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Johnny Winter - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 24 / 6 / 2009

Johnny Winter - Interview


Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter talks to Lisa Torem about the craft of song writing, his favourite songs and some of his main musical influences

“Hit ‘em hard,” said Johnny Winter’s friend, second guitarist and manager, Paul Nelson, as he handed over the phone to Winter – fresh from a much-needed nap on his New England tour bus. Originally named Johnny Dawson Winter II, born February 23, 1944, this Beaumont, Texas blues-guitarist had a few strikes against him from the get-go – his Albino pigmentation means he is ultra-sensitive to light and requires frequent rest. Winter was raised in a musical family. He played the clarinet until the discovery of an overbite and then the ukulele until his uncle pointed out there were no “famous ukulele players,” before finally hitting the golden ticket with the guitar, Winter’s musical legacy spun gold. Along with younger brother Edgar, the boys won talent contests and made television appearances, appearing in ‘Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour’ where they attracted a diverse audience. As a teen Winter frequented blues clubs in Texas where local black musicians played – he sat in with Muddy Waters, B.B.King and Bobby Bland. Though racial tension raged during the tumultuous ‘60s, Winter had no qualms sitting in at these Texas clubs which imbued him with an opportunity to play with the great blues-men of the time and increased his visability. When asked about his legendary relationship with Waters, Winter pauses and with deep emotion says, “He was a really great guy. I loved Muddy,” and you swear by the sound of his buoyant drawl that Water’s amicable ghost has joined the conversation. Waters had referred to Winter as his “adopted son” in documented interviews so possibly Winter’s heart felt that kinship reciprocated. Subsequently, Winter produced and played guitar on the Grammy-award winning, come-back album, ‘Hard Again’ (’1977), Grammy-winning ‘I’m Ready’ (1978), Grammy-winning, ‘Muddy Mississippi Waters’ (1979) and ‘King Bee (1980). One popular album, ‘Special Winter’, had an unusual format – three sides. I asked Winter why this decision was made by the label. “Cause we didn’t have enough sides to put on anymore and didn’t want to leave anything out,” he says. I comment that this was unique. Winter concurs, “Yeah, it was. I can’t believe CBS let us do that!” Songs have honoured Winter’s outward appearance by way of image-filled lyrics. Case in point – ‘Illustrated Man’, a cut from the album, ‘Let Me In’, released by Virgin Records (1991) written by Fred James and Mary Ann Brandon. This song describes Winter’s tattooed torso. ‘THE ILLUSTRATED MAN’ He’s the illustrated man, baby He’s got tattoos everywhere People love his decorations They just have to stop and stare Got the Mona Lisa on his cheek The Van Gogh on his nose Got naked women all over him From his head down to his toes Got a screamin’ demon on his chest Cat face on his thigh He’s a walkin’ wonder box Until the day he dies… ‘Still Alive and Well’ by fellow musician Rick Derringer congratulates Winter for overcoming heroin addiction. ‘STILL ALIVE AND WELL’ Everyone I thought was cool is six feet underground Make love in the grass while the sun is shining down Did you ever look to see who is left around? When I think about the past it only brings me down I’m still alive and well Every now and then it’s kind of hard to tell I’m still alive and well When you’re down low Make me shake Make me whole earthquake Baby you can get out too I’m still alive and well So everyone will know. Derringer played a big role in Winter’s musical legacy although this “tribute” represents a “birds- eye” perspective of Winter. Derringer and Winter interacted with maniacal eptitude on YouTube viewings of ‘Mean Town Blues’ and I wondered why this kind of intimate, fever-pitched call and response by guitarists is not as prevalent currently with today’s bands. “Don’t know why it’s not happening anymore,” mused Winter. But in terms of Derringer, Winter had this to say, “He played different stuff than I did, but we played together real well. Really easy to get it with Rick. It just happened.” Winter pauses, “He’s a real good guitar player.” But, when I asked him about a song that brings tears to his own eyes, Winter chose a self-penned tune called ‘Stranger’. Winter says, “it’s a very emotional song.” STRANGER Hello, pretty stranger Can I sit here for a while? You know I’m kinda tired and lonesome Seems like I’ve been ten thousand miles Just want to talk to you awhile You know I’m not sure where I’m goin’ Bit I can tell you where I’ve been But I guess it really doesn’t matter Cuz I’m just looking for a friend Winter replicates the sentiment of these lyrics. Open and succinct, he oozes Southern hospitality. This six-string, silver-haired Samson doesn’t ramble or rush to fill the obligatory, awkward pause – but the reassuring intonation of his sparse, but full-bodied words flow effortlessly and soulfully like a metal slide across a bottleneck guitar. When asked if there are any other guitarists that share his lightening-speed facility for the electric guitar, Winter is quick to reply, “Alan Haynes.” Another Texan, Haynes boasts a self-produced 62 minute release: ‘Live at the Big Easy’ (Red Guitar Records) which has been compared to Winter. Tim Holek, in ’03, Southwest Blues, from the ‘Blues Town’ blog, says, “Imagine a late ‘60s Johnny Winter who performs a few notches slower than in those days…” Winter seems unphased by comparisions to other blues artists. Maybe having garnered wisdom through thirty-plus years of live performance has made him self-possessed, so he can generously share the expressive bounty with those beside him. Along with giants Little Milton and Mississippi John Hurt, Winter was inducted into the Blues Foundation, Hall of Fame in 1988. This foundation which originated in 1980 honours those who have “performed, recorded or documented blues.” In addition, Winter has had the Gibson Firebird constructed in his honour. But, though thrilled by both awards, Winter humbly incants, “I’m very happy about that, (almost a whisper) but the Laze (his other guitar) is my favourite.” I detect a tinge of veiled discomfort as he reveals this as though he is impaling a covert and sacred concubine. Winter says it like he means it in his own sweet time, his voice warm and caring like a crackling fire stoked by brittle kindling. I asked Winter how he feels about touring and he says, “That’s easy. I just love to play. No problem at all.” And then I relay a story about how a father once drove around the city at midnight lulling his toddler to sleep by the sound of Winter’s blues jammed into the minivan’s player. How did Winter feel about that? “That’s very strange. Never heard of that before. No never,” Winter laughs. I told Winter that he played Dylan’s ‘Highway 61’ faster than the original and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ faster than the original, but he couldn’t come up with the fastest song he’s ever played. He did, however. assuage the question about how he developed his speed, “Just the way I play,” he says succinctly. Winter explains that, “I’ve loved the blues ever since I was twelve years old. First, I heard it on the radio, then records. ‘Somebody in My Home’ by Howling Wolf,” he insists, won him over. His voice trails off hinting that this pivotal record made a gigantic impact on his blues temperance. He describes how he first acquired fame, “Steve Paul, {a New York club owner) – he got [me] my first recording contract. He saw an article in the ‘Rolling Stone’ and called me up in Houston.” Winter’s original band included uncle John Turner and Tommy Shannon on bass and it was here that they produced some of their most popular and successful records. Winter recalled why they disbanded, “They decided to do rock’n’roll,” but Winter was determined to immerse himself in the blues. I ask him, “Have you made any sacrifices to become Johnny Winter?” and he pauses, “It’s never been a sacrifice. I love everything I do.” And then I add, “and if you couldn’t play guitar?” and he laughs, “I have no idea. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.” “So there’s nothing else you’d rather do?” I ask once again, just wondering if he ever wanted to be a painter or gambler or candle-stick maker. “Just what I’m doin’,” Winter reassures me. I finally get it! (There’s no plan B.) I wonder out loud if Winter knows about any Winter tribute bands – are there any or would he like there to be? “I don’t know,” he says vaguely. And his response to the latter? “Oh, sure.” Winter muses about getting inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. “It was great. It was a real honour,” he says. And in 2005, Winter and brother Edgar got inducted into the Southeast Texas Walk of Fame at Ford Park in their hometown of Beaumont, Texas. But, thinking about his accomplishments brings to mind future generations – those musicians emerging. I ask, “what would you say to young musicians starting out?” Winter pauses – it’s an intense pause, maybe because he weighs each word so carefully and because of so much that he’s already overcome - and finally says, “Hard to think. Everybody’s situation is different. Stay away from hard drugs.” 2009 brought the release of Live ‘Bootleg Series Volume Four’ to a new set of Winter blues-enthusiasts and a series of club dates and tours to launch this release. Winter describes his current band as, “one of the best bands I’ve ever had,” and “a lot of very good musicians.” Paul Nelson has written three cuts that the band has recorded and currently play on tour, ‘Shakedown’, ‘Pack Your Bags’ and the self-titled ‘I’m a Bluesman.” (‘I’m a Bluesman’ discVirgin/EMI). Winter enjoys the new material that Nelson, along with bassist Scott Spray, has written, “I like it – we do a lot of old stuff, too.” “So you’re okay meeting the fans,” I ask. After all, there have been accounts of adoring fans stroking and pulling on Johnny after concerts. “Oh, sure,” he says about these post-concert interactions. "like small clubs, from about 100-1000 people,” he says, as opposed to the large venues, where Winter states, “I don’t feel as close to the people.” But to those fans that don’t actually see the soft-spoken man behind the raw, emblazoned power chords that reference Robert Johnson, hint at T-Bone Walker and pray to Albert Collins, or to those that beg for heart-breaking Tex-electric slide, it really doesn’t matter. Winter plays it all, but he’s not a deity. So, come and say hi, and leave it at that. Winter quietly closes our conversation. He says, “just appreciate what I do and not worship me.” The top two photographs are by Jim Summaria Photography www.jimsummaria.com. The middle photographs shows Johnny Winter's current band which consists from left to right of Vito Liuzzi (drums), Johnny Winter (guitar/vocals), Paul Nelson(guitar) and Scott Spray (bass).

