At 69 years of age, American blues legend Johnny Winter has found a new lease on life, is consistently touring and working on a new studio album. Greg Phillips spoke to the guitar great.
The atmosphere inside BB King’s Blues Club & Grill in New York City is as vibrant and exciting as the parade of tourists and freaks just around the corner in Times Square. At this point, it’s now standing room only inside the club, where 600 blues enthusiasts are in high spirits, partly due to the waitresses spruiking multiple shots in their mixed drinks, but mostly in anticipation of seeing guitar legend Johnny Winter.
Winter is making somewhat of a ‘come-back’. Not that’s he’s ever been away, he’s just been misled (by former management) and mistreated (mainly by himself), leaving the bluesman less visible then he should have been. Thankfully, Johnny’s in good hands now with fellow band member and minder Paul Nelson steering him in a healthier direction. A recent appearance on Letterman’s Late Show placed Johnny front and centre in the world’s view and reminded us all why he’s so revered as a guitarist. “Our living Hendrix” as Nelson describes him.
Johnny’s band hits the stage to loosen up themselves and the audience prior to Winter’s appearance. It’s week 2 of a 3 week residency at BB Kings. When he does arrive, it’s with a shuffle and some assistance. The years have not been kind to Johnny physically. However, once seated the fingers go into auto pilot and the signature licks fly from the guitar like it’s 1970 all over again.
For those who need a short music history lesson, Johnny Winter is an American blues guitarist who released a swag of celebrated high energy blues albums in the 70s and 80s and he also produced three Grammy winning albums for Muddy Waters. Johnny and his brother Edgar, who were both born with albinism, also played together in highly regarded bands. Johnny counted icons such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as personal friends. Despite a life of drugs and alcohol, Johnny’s memory is as sharp as tack and he fondly recalls the pioneering days of rock and roll. “I was about ten when rock and roll first came out and to me it was just great,” Johnny told me. “I was listening to country music before that. Rock and roll was really exciting. Jimi Hendrix was the best guitarist I ever played with. I couldn’t believe how good he was. The first record that came out, Are You Experienced, I got that straight away.”
Johnny Winter band guitarist Paul Nelson is on a mission to spread the Winter word and not only preserve the legacy but rally Johnny to continue to play and record. Nelson was instrumental in driving Johnny to record his 2011 album Roots, a collaboration with a host of Winter devotees such as Vince Gill, Warren Haynes, John Popper, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi. A new album Step Back, featuring Dr John, Billy Gibbons and Brad Paisley is currently in production. Nelson explained to me his motivation for helping Johnny out. “Number one, he was my guitar hero,” Paul said. “That’s how it first started. Then it developed into a friendship. Then I saw there was a problem just on a human level and saw that the guy needed help. I thought if I was ever in that position, how could I get out of it? So he asked me to help him with his career. He’d had bad management and it was really touch and go there. Then little baby steps here and there, he had eye surgery, these little changes and now it’s exploded. He’s having a comeback now that is amazing. His appearance on Letterman really cemented it. He’s our living Hendrix. I think people are realising that they don’t want to miss the boat on this guy. When people are down and out you kind of write them off but he’s always been there and he is such a huge influence on everyone. That’s why everyone is saying yes to these Roots records, there are no nos! Seeing him get better and smiling and playing great, and being on stage with him and seeing that energy, that dynamic coming back and going toe to toe and playing with him healthy inspires all of us too.”
A guitarist’s guitarist … that’s how many would describe Johnny. He lives and breathes the instrument. It’s his thumb-picking style in particular which other players are curious about. “I started using the thumb pick because I liked Chet Atkins,” he said. “I had a guitar teacher when I first started who used one and it just came natural to use a thumb pick. A lot of the old blues guys used thumb picks too.”
While Johnny dragged out his famous Gibson Firebird at BB Kings for some impressive slide work, it’s an Erlewine Lazer guitar that he’s become attached to in more recent years. “It’s easy to play and sounds good,” is his short, sharp summary of the guitar. Winter chose the Erlewine because he felt it sounded like a Fender but played like a Gibson. He’s struggled to find the perfect instrument from either of the major guitar makers, but one came close. “I had a Fender Mustang when I first signed with Columbia,” he said. “It felt real nice but I haven’t had that in years. I also had a white Les Paul Custom that Iooked like an SG which was a real nice guitar. I wish I still had that one.” It’s Johnny’s Gibson Firebirds however, that most people associate him with. “Yeah, I been using those since 1970. The neck has broken on it 5 or 6 times but I keep gettin’ it fixed.” Gibson has released a signature version of the Firebird as part of their Inspired By series and are now considering a signature version of his white Firebird.
Word had got around in the press that filmmaker Greg Oliver had been following Winter around with a camera in early 2012 with a view to producing a documentary, however things went quiet on the project. For Winter, who is so used to being ripped off by management, he just assumed the worst. “I don’t think he has enough money to finish it,” Johnny said. Nelson however was quick to set the story straight. “No,” he laughed. “He’s on another project, the projects have overlapped. He’s doing a documentary on Lou Albino, the wrestling guy. We are playing The Olympia in France, in April with Alvin Lee and Robben Ford. He’s going to film there and Johnny in the studio, then he’s got to do all the cameos.” (Sadly, Alvin Lee passed away prior to the gig)
Asked what he is most proud of, Winter has no hesitation in citing his work with Muddy Waters. Producing three Grammy Award winning albums for Muddy, Winter was intent on capturing authenticity. “I just tried to make him sound the way he did in the 50s,” Johnny stated. “We put a room mic in the middle, so we got a lot of room sound. Of course we got everything individually but we took a lot of stuff from the big mic in the middle of the room. I like the way things sounded in the 50s and 60s. I like mono records. I never really liked stereo … still don’t.”