John Dawson Winter has been a troubadour for the blues for over 40 years, plying his razor sharp licks from the Texas roadhouses where he first cut his teeth in the early ’60s through the massive audiences of rock festivals like Woodstock, to his world tours of the present day. A true original in the Texas guitar slinger tradition of T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, and Albert Collins, Winter’s instantly recognizable guitar style and gravely roar have gained him a worldwide following and reverence in the rock and blues communities.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1944, Winter and his younger brother, Edgar, played in a variety of local rock and roll bands before they made their recording debut for Dart Records in ’59. In the early ’60s, Johnny cut singles for several regional labels before moving to Chicago to immerse himself in the blues scene, jamming with local blues legends and a young Mike Bloomfield, among others. Unfortunately, he was unable to break into the Chicago blues scene and soon moved back to Texas, where he played in various blues and rock and roll outfits for the next few years.
In 1968, after deciding to concentrate solely on blues, Johnny assembled a trio with bassist Tommy Shannon (today with Double Trouble) and drummer Uncle John Turner. The trio soon built a following in Austin and Houston, which resulted in a Rolling Stone magazine writer calling Winter “…the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin.” The subsequent buzz culminated in a major-label bidding war, concluding with Winter signing with Columbia Records in ’69 and recording his highly regarded self-titled debut album shortly after. Throughout the ’70s, Winter released a slew of successful albums, often with collaborator Rick Derringer, including the now classic Johnny Winter AND Live, and Still Alive and Well, his comeback following a debilitating substance abuse problem.
In addition to being a world-class guitarist, Winter won a Grammy in 1977 for producing Muddy Waters’ landmark comeback album, Hard Again. The team of Muddy and Johnny stayed together long enough to win two more Grammys, for 1978’s I’m Ready and 1979’s Muddy Mississippi Waters Live.
In the ’80s, Winter was inducted into the Blue’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame and recorded three albums for Alligator, including the excellent Guitar Slinger, before settling in at his current home of PointBlank records. 1998 saw the release the critically acclaimed Live in NYC, a bold testament to his enduring feel for raw blues which contained tributes to Freddie King and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Live In NYC captures the grit and fire that made Winter a living legend. Also recently released is the Pieces and Bits video (VG, June ’01), a compilation of video clips throughout the years.
In late 2000, Johnny was sidelined with a broken hip after a fall at his home. He has made a full recovery and recently returned from a summer tour of Sweden. VG caught up with Johnny between sessions at The Carriagehouse, a Connecticut studio where he recently began recording tracks for his upcoming release, his fourth on PointBlank, and tentatively scheduled for release next Spring.
Vintage Guitar: How are you feeling these days?
Johnny Winter: I am feeling pretty good, thanks. The hip is doing well, it’s healing. Lots of times it hurts when I’m playing, but it’s getting better all the time.
You’re recognized as one of the ambassadors of the blues, turning on larger audiences to this music, while giving credit to your heroes. What’s your take on the blues in the year 2001?
The blues has been around for years, and with younger guys coming up all the time and doing pretty good, I think its gonna stick around forever.
Having produced and won Grammys for your work with Muddy Waters, to playing Woodstock to jamming with Jimi Hendrix, what do you feel has been the highlight of your career?
Working with Muddy was definitely the biggest highlight of my career.
You started out playing both rock and blues, but for the past 20 years have concentrated on the blues. How do you feel about playing rock?
Well, I don’t play rock any more, but the blues is pretty rockin’ sometimes (laughs). But as far as the music they call “rock,” I haven’t really ever played anything but rockier blues.
You’re best known for fiery electric blues , but your acoustic bottleneck blues, like “Dallas” (from the debut LP) is reminiscent of Robert Johnson and arguably some of the best ever recorded. What is your favorite acoustic setup, and what do you use for a slide on acoustic?
I’ve got an old National, actually several old Nationals, and for slide I’ve got a piece of conduit pipe that I got years ago. A friend of mine from the Denver Folklore Society helped me get it from a plumbing supply house. He used it and felt it was good. I used to play slide before this, but could never find a good slide. I’d use everything from a wristwatch crystal to broken off test tubes to lipstick cases, bottles… I tried everything, but nothing would work, until I found this conduit pipe, and I’ve used the same piece of pipe for 30 years for both acoustic and electric slide. It’s just a piece of plumber’s pipe that just fits my finger real good.
What finger do you wear it on?
I wear it on my little finger
Do you have any plans to play any acoustic blues live?
Well, I just don’t feel comfortable doing it because I can’t hear myself playing an acoustic live. A lot of people have asked me to play an acoustic set in addition to an electric set, or maybe a little bit of acoustic, but its hard for me to hear.
