Johnny Winter






It was the late 60’s when I first saw Johnny Winter on an album cover. It was black and very striking because he had white hair and pink eyes (he’s an albino). But I recognized some names on the back cover- songs, songwriters, musicians, producer, and was curious. There was some bluesy shit going on in here, Jackson!

My older brother had albums like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors, but I was well into a somewhat snobby acoustic blues only phase at that time and was teaching myself blues on an acoustic guitar and struggling with playing harp in a rack (harmonica holder).I did own several electric blues albums like Electric Mud and Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign, so I was making some progress in my prejudice against electric music.

I know I looked at that album on two or three different occasions before I bought it- the King Of The Budget Bins was slow to pay full price for an album he’d never heard any cuts off of. No one I knew had ever even heard his name before, but I broke down and got it.

I took it home and listened to it. It took a few times, but it grew on me. I heard something I’d heard a few times on some of my other albums. It was raw and real, down and dirty, emotional, but also technically well done. It was like Johnny Winter had the same album collection at home that I did, learned off them like I was attempting to do, put his own spin on it and came up with something that was his own. Very reverent to the blues traditions, but breaking some new ground. Great vocals, great three-piece band and some rip-snortin’ guitar playing that no one else in blues was doing at the time. Young Acoustic-Boy TL was impressed. And he was taking notes.

Every decade or so there comes a blues guitar star on the scene who makes the transition to acceptance by the rock world. In the 60’s and into the 70’s, Johnny Winter was THE MAN. Even people who had no idea what blues was knew JW. Later on came George Thorogood during the era of disco, then it was Stevie Ray Vaughn, then Jeff Healy, then Johnny Lang. Regardless of how many stellar bluesmen there are out there, the general public seems able to embrace only one at a time. Johnny Winter was the first.

As the first of the above mentioned stars, he was a pioneer. When he was coming up he had to deal the ridiculous challenge of whether white people could play blues. (Jazz musicians had to deal with that several decades before). The quality of his music shut down all of that BS. To wit: Muddy Waters chose Johnny to produce his last three albums, which proved to be the best selling of Muddy’s career! I was sensitive to that same issue when I first came out with my band, until I realized that the only people who EVER brought it up were white people who didn’t know anything about blues! I started out playing with black people, for black people, and they never questioned my right to play the music- they were interested in something deeper than color.

Fast forward to the 80’s. I had put together my band, was hot on the club scene, had made my first album ( All The Way Live ), which sold well- even in Europe! I’d survived some personel changes, started writing my own songs, found a drug dealer with money to burn, er, secured funding for my next album, which was Lookin’ For Trouble. Ty Ford producing, John Postley on bass and Kieth Brooks on drums. We were loaded for bear! Hard-charging, heavy-hitting, take no prisoners stuff.

I set my sights on being that next guitar star. The biggest blues label, then and now, was Alligator Records. We sent them a copy of Lookin’ For Trouble hoping to get signed as a band. Let’s just say I wasn’t running to the mailbox every day looking for a repy. To my surprise and delight, Ty got a response.They liked my songwriting, but couldn’t use us as a band. I was bummed, but knew that this was a door opening that we could use.

This was the first time of many that I heard that same song from a record label- too funky, not traditional enough, too fusion (featuring solos by the rhythm section), blah blah. I fianally quit trying to get “signed” and focused on building up my song catalogue and my own record label. I could do my music my way and later for the Blues Police.

Bruce Iglauer, President of Alligator, especially liked Too Old To Rock And Roll and Lookin’ for Trouble. He took Lookin’ For Trouble to Roy Buchannan first and it was recorded with Delbert McClinton on vocals, but it didn’t get released. Next, Johnny Winter got it.He liked the song but it didn’t make it on an Alligator release. It ended up on Winter of ’88, on the MCA label. I got the feeling later that Johnny wasn’t happy on MCA. He told me “Great song- the album (Winter of ’88) sucked.

Either way, I was a published songwriter! Bruce and I split the royalties and when that first check for $500 rolled in I said ” My goodness- I didn’t even have to move any equiptment!” Plus, I got to envision something in my brain: One of my favorite artists, that I used to sit around and try to figure out his style, had to sit down and learn something of mine! I thought about that for about two seconds, then I let it go- it was too outrageous to comprehend.

Another cool benefit was that we got friendly with Teddy Slatus, Johnny’s manager, and got to open up for him whenever he was in the Mid-Atlantic region. We did the Wax Museum in DC, the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly, and several shows at the original Hammerjack’s in Baltimore.

Ah, Hammerjack’s in the 80’s…… The Headbanger’s Capital of the East Coast, the Heavy Metal Haven, the REAL hard-rock cafe……. no blues acts had EVER played there before ( Buddy Guy did much later, but he was the only other one, as far as I know). Sold out shows, and we kicked ASS. All my people up from Virginia, over from Maryland, DC and Delaware, and down from Pennsylvania, all there to see their Homeboys batting in the big league. I still have people come up to me and reminisce about those shows.

I was really looking forward to meeting Johnny Winter, but didn’t get to for the first four or five shows. There were always lines of people trying to do the same thing. I waited in line in Philly, but gave up after twenty minutes or so. I went back to the “B” dressing room, which was very seedy in an 80’s way, with remnants of sloppy, rowdy partys that had gone before stained all over the ratty furniture. I heard a faint, scratching noise at the door, not a knock, and I looked up and who was there but Johnny Winter himself! He had made time to come over and introduce himself. He was thin and very frail but he thanked me for the song and said some encouraging things. Thanks for taking the time Bro’.

The next time we were together was in Wilkes-Barre Pa. We opened up for him him and after the show he took me past a long line of autograph seekers and onto the tour bus. He said “Keep doing what you do- you’re one of my favorite guys.” A classic moment in TL World.

Johnny had some health problems for a while but is now out and touring again. Be sure to get out and see him when he comes to your area. He’s a blues pioneer and a blues legend. He went his own way and he made his own way. There it is. -TL

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