Born albino, Winter discovered early in life that some cultures considered albinos gods, while others abused and ostracized them. It was between these two extremes that Winter found himself throughout his life.
Blessed with talent, he blew minds with his fiery guitar work and had major labels falling over themselves to sign him. He helped advance electric blues into arenas in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
But his career, while marked by flashes of brilliance, was marred by greedy managers, drug addiction and an industry that came to view him as an oddity. What remained through it all was his worship of blues.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1944, Winter began playing guitar at age 11, inspired by blues artists like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. After cutting his first record at 15, he was stuck on a music career.
“That was the most exciting time,” he recalled in 2008. “I made my first record and I started playing in nightclubs, and I had my first drink. All the stuff was brand new, and you could be driving to the gig and hear your record on the radio.”
Winter played clubs throughout Houston and Austin, impressing electric-blues fans with his guitar work, an incendiary meld of rock and blues chops unlike anything heard before.
His break came in December 1968 when he was featured in a Rolling Stone story about the Texas music scene. Major labels came calling, and Winter was soon under contract to Columbia for what was reportedly the largest advance in the recording industry’s history at that time: $600,000.
As a child, Winter had dreamed of playing with Muddy Waters. He got his chance in 1974 when he and other young blues guitarists joined together in concert with older artists from the Chicago blues scene.
Winter went on to produce a quartet of albums for Waters, earning the elder bluesman Grammy awards and giving his career a well-deserved boost.
Sadly, Winters’ own career suffered over the years. A pair of former managers capitalized on his earlier recordings, earning money from them while Johnny never saw a penny. He dealt with heroin addiction in the 1970s and suffered health ailments in his later years.
He hit his stride again in the 1980s, recording for Alligator Records, and by the mid ’90s he was focused more on performing, where he showed that he’d not lost one bit of his brilliance. A stunning slide player, Winter used a metal slide cut from a pipe purchased at a plumbing supply store.
Perhaps no track demonstrates his furious slide work as well as his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” from Second Winter.
He played many guitars throughout his career but favored Gibson Firebirds, in particular a 1963 Firebird V.
“That first one I ever bought is my favorite because I’ve played it so long and I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “There’s nothing it can’t do.”
When it came to playing the blues, you could say the same about Johnny Winter. “It’s a living music,” he once said of the genre. “For me, blues is a necessity.”
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