John Dawson Winter III will almost certainly go down in history as the only cross-eyed albino guitar hero that rock and roll has produced.
Along with his younger brother Edgar, Johnny’s talent was spotted early in Beaumont, Texas. He made his first record in 1960 as Johnny and the Jammers and for the whole of the decade he made many records ranging from cheesy 60’s pop to hard-edged R&B.
The British invasion of 1964 onwards ironically brought popular interest in the blues back to prominence in America and there were few more striking and exciting blues players than Johnny Winter. He matched it with a suitable rough growl of a voice.
For a $300,000 advance he signed to Columbia in 1969. His band was Tommy Shannon on bass (who was later in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band) and John 'Red’ Turner on drums.
Their first official release (after a plethora of unofficial and cashing in on releases of old material – the best of which is easily The Progressive Blues Experiment) Johnny Winter in summer of ‘69 was a startling debut. Searing electric and acoustic blues, often performed at breakneck speed, Winter had no equal. The follow up, in January 1970, Second Winter was more of the same - superb blues rock. Second Winter was that rarest of things – a three sided double album. The blank fourth side confusing many stoned listeners for years!
Winter broke up his trio in favour of a new rock band, Johnny Winter And with guitar prodigy Rick Derringer, Randy Joe Hobbs and Randy Zehringer. Their first album was much more rock than blues and was his best selling album so far. Their live album follow up was bigger still and saw them steaming through rock 'n' roll classics and blues. For many this was their first experience of Winters’ live licks. Quite simply it blew everyone away. Winters’ cutting trebly tone was as unremitting and high octane as his private life.
For years Winter wrestled with drug addictions and he went into rehab with a severe heroin addiction.
He came out in 1973 with the perhaps optimistically title Still Alive and Well. It was first of several patchy albums on manager Steve Paul’s new Blue Sky label that made only modest impact on American charts.
Of course, Johnny was still a huge live act. 1976’s Captured Live illustrated just how superb he still was. His 10 minute version of Highway 61 revisited was a unique reworking that only Winter could pull off.
Perhaps some of Johnny’s finest work was on Muddy Waters Hard Again album in 1977. It showed Johnny was still a blues master despite ongoing ill health.
He took about 4 years out in the early 80’s, but a quartet of albums for Alligator from '84 to '88 were some of his best work. He won a Grammy for 1986’s clipped and edgy blues on Third Degree.
1991’s Let Me In was another top quality record benefiting from good production; Winter unleashed some of his fiercest licks on songs like ‘Illustrated Man.’
Though working sporadically and still suffering from extend bouts of ill health, he was still able to make another great live album in 1997 in New York.
Johnny Winter is a blues man in every way. Still stick-insect thin, clearly, he’s never exorcised all his personal demons, but it is surely this pain that has given us some of the best blues licks committed to record. His recordings of ‘Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Koo,’ ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,’ and ‘Its My Own Fault’ are classics in their own right.