Johnny Winter was such an important guitarist when he hit the national scene in 1969, it’s a shame his discography has become so littered with bootlegs and “best of”‘s that don’t do justice to his stature as a artist. This is at least the third retrospective Columbia has served up – following White Hot Blues and A Rock ‘n’ Roll Collection – and the label has yet to get it right.
More accurately, this should be titled “The Best of The Columbia Years,” which span roughly 1969 to 1984, but even then only about a third of the 16 tracks live up to that claim. Further, there’s no rhyme or reason to the track sequence, and the skimpy booklet (by producer Lawrence Cohn) doesn’t even detail which albums the songs originally appeared on. And the personnel credits are near worthless, since they list brother Edgar on “piano, organ, harpsichord, alto sax” on every song from Second Winter, regardless of which instrument he actually played on that cut, and bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer John Turner are listed on “Dallas” – which features only Johnny, solo, on his National steel-bodied guitar.
Johnny’s 1969 self-titled, major-label debut lived up to the hype that had quickly surrounded this bluesman from Texas, after Columbia signed him to the biggest advance in the label’s history. He followed with a more scatter-shot “album and a half” – the three-sided Second Winter – which contained his definitive interpretation of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
But despite scoring a rock classic (albeit one that never charted) with bandmate Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” when he sacked his blues outfit and reformed as Johnny Winter And, things went downhill from there. Even in the age of Endless Solo With Too Many Notes, our man Johnny could be excessive in the extreme – just check out the twelve-minute slow blues, “It’s My Own Fault.”
But at his best, he could be authentic, original, exciting, and one of the best slide players on the planet. Glimpses of that brilliance are best found here on the aforementioned “Highway 61″ and “Hoochie Koo,” as well as the Robert Johnson-ish “Dallas,” “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” “Be Careful With a Fool” and a cover of Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears” (all from Johnny Winter).
Those are the CD’s six keepers. Inclusions that range from questionable to inexplicable are: the aforementioned “Own Fault;” so-so covers of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Miss Ann;” a version of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” with a rather intrusive flute by Jeremy Steig; a live version of “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” that’s so fast and out of control it sounds like the band is fighting each other; a live version of “Mean Town Blues” marred by Derringer’s obnoxious rhythm guitar; and serviceable (but hardly great) songs like “Hustled Down in Texas,” “Still Alive and Well,” “Mother-In-Law Blues” and “Memory Pain.” Better choices (okay, my choices) would have been: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “Back Door Friend” and “Leland, Mississippi Blues” (from his debut LP); “Fast Life Rider” (from Second Winter); “Guess I’ll Go Away” and “Prodigal Son” (from Johnny Winter And); “All Tore Down” (from Still Alive and Well); and “Bladie Mae” and “Walkin’ By Myself” from his later period.
Certainly, Winter is deserving of a more deluxe package than this. Looks like we’ll have to wait for Rhino or Sundazed to take up the cause.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.