By Christopher Scapelliti
When asked recently what he would like to leave as his musical legacy, Johnny Winter replied, "I just hope I'm remembered as a good blues musician."
Winter, one of the leading lights of electric blues, died in Zurich on Wednesday, July 16. He was 70. The cause of death is unknown at this time.
Winter's modest aspiration for his legacy was assured from the start of his career. As a figure on the Austin blues scene, he cut his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, for a small local label in 1968. The album got the attention of Rolling Stone magazine, which published a story about the young blues upstart, describing Winter as “a cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.” (Winter was born with albinism.)
Though just 23 at the time, Winter had been performing live for nearly 10 years, mostly with his keyboard-playing brother, Edgar. The teenaged guitarist would pass club owners a fake ID stating he was actually 24. Those who doubted its authenticity kept their mouths shut once they heard him play.
"We started doing our first club gigs when I was 15," Winter said in 2010. "Boy, my parents hated me doing that! It took me a long time to convince them to let me keep doing it. Edgar was only 12. Our drummer’s father was supposed to be taking care of us, but all he wanted to do was to go out and drink. He didn’t pay any attention to us at all, but it made my folks feel better that he was going to be there watching us."
In December 1968, electric blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield invited Winter to perform on a song during his set at the Fillmore East in New York. Representatives from Columbia Records saw that performance and within days signed Winter for $600,000, an advance that at the time was, reportedly, the largest in the history of the recording industry.
Thus began Winter’s rapid-fire ascent to superstardom. His self-titled Columbia debut was released in early 1969. At the same time, The Progressive Blues Experiment was reissued to take advantage of Winter's growing fame. Suddenly, Winter had two albums in circulation at the same time. Overnight, a new guitar hero was born.
Winter quickly established his signature blues-rock sound with his aggressive and confident take on established tunes, including Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."
But the song that many casual listeners best associated him with is "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo." Written by his friend and fellow musician Rick Derringer, the song was a minor hit when it first appeared on 1970's Johnny Winter And, the debut album by his group of the same name (which also featured Derringer and his brother Randy on drums).
In those early years, Winter was almost always seen playing a Gibson Firebird. Though he played many guitars during his career, including a Steinberger in recent years, the Firebird remains the guitar that many associate with him.
"I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked," Winter explained. "And when I played it, I discovered I liked the way it sounded too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini-humbuckers on the Firebird have a little more bite and treble.
Winter's rising career was briefly sidelined by heroin addiction in the mid Seventies. The lost career momentum, and the fading popularity of blues rock, kept him from achieving broader popularity.
None of that seemed to bother him, though. By 1977, he got an opportunity to work with his longtime hero, Muddy Waters. Over the next five years, Winters produced three studio albums and a live disc for the blues legend, earning Waters three Grammy Awards in the process.
Winter continued recording and performing over the years, headlining events, including the Chicago Blues Festival, and performing at two of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festivals. Though health issues and management problems sidelined his career in the Nineties, he returned healthier and happier in 2003.
Winter recently announced the upcoming release of his new album, Step Back. Scheduled for a September 2 release, it features a cast of Winter’s friends and torchbearers, including Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Dr. John, Leslie West, Brian Setzer and Joe Bonnamassa.
At the time of his death, Winter was on an extended tour, which took him to Europe. His final show was last Saturday at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria.
Despite health setbacks, some of which were the result of his albinism, Winter spoke positively about his life in interviews, while never shying from discussions of his darker experiences, as in his 2010 authorized biography, Raisin' Cain.
"Everything is in there," Winter said of the book, "the good stuff and the bad stuff: how hard it was growing up in Texas being an albino, the early days of my career, signing the big record deal with Columbia, my problems with drugs. And it’s told in exactly the way that it happened. I’ve led a very interesting life!"