JOHNNY WINTER: STILL ALIVE AND WELL

John Dawson Winter has been a troubadour for the blues for over forty years, plying his razor sharp licks from the Texas roadhouses where he first cut his teeth in the early 60's through the massive audiences of rock festivals like Woodstock, to his world tours of the present day. A true original in the Texas guitar slinger tradition of T-Bone Walker, Freddie King and Albert Collins, Winter's instantly recognizable guitar style and gravely roar have gained him a worldwide following and reverence in both the rock and blues communities alike.

Born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944, Winter and his younger brother Edgar played in a variety of local rock n' roll bands before they made their recording debut for Dart Records in 1959. In the early 60's, Johnny cut singles for several regional labels before moving to Chicago to immerse himself in the blues scene, jamming with local blues legends and a young Mike Bloomfield, among others. Unfortunately, Winter was unable to break into the Chicago blues scene and shortly moved back to Texas, where he played in various blues and rock and roll outfits for the next few years.

In 1968, after deciding to concentrate solely on blues, Johnny assembled a trio with (future Double Trouble) bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. The trio soon built up a following in Austin and Houston which resulted in a Rolling Stone magazine writer calling Winter "the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin." The subsequent buzz culminated in a major label bidding war, concluding with Winter signing with Columbia Records in 1969 and recording his highly regarded self-titled debut album shortly after, also appearing at Woodstock. Throughout the 70's, Winter released a slew of successful albums, often with collaborator Rick Derringer, including the now classic "Johnny Winter AND Live," and "Still Alive and Well," his comeback following a debilitating substance abuse problem.


In addition to being a world class guitarist, Winter won a Grammy in 1977 for producing Muddy Waters' landmark comeback album "Hard Again." The team of Muddy and Johnny stayed together long enough to win two more Grammys, for 1978's "I'm Ready" and 1979's effort "Muddy Mississippi Waters Live," before Muddy's death in 1983.

In the eighties, Johnny Winter was inducted into the Blue's Foundation's Hall of Fame and recorded three albums for Alligator including the excellent "Guitar Slinger," before settling in at his current home of PointBlank records. Nineteen-Ninety Eight saw the release the critically acclaimed "Live in NYC," a bold testament to his enduring feel for raw blues which contained tributes to Freddie King and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. "Live In NYC" captures the grit and fire that made Winter a living legend. Also recently released is the "Pieces and Bits" videotape (reviewed in TG June 2001), which is a compilation of JW videoclips throughout the years.

In late 2000, Johnny was sidelined with a broken hip after a fall at his home. He has made a full recovery and recently returned from a tour of Sweden in summer 2002. I caught up with Johnny in between sessions at The Carriagehouse, a Connecticut studio where he recently began recording tracks for his upcoming release, his fourth on the PointBlank label. At press time, two tracks are complete, and in the coming months Johnny will be recording another 11 tracks for the lp, which is tentatively scheduled for release in Spring 2002.

Tom Guerra: Hi Johnny, to start off with, I know you don't do many interviews, so it is an honor to talk to you. How are you feeling these
days?

JW: I am feeling pretty good, thanks. The hip is doing well, its healing. Lots of times it hurts when I'm playing but its getting better all the time.

TG: You are recognized today as really one of the ambassadors to the blues, responsible for turning on larger audiences to this music while giving credit to your heroes. What is your take on the State of the Blues in 2001?

JW: The blues has been around for years and with younger guys coming up all the time and doing pretty good, and I think its gonna stick around forever.

TG: Having produced and won Grammys for your work with Muddy Waters, to playing Woodstock to jamming with Jimi Hendrix, what do you feel has been the highlight of your career?

JW: Working with Muddy was definitely the biggest highlight of my career.

TG: You started out playing both rock and blues, but for the past twenty years or so have concentrated on your first love, blues. How do you feel about playing rock?

JW: Well I don't play rock anymore, but the blues is pretty rockin' sometimes (laughs). But as far as the music they call rock, I haven't
really ever played anything but rockier blues.

TG: You're best known for your fiery electric blues soloing, but your acoustic bottleneck blues playing like "Dallas" (from the debut lp) is
reminiscent of Robert Johnson, and is arguably some of the best ever recorded. What is your favorite acoustic setup, and what do you use for a slide on acoustic?

JW: I've got an old National, actually several old Nationals, and for slide, I've got a piece of conduit pipe that I got years ago. A friend of
mine from the Denver Folklore Society helped me get it from a plumbing supply house. He had used it before and felt that it was good. I used to play slide before this, but could never find a good slide. I'd use everything from a wristwatch crystal to broken off test tubes to lipstick cases, bottles... I tried everything, but nothing would work, until I found this conduit pipe, and I've used the same piece of pipe for 30 years for both acoustic and electric slide. Its just a piece of plumber's pipe that just fits my finger real good.

