By Brian M. Howle
The working theory has always been: the blues was the American black man’s initial contribution to an original musical style, an impetus that precluded rock ‘n’ roll. No one would dispute it, mainly because you can’t fight facts – and the truth. And while many white men have sought the Holy Grail of bluesdom acceptance, only a select few are admitted to the “Legends in Their Time” blues club. The dean of this group is, without question, Johnny Winter.
Born in Beaumont, Texas on Feb. 23, 1944, Johnny Winter had learned to play clarinet, ukulele and guitar by age 5. He formed his first band, Johnny & The Jammers in 1959 at age 15, along with 12-year-old brother Edgar on keyboards. His first records were two original songs, recorded by Dart Records in 1960, and as his legend spread, he would sit in with his heroes – Muddy Waters, Bobby Bland and B.B. King – whenever they came to town. The true measure of his ability came in 1962, when B.B. King was playing a Beaumont club called The Raven. Folks were asking B.B. to allow young Johnny to play. So B.B. asked him for his union card (which he had), and after continuous requests, finally capitulated and called Winter up on stage. Johnny played his song, got a standing ovation, and then B.B. took back his guitar!
Brought to national prominence by a 1968 Rolling Stone article about blues artists on the Texas scene, Johnny became the object of a heated bidding war by various recording labels. In 1969, Columbia Records won out, and his self-titled Johnny Winter was released to rave reviews and massive sales. In the 35 years that have followed, he has recorded over 17 albums of his own music, and has performed on and/or produced another nine for other artists.
Johnny’s latest release is I’m a Bluesman, on Virgin Records, and is his first new CD in eight years. The band on the CD is his road-tested touring band, consisting of ace harmonica man James Montgomery, bassist Scott Spray, drummer Wayne June and guitarist Paul Nelson. The CD features guest appearances by such friends as keyboardist Reese Wynans (from Stevie Ray Vaughn’s celebrated backing group Double Trouble) and guitarist Mike Welch. A question of finding the time and the right material, plus a long recuperation from hip surgery, I’m a Bluesman contains 13 tracks. From three tunes by his friend, Paul Nelson; to songs by blues men Hop Wilson and Lazy Lester, who inspired Johnny during his early days in Texas; to his own compositions “Sweet Little Baby” (a slide drenched song he wrote during a tour stop in Central Europe’s picturesque Prague); the electrifying “Lone Wolf” (the album’s first single); and the finale of “Let’s Start Over Again,” composed with harmonica player James Montgomery. Pulse! reviewer Ted Drozdowski notes: “Winter is living the blues cliché that music players improve with age.”
In preparation for his appearance at House Of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, SC on July 20, I had the tremendously good fortune to speak with Johnny via telephone earlier this week.
Howle: Well, Mr. Winter, I must admit – I’m a musician first and a writer second, and right now I’m in a dual-world nirvana! It’s an honor to speak with you.
Winter: Ahhhhhh … well, thank you very much.
Howle: So, what’s the basis for the new CD, “I’m A Bluesman”? What’s on it?
Winter: Well, some really good blues.
Howle: Alright, I guess that’s a classic example of an understatement! How did you go about picking the material for this record?
Winter: Oh, we had all kinds of material. We had to go through it all, and decide what was good, and what was bad. The songs I picked were the ones I was going to sing, so they were the ones I was in tune with.
Howle: And what kind of gear are you using these days – guitar, amps, etc.?
Winter: I’ve got a Lazer guitar, and a Gibson Firebird that I use for slide work. I use a Music Man 4-10 amp.
Howle:: How did you hook up with harmonica player, James Montgomery?
Winter: Well, we just called him up and asked him if he’d be interested – and he was real interested! Oh yeah, I’ve loved working with James.
Howle: And how has the musical landscape changed over the course of your career? What do you see new that is coming up?
Winter: Hey, the blues … it comes and goes. I mean, it will hit it big for a time, and then it gets where it seems like no one is listening to it. You just have to stick with it.
Howle: Is there anyone out there who has caught your ear, any young artist you like?
Winter: Well, Derek Trucks is really good.
Howle: And finally, is there any message you’d like to extend to your fans here?
Winter: Well, I don’t have much to say, really … just please buy the CD and come see us at House Of Blues.
Ah, if only our politicians were as succinct and to the point. Johnny is a man of few words when describing himself, but his guitar and his music speak volumes when he and his band perform.
For anyone who loves the blues, or anyone who wants to find out what the blues is really all about – come see Johnny Winter at the House Of Blues on Tuesday, July 20, 2004 at 8:30 p.m. Your extra bonus for this show is opening act, the D.B. Bryant Band from Sumter, S.C. A regional favorite, no one enjoys performing for an audience more than D.B., who can hold his own with just about any blues guitarist. Whenever he picks up his natural finish Strat, grabs a Bud bottle and starts playing slide, that smile never stops. For tickets or information, call (843) 272-3000 or visit the website: http://www.hob.com
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 15, 2004.