The car went over a heave in the road and the radio came on. There was something wrong with the wiring in your dad’s ’28 Studebaker, it didn’t like East Texas roads so the radio was spiteful, holding back then rolling out at usually unfortunate moments. No one even messed with it anymore. Life in the 1950’s, just waiting for something to happen. You’re a ten year old kid in Beaumont Texas riding in the back. You’re also a cane-switch skinny albino, a rare thing anywhere, that gets the crap kicked out of him a couple times a month just cause, I don’t know, yer too white. The heat is so cruel the scratchy sounds of Hank Williams coming from the radio seem stifled, wavy almost. All the windows are open and the view out your window is a shimmered mirror. Shaky skinny, with the beak of a hawk, a little cross eyed, face and body all sharp angles. Riding in the back of the old man’s dusty jalopy he wouldn’t show his mother, you turn to your younger brother sitting next to you in the back. He looks exactly like you.
That’s the blues man.
John Dawson Winter was born in 1944 and grew up in a town of wildcatters and dock workers. The year before Johnny D was born Beaumont experienced race riots that got national attention in a summer where there were riots across the country in cities like Detroit, Mobile, LA and Harlem. The war years had created jobs, but it threw together whites, African-Americans and Latinos who flocked to the cities for defense work. The lack of city foresight, planning, resources, and housing across the country resulted in tensions inflamed by racism and fed by war lust. A black military policeman riding a bus in Beaumont was forcibly dragged out, beaten, and shot four times by the local constables because his knee was too close to the whites-only section. A white woman claimed she was raped by a black man, and despite being unable to identify her assailant 4000 white dock workers and concerned citizens got it on. Roving gangs destroyed 100 homes in the black section and these hoodlums spread across the city looking to make things right through widespread violence, burning and looting. The National Guard and Texas Rangers were called in to knock heads together, always a calming influence on a rioting populace. The state highway patrol had to shut down access to the town to keep more whites from surrounding areas from joining the party.
Times turn slowly in places like East Texas, and Beaumont retained its stew of segregation and muttering mistrust. But Johnny Winter was undeterred. He fell in love with 50’s rock and roll, listening to local DJ’s like JP (Big Bopper) Richardson and Clarence Garlow who had a radio show at a black radio station in Beaumont KJET. Winter was opened to rural blues and Cajun through Garlow who took the kid under his wing. Despite continuing racial strain in the city Johnny was hitting the black blues clubs in his early teens, unable to stay away from that heartbeat he would hear his entire life. And somehow, even being the only white boy in the club, he was protected by his sincerity, and finally, his guitar. When he was 17 he and his 14 year old brother Edgar went to see B.B. King at the Raven in Beaumont. He enlisted people in the club who knew him to cajole B.B. into letting the white boy play. King eventually relented. Even at 17 Johnny had his chops in and got a standing ovation. Here we go.
8 years later here he is with Johnny Winter And at the Capital Theater in Port Chester NY. That’s Rick Derringer on backup guitar.
Easily the shortest live 12 minute song I know.
Johnny D had the magic fingers that slapped the blues upside the head with jaw dropping rock and roll. He wasn’t playing the guitar. He was using it. He was using it to scream at the blues angels. And his voice was as distinctive as his guitar playing. You hear that slide, those licks, or that voice, and you knew immediately who was on the radio. My son, a devoted vocalist snob, will talk your ear off for a half hour about the essential tools a vocalist has to have to be considered a great singer, like vibrato, tone, pitch, range, growl across that range culminating in Michael Jackson, the greatest ever in his opinion, and that’s hard to argue with. But even Dean at the end of his rant will pause, and go, “Then of course, there was Johnny Winter. Amazing.” No rules. Just plugged in with that crazy emotion.
In 1968 at 24 Winter had the attention of the national blues/rock scene and started recording for Columbia. His first album of blues classics went to No. 24 on the Billboard album charts. In 1970 he recorded Live Johnny Winter And. That was my first album of Johnny, and he’s been a favorite ever since. He didn’t just have style and chops, he had a volcanic approach to his playing that flew out of the speakers, grabbed you by the throat, and walked you right over a cliff.
After wearing out an album and two 8 tracks of this rocket, I got a chance to see Johnny at the Waterbury Theater in CT around 1973. I have never been that excited to see anybody, then or since. I remember vividly the weeks leading up to the concert with two tickets in my hand for myself and brother Ed. I was going to see the master. Experience the power in a venue designed for movies. It was going to be a night that could change my life. Yeah, we all have a predilection for hyperbole at that age. But if you believe it, it don’t matter man. It can happen.
These were the days when audiences got the weird idea that throwing a bottle of wine at the band was the height of homage. People that should’ve stayed in their trailers would heave a quart bottle of Boone’s Farm at the stage trying, I don’t know, to connect somehow. When Johnny came out on the stage the rowdies were already rocking an organ back and forth down front on the floor, and halfway through the first song the bottle flew right at Johnny’s head. That was it. He yelled at the crowd and walked out. End of concert. As the curtain closed Ed caught sight of Edgar Winter in the wings. If he was there, he was going to play. Balls. Life ended up not changing that night. I can still feel the hole in my stomach as we walked out through the front door of the theater, knowing we’d missed something crazy special. Assholes on parade.
Winter went though the 70’s like a tsunami. His trio with Tommy Shannon on bass and Uncle John Turner on drums kicked ass everywhere they went. Shannon later played for Stevie Ray Vaughn and now backs Tab Benoit. One of the luckiest musicians in history, second only to Ringo Starr. In 1977 Johnny produced and played guitar on the Grammy winning Hard Again with Muddy Waters and James Cotton. Unbelievable album, and introduced a new fan base to the Mannish Boy.
I still own a copy of his Let Me In album from 1991, full of his signature rock/blues and scorching solos. And as Johnny got older he returned more and more to the rural blues he loved on his recordings. Which was alright by us. Even pulled out the old National Steel for one cut.
Johnny. Be good man. Loved you madly.