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Johnny Winter - Interview

Johnny Winter - Interview

Johnny Winter - Interview

Johnny Winter - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
272 Posted By: Lisa Torem, Chicago, Illinois on 12 Apr 2010
Hi Alain, Johnny Winter has quite a comprehensive website. I suggest that you check it out and that you will, hopefully, find out the latest news and much information about his recordings. Blues Sage: You are so right. Thanks for pointing out that error. Thank you both for reading! Cheers, Lisa Torem
267 Posted By: ALAIN, FRANCE PARIS on 31 Mar 2010
Hi, First of all, I just want to say that Johnny is one of the five best guitarists the world ever knew, no matter he is black or white, and whatever the kind of music he can play,or the style rock and roll, blues, cajun, folk,pop, hard rock and others, so I'v no intend to convert anyone in my opinion, just to give and advice to all people who want to know what is an amazing uncopy-ed, magic and hypnotic guitarist, by the way still living an touring after more than 40 years on the road.........listen him on stage in concert, on cds and dvd video........ In second,I come back to my abstract and purpose, who are joined both in a question : do you know where I find and get the recorded live sessions on CD préviously unreleased, such as the unofficial material release, aka original live bootleg (not included authorized numbered live bbotlegs series) ? Thank you all ALAIN
209 Posted By: Blues Sage, Tampa Bay on 08 Aug 2009
It's Mississippi John "Hurt" not "Hart."

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