TG: What finger do you wear it on?

JW: I wear it on my little finger

TG: Do you have any plans to play any acoustic blues live?

JW: Well, I just don't feel comfortable doing it because I can't hear myself playing an acoustic live. Alot of people have asked me to play an
acoustic set in addition to an electric set, or maybe a little bit of acoustic, but its hard for me to hear.

TG: How about any plans for an all-acoustic blues album

JW: No, I don't think I know enough acoustic slide stuff to make a whole album (laughs).

TG: So how does it feel working on the new tunes...what can you tell the readers of VG and when can we expect a new album?

JW: Feels good. We're working on the album now and we've already got two tunes down "Lone Wolf" and "Cheatin' Blues." I'm working with Tom Hambridge, Susan Tedeschi's drummer and producer, and his band. Also working on the record is Dick Shurman, who produced my last few albums and goes back to (my days with) Alligator. We're recording this down at The Carriagehouse (Connecticut recording studio). Its hard to say exactly when the album is gonna come out because I still have alot of work to do on it, probably 3-4 months worth.

TG: Speaking of Alligator Records, one of my favorite cuts from that era is "Boot Hill" off the "Guitar Slinger" album. That just cooks!

JW: Well thank you, I love that one too.

TG: Over the years, how do you think your playing has changed?

JW: Its always been blues based, in the early days it was some rock n' roll, but now its all blues.

TG: You just got back from a tour of Sweden...Do you still enjoy playing live, and do you feel you play differently live versus in the studio?

JW: Yes, I still enjoy playing live a whole lot. I don't think I play really any differently live as opposed to playing in the studio... we just
go in and do two or three takes and its pretty similar to live.

TG: Going way back to your early days, do you remember who inspired you, both from a rock and roll and blues perspective?

JW: Initially it was Chet Atkins who inspired me. It was a terrible loss when he passed away, though he lived a beautiful life. I just picked up the record that he did with Mark Knopfler and it is a great record. And of course all of the blues guys back then, like (Howlin') Wolf, Muddy, B.B., I listened to all of them on the radio before I could get into the clubs.

TG: Do you remember your first good guitar and amp setup?

JW: The first good electric guitar I bought was an ES125 Gibson, with no cutaway and one pickup, a P90. It was a thicker body model from the 50's. A few years later I got a white SG shaped Les Paul. I wish I still had that one. I wish I hadn't sold all the guitars I did (laughs).

As far as an amp, my first one was a Fender Bassman, a tweed 4x10 model. Still a great amp!

TG: As far as your current setup, what are you primarily playing these days?

JW: I'm still playing the Lazer, built by Mark Erlewine in Austin. As far as amps, I'm playing MusicMans, HD410 model, really similar to a Super Reverb except they're a little bit louder.

TG: You've been playing the Lazer for close to twenty years now... What in particular do you like about that guitar...

JW: Its got a nice treble sound to it, like you can get on a Fender Strat, and it plays like a Gibson but lighter to hold.

TG: Speaking of Strats, what is the story behind the red Strat you gave Rick Derringer in the early '70's (which wound up on the cover to
Derringer's 1973's lp "All American Boy")?

JW: I always liked the sound of Strats, but I never have been able to play them...so, I gave that to Rick. Before I did, I put everything in the world on that guitar including the stop tailpiece trying to make it so I could play it, but I never could get that right. So I gave it to Rick...

TG: Throughout the years, besides the Lazer, you've been closely associated with Gibson Firebirds...do you still play a Firebird live?

JW: Yeah, I use it on all the slide songs.

TG: Do you use an open tuning for that?

JW: Yes, Open E tuning.

TG: How about strings, do you use very heavy gauge strings on the Firebird?

JW: Not too heavy, I use D'Addario 10s on both the Lazer and the Firebird.

TG: How did you develop your style of playing with a thumbpick...did you pick that up from Freddie King?

JW: No, I picked that up from my first guitar teacher, he was a country and western guitar player named Luther Nallie, who since then went on to play with The Sons of the Pioneers. He played blues for a long time before that. Luther played with thumbpick and his fingers. Also, I was listening to people like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins; they could play chords and a melody at the same time...using the fingers to play a melody while keeping the bottom going with the thumb. So Luther showed me how to do that.

TG: Ever play with fingerpicks?

