its world premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival.

"I've been working on it for a couple of years now, so I'm hoping it will be out [in general release] soon," he says, in the most animated tone of our entire interview. "It's exciting to have a movie done of your life!"


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