IT'S BEEN A long, strange road for Johnny Winter, but the good news is that it’s still winding.
The iconic superstar blues guitarist and singer signed with Columbia Records for a whopping $600,000 in 1969 (back when money was really worth something), played Woodstock, and subsequently became —as did his brother Edgar— one of the biggest blues-influenced rock & roll acts of the ‘70s. He’s released almost 30 albums of fiery, slashing slide guitarwork and impassioned vocals to date.
However, recurring substance abuse problems, fanned by an unhealthy relationship with a former manager found the heavily-tattooed matchstick of a frontman slipping into a rather sad state during much of the ‘90s and the beginning of this decade.
With his famous chops in decline and his mind in a haze, he unwittingly did no small amount of damage to his career. And yet, through that dark period, the majority of his diehard fanbase stuck by him, longing for the day when Winter could reclaim his status as one of the most invigorating and idiosyncratic showmen in his field.
By all accounts, that day has finally arrived.
With the help of his longtime friend (and now bandmate), celebrated guitarist Paul Nelson, Johnny Winter’s back in the game, with a vengeance. Gone are the days of phoned-in performances and shady business dealings. For the past few years, the multiple Grammy-winner has been turning in shows and recording albums that display the same exhilarating blend of high-octane blues and guitar rock that made him a legend over three decades ago.
He’s been welcomed back into the music biz with open arms by those who root for great talents to rise again, and is riding high with an ongoing series of vintage live albums, as well as a fan push to induct him into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
I caught up with the jovial (but famously tight-lipped) Winter en route to a gig in New York state.
You’re playing well over 100 live gigs a year, which is a lot for anyone, let alone someone who’s lived the life you have.
Johnny Winter: Yes! I love playing, but I don’t like flying much. I don’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
What’s your favorite aspect of living by night in the land of opportunity?
Johnny Winter: Just that the ability to travel and play all over the world and to do it by night. It’s the best way to get from point A to point B. I rest during the day.
What’s your least favorite aspect of the rock and blues lifestyle?
Johnny Winter: Like I said, it’s the flying. I love the bus (laughs)!
If you had to look into a crystal ball and predict which current blues artists people will view as icons 30 to 40 years from now, who would you bank on having that sort of staying power and influence?
Johnny Winter: That’s too hard! I really wouldn’t want to single anyone out. Besides, I’m still pretty much into the older blues and don’t take to most of the recent stuff that’s coming out now.
Bob Dylan said in his early 20s he hoped to live long enough to carry himself like the great bluesmen he idolized: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Like you, he’s not only lived to see that day, but returned from a low period of his own. Do you feel any weight on your shoulders in terms of maintaining the tradition of American blues for a new generation?
Johnny Winter: I just play. But it’s funny — I recorded with three of the artists you just mentioned!
You went through some really bad times a while back that took a serious physical and mental toll on you. As someone who lives to play their best, how hard is it to know that you inadvertently gave some performances that did not live up to your own standards?
Johnny Winter: I’m not too happy about it, but I’ve really gotten it together nowadays — thanks especially to my second guitarist Paul Nelson. He’s helped me out a lot and is one hell of a guitarist himself.
Roseanne Cash once said that when her dad Johnny was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it meant more to him than any country music award, because deep down, he always considered himself at least as much of a rock and roller as a country star. You’re known as a Texas bluesman, but many see you as a kickass, old-fashioned rock & roller. How do you view yourself?
Johnny Winter: I’m a bluesman and will be one till I die!
Fans love the ferocious improvisation you bring to your solos. Does that tightrope walking come naturally, or do you have to consciously summon it up?
Johnny Winter: It’s all natural. After doing it for so long, it just happens. I don’t have to think about it. I just play.
Savannah was one of the places Derek Trucks first got his start playing as a kid, and he’s sort of a favorite son around here. What’s your take on his abilities as a slide guitarist, and on his approach to the blues?
Johnny Winter: He is one of my favorite slide players. I just performed with him at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Fest in Chicago. We did (Dylan’s) “Highway 61” together, and it was great.
Tell me a little bit about your new vintage live albums. Do you maintain the rights to a lot of your old archival recordings, or are there scores of legal hurdles that must be navigated in order to release those tapes?
Johnny Winter: It’s a great ongoing thing called the Live Bootleg Series released by Friday Music and distributed by RYKO. This one hit #15 on the Billboard Blues Chart just this week. There are a lot of legal issues to handle on a project like this, but it was all done correctly and came out great. There’ll be many more of my live performances released as part of this series over the next few years. You can get more info on it by visiting fridaymusic.com or even johnnywinter.net.
How many A-list concert recordings do you estimate you are sitting on?
Johnny Winter: There are too many to count. We listen down and pick the best and then figure out which time period of shows to release next.
Some of my very favorite recordings you’ve played on were the Blue Sky label LPs made with Muddy Waters back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They still sound more dynamic, and spontaneous than most so-called “live” blues records of today. I know Bob Margolin helped with reissuing some of that material on CD a while back. Did you play any active role in those reissues?
Johnny Winter: Some. (Smiles) I was just proud to play on them with Muddy and get the three Grammys for producing them.
Those sessions must have been extremely fun and inspirational to take part in. Are there any memories or anecdotes you’d care to share about the making of those LPs?
Johnny Winter: They were all done in one take.
Will you draw from your entire back catalog for this Savannah concert?
Johnny Winter: I mix it up a lot. Folks will hear some straight and some slide songs. Our shows these days are a lot of fun.
Finally, are you surprised so many people around the world pay tribute to you by getting tattoos inspired by your own body art?
Johnny Winter: I see a lot of that. People have my songs and sometimes even my signature tattooed on them. It’s very flattering, to say the least.
Does it ever get creepy to have people decorate themselves like you in that manner?
Johnny Winter: I love it! Thanks for the great interview.