Any plans for an all-acoustic blues album?
No, I don’t think I know enough acoustic slide stuff to make a whole album (laughs).
So how does it feel working on the new tunes?
Feels good. We’re working on the album now and we’ve already got two tunes down – “Lone Wolf” and “Cheatin’ Blues.” I’m working with Tom Hambridge, Susan Tedeschi’s drummer and producer, and his band. Also working on the record is Dick Shurman, who produced my last few albums and goes back to [my time with] Alligator. It’s hard to say exactly when the album is gonna come out because I still have a lot of work to; probably three to four months worth.
Over the years, how do you think your playing has changed?
It’s always been blues-based. In the early days it was some rock and roll, but now it’s all blues.
Do you still enjoy playing live, and do you feel you play differently live versus in the studio?
Yes, I still enjoy playing live a whole lot. I don’t think I play really any differently live as opposed to playing in the studio… we just go in and do two or three takes and it’s pretty similar to live.
In the early days, who inspired you?
Initially, it was Chet Atkins. It was a terrible loss when he passed away, though he lived a beautiful life. I just picked up the record he did with Mark Knopfler and it’s a great record. And of course all of the blues guys back then, like (Howlin’) Wolf, Muddy, B.B., I listened to all of them on the radio before I could get into the clubs.
Do you remember your first good guitar and amp setup?
The first good electric guitar I bought was a Gibson ES-125, with no cutaway and one P-90 pickup. It was a thicker-body from the ’50s. A few years later I got a white SG-shaped Les Paul. I wish I still had that one. I wish I hadn’t sold all the guitars I did (laughs).
As for an amp, my first was a Fender Bassman, a tweed 4×10 model. Still a great amp!
What are you primarily playing these days?
I’m still playing the Lazer, built by Mark Erlewine in Austin. As far as amps, I’m playing a MusicMan HD410. It’s really similar to a Super Reverb except they’re a little bit louder.
You’ve been playing the Lazer for close to 20 years now… What, in particular, do you like about that guitar…
It’s got a nice treble sound to it, like you can get on a Fender Strat. And it plays like a Gibson, but its lighter.
What’s the story behind the red Strat you gave Rick Derringer in the early ’70s (which appeared on Derringer’s 1973’s LP, All American Boy)?
I always liked the sound of Strats, but I never have been able to play them. I put everything in the world on that guitar, including the stop tailpiece, trying to make it so I could play it, but I never could get that right. So I gave it to Rick.
You’ve also been closely associated with Gibson Firebirds… do you still play one live?
Yeah, I use it on all the slide songs.
Do you use an open tuning for that?
Yes, open E.
Do you use heavy-gauge strings on the Firebird?
Not too heavy, I use D’Addario 10s on both the Lazer and the Firebird.
How did you develop your style of playing with a thumbpick… did you pick that up from Freddie King?
No, I picked that up from my first guitar teacher, he was a country and western guitar player named Luther Nallie, who since then went on to play with The Sons of the Pioneers. He played blues for a long time before that. Luther played with thumbpick and his fingers. Also, I was listening to people like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins; they could play chords and a melody at the same time…using the fingers to play a melody while keeping the bottom going with the thumb. So Luther showed me how to do that.
Ever play with fingerpicks?
No, I never had any use for fingerpicks but I do use all my fingers.
You recently covered Freddie King’s “Hideaway” and “Sen-Sa-Shun” on Live in NYC – ’97. Was he your favorite of the three kings?
No, I’d probably say Albert King was my favorite; he had such good style, a good attack.
Did you ever get a chance to play with Albert?
I don’t think I ever got to play with Albert (laughs).
Who are your all-time favorite musicians, and are there any current players you are listening to these days?
Again, Chet Atkins inspired me. Of course, Muddy… Robert Cray is definitely one of the younger guys I like, and as far as harp players, my favorite is Little Walter.
For the majority of your career, you’ve been the only guitarist in your band, but you’ve had the good fortune to share the stage with a lot of the greats, including Muddy and Jimi Hendrix. Do you like playing with other guitarists, or would you prefer to play as a trio?
I prefer a trio, really. When I played with Jimi I always laid back, left him spaces, because I liked his playing so much and I wanted to hear him. I didn’t take the lead on most songs we did. There was one song – “The Things I Used To Do” – that I did take the lead on… There’s a good tape of that floating around.
And just hearing Muddy play was a big treat. We opened for him in the early days, and I had probably learned all of his records before we played together in the ’70s. So by the time I played with him I felt like I had played with him for years because I knew all his stuff.
