At the height of his powers, which was on just about any record issued under his name between 1968 and 1986, Johnny Winter was one the most potent and unrelenting blues stylists to roar out of Texas.
A wiry figure from Beaumont born with albinism, Winter could not have looked less like a bluesman. But once unleashed in performance, his guitar work and singing became something of a perfect storm. Sure, there were instances where he bowed more directly to the blues (as in his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment and 1977’s return-to-the-roots primer Nothin’ But the Blues). But Winter’s appeal was built around a sound that shunted blues tradition through the guitar-dominate sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His jams were tireless blasts of boogie-driven rock that favored drive and groove over subtlety. Winter’s singing was the same – a tough-knuckled howl that seemed to egg on the intensity of his playing.
But Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 70 while on tour in Switzerland, was also a product of his time. He found his place in an age of psychedelia, a situation cemented by a career defining performance at Woodstock. The freshness of the music he fashioned during that era was captured on the first two entries in a near flawless stream of recordings for Columbia – 1969’s Johnny Winter and 1970’s Second Winter.
There were extraordinary highs, like a late ‘70s alliance with Muddy Waters that resulted in three sublime Winter-produced recordings for the blues master, as well as near fatal lows that included an early ‘70s addiction to heroin. And as with any great artist whose career has prevailed through both extremes, there have bee numerous recording triumphs that have never received their just critical due, including 1974’s Saints and Sinners (his most stylistic diverse rock-dominate set with a deliciously nasty version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues), 1980’s Raising Cain (a primal blues adieu to Columbia), 1985’s Serious Business (arguably the finest of three albums Winter cut for the famed blues label Alligator) and 1991’s Let Me In (a looser, blues dominate session Pointblank/Charisma).
“I remember making records when I was a teenager – maybe 16 or 17 years old,” Winter told me in a January 1992 interview. “I thought at the time, ‘I wonder what these are going to sound like to me when I’m 50 or 60. I had an awareness even then that I was making a record for the future.”