Had Johnny Winter continued on his 1970s path of becoming a “rock star,” it’s likely we would be talking about him in the past tense, as we do people like Jimi Hendrix and Winter’s fellow college mate, Janis Joplin. Thankfully, for fans of blues and American vernacular music around the world, Winter has always remained a bluesman at heart, and in the blues world, as in the jazz world, the atmosphere is less cut-throat. Fans and performers alike feel as if they’re part of one big family.
Today, more than five decades after his performing career began, Winter is still one of the top drawing acts on the blues festival and club circuit, around the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Winter will perform with his quartet, which includes new manager Paul Nelson as second guitarist, Friday, December 16, at the New Hope Winery.
Winter, who will turn 68 next year, is an albino (lacking skin pigment). He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, a city of about 125,000 people near Port Arthur, Texas, with its heavy petroleum and chemical manufacturing base. His father, John Dawson Winter Jr., was a contractor who did well financially building houses, and his mother, Edwina, was a homemaker. As a child, Winter recalls the mix of chemical smells in the air and how one could tell which way the wind was blowing by which smell was in the air. His recently published memoir, “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter,” was written by Mary Lou Sullivan (Backbeat Books, 2010).
He began playing ukulele as a nine-year-old and guitar as a 12-year-old. Four or five years later, his younger brother, Edgar, also began playing ukulele. Encouraged by their ever-supportive parents, the two started working up a musical act and performed on a local TV show, their first taste of greater things to come. “That chance to appear on the Don Mahoney Show, that really was our first taste of show business. And they had other kids’ acts, baton twirlers and tap dancers on the show,” Winter says.
“My father did pretty well building houses, so my mother didn’t really have to work,” he recalls, but it wasn’t until ninth grade, some time after he’d also been playing guitar, that he formed his first band, Johnny and the Jammers.
“We played whatever was popular and being played on the radio in those days, which was early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B,” Winter says, “but the first blues guy I ever met was Clarence Garlow, who did his daily radio show and lived in Beaumont.
“I met Clarence in a music store where I was giving guitar lessons and working. I was still a teenager, 16 or 17, and he came in to buy some guitar strings and I recognized his voice from the radio. You didn’t miss a voice like that, and from that meeting, we became good friends, and he helped me out a lot when I was growing up.”
Winter had his first shot at recording as a 15-year-old. “There was a talent show that we won that gave us some recording studio time, so I recorded a single, initially,” he says. Both brothers did well enough in school to attend college if they wanted to, and Johnny Winter did attend Lamar Technical College, for about a year. While he was there, a young Janis Joplin was also a student and would have graduated the same year as Winter, had they not both dropped out.
“I should have kept it up, too. I didn’t know Janis then,” he says, “but Janis and I went just long enough for us to know we didn’t fit in there. Just long enough for us to know we’d better leave. And her mother was the registrar at Lamar, I believe.”
His brother, Edgar, would go on to become a world famous keyboardist and alto saxophonist and leader of Edgar Winter’s White Trash Band and composer of several huge hits, including the instrumental “Frankenstein.”
Johnny, as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, would go on to sell out stadiums in the 1970s with the likes of Rick Derringer, brother Edgar, and other musicians.
Winter says the first blues recording that knocked him out in his youth in Beaumont “was either a Howlin’ Wolf [Chester Burnett] or a Muddy Waters record. I think it was Wolf’s ‘Somebody Walkin’ in My Home.’ And there were a bunch of great radio stations, there was KWKH out of Shreveport, there was WLAC out of Nashville, and a couple out of Mexico,” he says in a phone interview in October, before a two-week European tour.
Winter’s latest release, “Roots,” (Megaforce/Sony) pairs the master guitar picker and slide player with some equally famous musicians: Vince Gill, Derek Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes and even the Princeton-raised harmonica player and singer John Popper. “I just let Paul make some phone calls to these people, all of them I’ve known as friends over the years,” Winter says about putting together “Roots.”
Besides Nelson on guitar, Winter’s touring band includes longtime sidemen Scott Spray on bass and Vito Liuzzi on drums.
Soon after dropping out of college, Winter went to Chicago, partly because of his passion for blues, but also to play in a “twist” dance band. “I was playing ‘twist’ music in Chicago and making $1,500 a week, and this kind of money was unthinkable back home in Beaumont,” Winter says.
Winter eventually settled back in east Texas in Houston and began playing blues with bassist Tommy Shannon and the late drummer Uncle John Turner. One day in 1968, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine saw Winter perform with his trio, and the stellar review attracted New York-based manager Steve Paul to Houston to hear Winter’s blues-rock trio himself. Paul later formed a partnership with the late Teddy Slatus, and together, the two managed Winter’s career through the 1970s and ’80s.
“I thought Steve Paul was a fake,” Winter recalls on his first meeting with the impresario, who ran a club in lower Manhattan called Steve Paul’s Scene. “He just came to Houston and said, ‘I’m going to make you a star,’ so I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. When finally he came up with the money and the round trip plane tickets to New York, I figured, no matter who he turns out to be, at least it’ll be worth the trip.” That was December, 1968.
Paul indeed would prove invaluable in launching Winter’s career as a rock guitarist, because Paul hooked Winter up with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, who in January, 1969, signed Winter to a $1 million recording contract, an unheard of deal at the time.
Of Davis, trained as a lawyer but having since proved his reputation for spotting great talent, Winter says, “You just knew he was a good business man, and ultimately, it didn’t matter if he knew all that much about music or not, because we knew that he was in control of the operations, so I made sure I made a good impression on Clive. At the time, I couldn’t really tell if he knew what he was doing or not, but he obviously did.”
Since the release of “Johnny Winter” in 1969, and the famous double LP with only three recorded sides, “Second Winter,” in late 1969 with Shannon on bass and the late Turner on drums, Winter has recorded a slew of successful albums for Columbia, Virgin/Pointblank, Alligator Records and a variety of other smaller blues labels. For much of the 1970s he was so popular he was playing stadiums, arenas, and large concert halls.
By the mid-1980s, comfortably settled on East 85th Street in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, Winter fully returned to his blues roots, recording a series of great albums for the Chicago-based Alligator label.
Winter battled on-again, off-again heroin addiction through the 1970s and ’80s, which led to some health setbacks in the ’90s, including falling down some stairs and breaking his hip. “I don’t need a cane now, but I still can’t do a whole lot of walking.”
Since getting new management with Nelson, Winter’s shows have begun to attract old fans and younger fans who find the power, passion, and soul is back in his guitar playing and singing, even though he performs most of his concerts while seated. He begins every concert with an instrumental from a fellow Texas blues guitarist, Freddie King’s tune, “Hideaway.”
Given that Christmas is just around the corner, it’s likely Winter and his band will do a take on the only Christmas song he’s ever recorded, “Please Come Home For Christmas.”
At the December 16 concert, Winter says, “We’ll probably do that and tracks off the ‘Roots’ album.
Johnny Winter Band, Paul Plumeri, and TJ Nix, New Hope Winery, 6123 Lower York Road, New Hope, PA. Friday, December 16, 8 p.m. $45 to $55. 215-794-2331 or www.newhopewinery.com.