Do you have any plans for going touring anytime soon?
I’ll be in the UK, and then we’ll finish the new record. U.S. tour dates are posted on my website, johnnywinter.com.
Your rendition of “Highway 61” on the Bob Dylan tribute show at Madison Square Garden was explosive. How did that come about?
Well, they asked us to do it, but we didn’t have that much time for rehearsal… really, none. So I just got up there and plugged in and started playing, and I couldn’t hear myself at all at first. I was standing on the monitors because I didn’t have a big stack of amps, just had the Music Man, and I was getting drowned out completely. I kept making signs to the sound man and the band to turn me up, and finally after the first verse or so, I was turned up so I could hear it. But I was scared at first!
You’ve had a very prolific career, recording more than 20 albums in 30 years. What are your favorite Johnny Winter recordings?
The Johnny Winter record, which was the first one for CBS, is definitely one of them. Also, the ones with Muddy, especially Hard Again and the Muddy Mississippi Waters Live are up there. I like Still Alive and Well… among the rock records, it’s my favorite. For other peoples’ records, the one I produced for Sonny Terry, called Whoopin’, is one I really like. That one’s got Willie Dixon playing bass…
A lot of people got turned onto you during the Johnny Winter And Live years, with the McCoys backing you up. Are those on your list of favorites?
I don’t particularly care for those…
What would you like Johnny Winter’s legacy to be on the world of music?
I’d like to be remembered for my work with Muddy… definitely some of the best moments of my career.
Thoughts on Johnny Winter: Rick Derringer
Rick Derringer is one of the more enduring veterans of his generation. As a teenager in the 1960s, he was already something of a rock star when his band, the McCoys, scored a hit with “Hang On Sloopy.” But, looking to shed any trace of a burgeoning “bubble gum” image, he joined Johnny Winter’s band in the late ’60s.
Throughout the ’70s he earned a reputation for his hard-rocking live shows. Here, he shares some of his memories from working closely with Winter, and updates us on his life.
Vintage Guitar: When did you first become aware of Johnny Winter?
Rick Derringer: Through Steve Paul (owner of The Scene nightclub, NYC), who had read a now-famous Rolling Stone article (on Winter) and said he was going to find this guy. Sure enough, he found Johnny and brought him back to New York.
The first time I saw Johnny play was at the Fillmore East, I think it was in ’68. I didn’t meet Johnny that night, but did a few months later, when Steve brought Johnny and Edgar to see The McCoys at The Tarot Club.
How was it decided that The McCoys become the and in JW and…?
Well, both Johnny and Edgar were sufficiently impressed when they saw The McCoys that night, and that’s when Steve hit us with the idea they should do something together. The McCoys were in a bad situation… our music had become characterized as “bubblegum,” and we didn’t want to be seen like that. We wanted a way to gain some credibility, since we thought we were pretty good players. Johnny came on the scene with some real respect, so we looked at this as an opportunity to get what we were looking for, some respect ourselves (laughs)!
JW said your playing complemented his and he enjoyed playing with you. How did you guys figure out who was going to play what?
We didn’t, and that’s why it worked. I’ve always been a guy who’s pretty supportive, it’s just my nature, so I came in to the situation with the attitude that I wanted to support Johnny and make it work. I’d grown up when electric guitar playing was still in its infancy, so I first learned how to play rhythm. This allowed me to be very supportive of Johnny, who was and is known primarily as a lead player, and frankly, is not a rhythm guitar player. So our roles became very defined very easily because of the nature of our styles. I took the rhythm place, which a lot of people didn’t know how to do the way I could, and this was really the first time that Johnny had a rhythm guitar player. On the other hand, when he gave me a solo, I certainly knew how to take advantage of the opportunity.
What were you guys playing for guitars and amps?
I was playing mostly my Les Paul and my Gibson 355. Johnny was mostly playing his Epiphone in those days, that little solid body model. For amps, we both were playing through Marshalls.
You produced several of Johnny’s best albums, including Johnny Winter AND, Johnny Winter AND Live, Still Alive and Well, Saints and Sinners, JDWIII. What was it like to work in the studio with him?
I produced all of his stuff that was either gold or platinum (laughs)! Johnny was great in the studio; he was there to make the music he wanted to make. We lived beside each other and had a rehearsal studio that was just ours, so we could rehearse every day. We played all of the songs on the first Johnny Winter AND every day before we recorded them, so that when we got in the studio, it was totally easy, as we knew exactly what we wanted to do.