JW: No, I never had any use for fingerpicks but I do use all my fingers.

TG: Speaking of Freddie King, you recently covered both "Hideaway" and "Sen-Sa-Shun" on your "Live in NYC - '97" cd. Obviously he was an influence, would you say that he was your favorite out of the "Three Kings" (Albert, B.B. and Freddie)?

JW: No, I'd probably say Albert King was my favorite out of the three, he had such as good style, a good attack.

TG: Did you ever get a chance to play with Albert?

JW: I don't think I ever got to play with Albert (laughs).

TG: Who are your all-time favorite musicians, and are there any current players you are listening to these days?

JW: Initially it was Chet Atkins who inspired me. It was a terrible loss when he passed away, though he lived a beautiful life. I just picked up the record that he did with Mark Knopfler and it is a great record. Of course Muddy (Waters)... Robert Cray is definitely one of the younger guys that I like, and as far as harp players, my favorite is Little Walter.

TG: For the majority of your career, you've been the only guitarist in your band, but you've had the good fortune to share the stage with a lot of the greats, including Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Rick Derringer. Do you like playing with other guitarists or would you prefer to play as a trio?

JW: I prefer a trio really (with just bass and drums), but enjoyed playing with those others as well. When I played with Jimi I always laid back, left hjm spaces, because I liked his playing so much and I wanted to hear him play. I didn't take the lead on most songs we did. There was one song "The Things I Used To Do" that we always did that I did take the lead on... There's a good tape of that floating around. As far as Derringer, he's a real good guitar players and his playing was solid and fit real well. And just hearing Muddy play was a big treat, we opened for him in the early days, and I had probably learned all of his records before we played together in the seventies. So by the first time I played with him I felt like I had played with him for years because I knew all his stuff.

TG: Do you have any plans for going out on tour stateside at any time soon?

JW: I'll be going to the UK next month, and then we'll finish the new record. As far as US tour dates, as they are booked they are posted on the website (www.johnnywinter.com).

TG: One of the most explosive performances I have ever seen was your rendition of "Highway 61" on the Bob Dylan tribute show at Madison Square Garden, with you playing slide on the Firebird. How did you go about that, did they just ask you and you went in and blew?

JW: Well, what's weird about that was they asked us to do it, but we didn't have that much time for rehearsal, really none. So I just got up there and plugged in and started playing, and I couldn't hear myself at all at first. I was standing on the monitors because I didn't have a big stack of amps, just had the Music Man, and I was getting drowned out completely. I kept making signs to the sound man and the band to turn me up, and finally after the first verse or so, I got turned up so I could hear it...but I was scared at first.

TG: You've had a very prolific career, recording more than 20 albums over the course of a 30 year period. What are your favorite Johnny Winter recordings?

JW: The Johnny Winter record, which was the first one for CBS is definitely one of them. Also, the ones with Muddy, especially Hard Again and the Muddy Mississippi Waters Live are up there. I like Still Alive and Well... for the rock records its my
favorite record. For other peoples' records, the record I produced for Sonny Terry called "Whoopin'" is one that I really like. That one's got
Willie Dixon playing bass on it...

TG: A lot of people got turned onto you during the "Johnny Winter AND" years, with the McCoys backing you up. Are those records on your list of favorites?

JW: I don't particularly care for those...

TG: What would you like Johnny Winter's legacy to be on the world of music?

JW: I'd like to be remembered for my work with Muddy...definitely one of the best moments of my career.

TG: Well Johnny, thank you for your time, and glad to hear you're feeling better.

JW: Thank you, its been a pleasure.

_________________________

MARK ERLEWINE ON JOHNNY WINTER...

Note: Mark operates Erlewine Guitars of Austin, Texas, maker of custom instruments including the Lazer, Johnny Winter's main guitar.

"I first became aware of Johnny Winter when I was in high school in Wheaton, MD. I got ahold of a copy of the Progressive Blues Experiment album, and not too long after that, I saw him at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970. My family used to run the bar backstage at the festival, and I was lucky enough to witness an amazing set that featured both Johnny and Luther Allison trading licks.

In 1974, I moved my guitar shop to Austin, Texas, and began building guitars, including the Chiquita, the mini-travel guitar. Years before I had apprenticed in my cousin Dan Erlewine's shop, and learned a lot from him. In the late seventies I went to a Johnny Winter show, and I brought him a Chiquita backstage... Johnny loved it and he bought it on the spot. A few years after this, I designed a headless guitar called the Lazer, which was built to my specs in Korea by IMC. Well, I took a black Lazer with me to a Johnny Winter show, and brought it back to him...and he bought that as well. I think he was tired of the weight of the Gibson (Firebird) he was playing on stage. He then bought a red Lazer before approaching me about a building a custom white Lazer. Around that same time, the contract with IMC was up and I began building the Lazers on a custom basis.

