Johnny Winter passed away this week. I thought I’d share my thoughts and my experiences with Johnny.
As a guitar player, Johnny was always in my consciousness. Not unlike a kid who’s into baseball and has an “awareness” of The Babe.
Yeah I knew Johnny was a blues legend. I knew the image: Bluesman with the voodoo hat and the uber-bright blue tattoos. Thats about it.
Im not sure but, someone, sometime played me some Johnny Winter and, to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. I came up in the time of Eddie Van Halen (Long may He Rule) and other 80’s metal gods of shred. My exposure to the blues was limited to Angus, Eddie, Warren, Yngwie (sometimes bluesy), etc etc. Not traditional blues by any means, but a new, modern, highly stylized blues.
In my late teens I finally got Hendrix whom to that point I had despised. But I finally got it! I became obsessed. SRV had just died and I listened to him and loved it. Through SRV I came to Hendrix, and then onto the past masters.
Without digressing any further from Johnny, I only wish to make the point that while I had been into the blues in the modern sense, I had finally come to appreciate, love and understand it, for real, in the more traditional sense.
Cut to many years later, and I get the gig with Johnny’s younger bro, Edgar Winter. While we got to know each other he often told me that Johnny was the shit back in the day, he was all fire etc etc etc…. And I just kinda said “…yeah yeah yeah…” while rolling my eyes. Many of my guitar player friends asked me if I had met Johnny Winter and was he really any good or just another sloppy “blues man”. They really didn’t know. And by the time I had met Johnny he was sitting down to play and was looking addled and a lot older than his years. In fact, the stories of his hard living were better known to me than his musical history.
Edgar gave me many of his albums and many of Johnny’s albums and had me pay particular attention to Johnny’s albums “Johnny Winter And…” and “Second Winter”. This coupled with the treasure trove of great videos on You Tube of Johnny in his prime… well…
I can say, unequivocally, Johnny Winter was one of the most important, influential, explosive, authentic, charismatic, talented and tragically- overlooked guitar players of all time.
I’ll go further: The late great Stevie Ray Vaughn owes a sizable chunk of his arsenal to Johnny. Thats putting it lightly. I never realized this until I took the time to hear/watch Johnny in earnest. It shocked me, if I’m being honest. SRV (and I say this with ALL respect to one of my faves) was so busy apologizing to the old black blues-masters for the success he’d gained on their music that he failed to give Johnny the nod. The nod that would have properly given credit where it was due, moreover would have turned GENERATIONS of the multitudes of SRV’s fans on to a true blues legend who spent the later years of his career in relative obscurity. I do believe that the vast majority of SRV’s devotees are unaware of the roll Johnny played in the blues and rock world and in the all-mighty SRV’s style.
So now I invite the blues fans of the world who think the blues start and stop with SRV, Kenny Wayne Shepard, and Joe Bonamassa. PLEASE get to know Johnny Winter. For real. In depth. Learn about him. Listen to him sing. Play. If you truly are a blues fan you’ll be amazed and then pass him on to the next generation. He deserves his spot in the Pantheon of Greats for all time.
Over 11 -12 years I’ve had a few visits with Johnny. Often, in the beginning, with some trepidation, I visited with Johnny for a hang. His legend loomed large and the stereo type of the temperamental blues man was a little daunting. I felt sure he’d think of me as some young rock guitar punk who didn’t really have a clue. The truth about Johnny is anything but.
Johnny Winter, despite what one may think of an authentic bluesman, comes from old Texas money. He and Edgar were raised in the most genteel of old Texas circumstances. Bible, education, values, a loving home, and impeccable Southern- manners. He was at once foul-mouthed and exceedingly gracious. He checked his watch every 3 minutes to see when he can finally get on stage. “… hey Paul! When are we getting on stage? I wanna fucking play already!!” LOL!
I’ll close this out with a more personal, slightly self-aggrandizing anecdote. After infrequent visits over the years, Johnny kept asking me to say my last name and explain where it came from. Somehow he just never wrapped his head around it. Last year Scott (Johnny’s long time bass player) came up to me while I was getting off stage and they were coming on. He told me, with some excitement, ” …. hey, Johnny was listening to you play and he said, “… hey man! Rappa…Rappo…Poppa…Porpa … Proprot…. Edgar’s Guitar Player… He’s good!’ “
That meant the world to me…. Rest In Peace Johnny.