For his custom Lazer, Johnny wanted a two pickup model, with a single coil in the neck and a humbucker in the lead position, that could be split with a toggle switch. This became the Johnny Winter model, and featured a decal of one of his tattoos in between the pickups. Over the years I also built him custom gold metalflake Lazer, which I've never seen him play!!! (laughs).

I've sporadically kept in touch with Johnny over the years, which is difficult because he is rather reclusive. One time he wanted me to repair his main Lazer, the white one, and I had to drive down to San Antonio, pick up the guitar and take it to the shop, then return it, all in the same night. Another time, his management setup a meeting at 2:00 in the morning at my shop. One thing I can tell you about Johnny is that the few times we've been together, he's been real nice, really friendly and very complimentary. His skin is so pure and white, and wrinkle free...it must be because he stays out of the sun!

These days, I usually get calls from his guitar techs when they need special parts for his Lazers. His main guitar is still the white Lazer, which has barely anything left on the frets because he plays so hard. This must be his prized guitar, because he refuses to let me put new frets into it...kind of like Willie Nelson and his prized "Trigger" guitar...he won't let me touch the frets on that either!

I can usually tell when and where Johnny is out touring, because I start getting calls from his guitar playing fans telling me they've just seen him and asking me about the Lazer and how they can get one..."

_________________

LUTHER NALLIE ON JOHNNY WINTER: TG Talks to Johnny Winter's Guitar Teacher - Luther Nallie of the Sons of the Pioneers, arguably America's oldest group, around in one form or another since 1933.

TG: So Luther, Johnny mentioned that you were a big influence on him as a guitarist and a teacher that set him on his way. Was teaching your main gig back then?

LN: Yes, it was. I was also doing some club dates off and on, but teaching was my living. I did teach Johnny and Edgar both, Johnny more than Edgar. I remember this kid coming in who had previously taken from Seymour Drugan, a fine guitarist who had played on the "Breakfast Club" on one of the major radio networks. Johnny had me scratching my head a lot of times because he would soak up anything I taught him immediately, and I would have to think up something else real quick to show him. He was a very normal boy and very polite and extremely talented. It was always a pleasure when it was time for Johnny's lesson or if he just happened to come by to visit. I taught Johnny for about a year I think, and this was in 1956 in Beaumont at Jefferson Music Company.

TG: Johnny tells me you were responsible for teaching him his thumbpicking technique, and alot of things that went way beyond basic blues...

LN: Everybody knows what a super blues player Johnny is, but I don't think they know that he can do a lot of other things very well also. He does Chet Atkins style very well among many other styles. He is also capable of singing any type of song, country, pop or whatever. Again, everybody knows what a great blues singer he is.

TG: Did Johnny ever teach you anything?

LN: Heavens, yes! Every time he learned one of the new things the guys were doing with rock and roll (as it was at the time) he would show it to me.

TG: So it sounds like he was a pretty quick study...

LN: I was drafted into the army from June 1957 to May 1959, and when I came back after two years, Johnny was just a monster blues player. I was so proud of him. Not of what I had taught him, but what he had done for himself.

TG: What have you been doing since your days in Texas?

LN: I have been with the "Sons of the Pioneers", Roy Rogers old group, since 1969 and am still going at it. Johnny and I stayed in touch for a long time as he was growing up, or should I say maturing but I have lost track of him in the last fifteen or twenty years. (Note: TG has put the two back in touch). I saw Edgar a few years ago in Reno. We were playing Harrah's Reno and Edgar was playing Harrah's in Tahoe, so I got to visit with Edgar for awhile and was really good to see him.

TG: What are you doing these days, are you still touring?

LN: Yes I am. We spend most of the year in Branson, Missouri doing morning (10:00 AM) shows at the Braschler Theater and still travel some during the summer. We spend our winters doing a Chuckwagon Supper thing in Tucson, Arizona from January to the middle of April. We are based out of Branson, and I live in Hollister, Missouri (next door to Branson) and have made my home here since 1984.

Tom Guerra would like to thank Teddy Slatus, Mark Erlewine, Rick Derringer and Luther Nallie for their assistance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: East Coast guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra is working on the follow-up to his debut cd with Rick Derringer "Mambo Sons" on The Orchard Records.


 

BACK TO TOP | GUITARIST INTERVEWS