My job at that time was to communicate Johnny’s wishes to the engineers, and to the people in New York. He felt that on his first projects with Eddie Kramer, being from Texas, he needed somebody to “translate” (with faux Texas accent). He felt like his wishes weren’t getting through. So, as a guitar player and a guy who has some common sense, and a friend of his, I was able to communicate his wishes to the hierarchy.
Johnny did some of your songs. Did you write them for him, or were they already written? And what did you think of his versions?
I wrote “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” for Johnny and that band. We also did “Out on a Limb,” “Ain’t That A Kindness,” and my brother wrote a song called “Am I Here?” We did a lot of our songs. Johnny was the boss, so what I felt about them wasn’t really relevant. But when I got the chance to go back and record them myself, then I was able to go back and reflect about what I was able to improve.
And your recording of “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” just got an award, right?
Yes, it just received a BMI award for 1,000,000 airplays.
You did a tour with Johnny in ’97. How was that?
It was great! It brought Johnny back to life in some ways. Without anybody to push him, Johnny – like anybody – might get a little bored, or sink into complacency. Those shows allowed Johnny to hear us go on before him every night, and once again hear me trying to do the best I can. I’m a pretty competitive guy, and Johnny really responded. Each night, he got a little better, his solos got a little hotter, and I think it worked out pretty well.
You’ve been playing a lot of blues over the last 10 years or so. How did playing with Johnny influence your blues playing?
The influence was in his slide playing. The first time I heard him play at the Fillmore East, I wasn’t really impressed. He had come on the scene with everybody telling me how great he was, and I didn’t hear it. Well, he over played, and because of his eyesight problems, he would sometimes go to the wrong fret and hit the wrong note. I was a little kid from Ohio who was into perfection, and I just didn’t get it! I was hearing a bunch of mistakes, when all of a sudden, he strapped on the slide guitar, and I said, “Now I get it.” There was nobody at the time who was playing slide guitar like Johnny, and nobody, or no white guy at least, was playing country blues like that on the acoustic guitar. At that point I realized what Johnny had to offer.
He taught me some things specifically, more than just from listening to him. We sat down and he showed me things like the open tunings he used, and some different fingerings. He showed me all the things that I now know about slide guitar and country blues.
Getting to your own career, how are things going and when can the readers of VG expect another album?
Well you know, my whole life has changed a lot over the past couple years. In the ’90s I was doing those Blues Bureau records, but over the past two years, I have really gone back to my Christian roots and have been born again. I know some people will be surprised to hear it, but I’ve found that my music, whether it’s blues or rock, or whatever you want to call it, can be channeled into a positive direction that actually helps people. Because of this I’ve been working on an all-Christian album. I’ve just finished a 12-song demo, which I’ve been taking around to all of the big Christian labels in Nashville. Some of the biggest Christian artists have agreed to help me with it, including Charlie Peacock, Phil Keaggy, John Elefante, Leo Ahlstrom from NewSong, and Myron LeFevre. My family is involved and my wife Brenda is a great, great writer. She helps me with the writing of everything and also sings with me. I owe a lot to Brenda. Our kids, Lory and Marty, also sing on the record.
And what makes me happy now has changed, as well. It’s one thing to play in a bar or at a biker festival, and hear a guy who’s been drinking beer all day come up and tell you how good you are. For a long time, that’ll make you happy.
I started The McCoys in 1962, so I’m approaching my 40th year in the entertainment business. So, after awhile, you can only get so much happiness from a guy who’s drunk come up and tell you you’re great. For me, I go in and play a few Christian songs for an audience, and now I have people come up and not tell me I’m great, but tell me that my music is helping save their lives, helping them in the Lord, and helping them end their vices. That makes me feel good! I never knew music could have that power before. I’m approaching a whole new part of the music business and a whole new life for me, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.
A few years back I went through a terrible time, and I started praying for the answers, and I got them. And part of that was finding Brenda… I know it makes me sound like I’m running for Miss America or something, but it’s for real, and it’s helping change lives. I’ve been playing a new version of “Still Alive and Well” that says “Jesus Christ has risen up to Heaven from the grave, and he’s still alive and well.” Some people are afraid of going this route, but it’s not scary, it’s only positive, good stuff. It’s not a cult, and you get a lot back. I want Johnny to come to one of my concerts and hear my testimony…
Are there any other things regarding your experiences with Johnny Winter that you’d like to share with the readers of VG?
No, just that I had a great respect with Johnny, and still do. He’s really great, and I really enjoyed my time with him. We learned a lot together!
Thoughts on Johnny Winter: Luther Nallie
Luther Nallie garnered fame as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, arguably America’s oldest group, around in one form or another since 1933. But few know of his role as Johnny Winter’s guitar teacher.
Vintage Guitar: Johnny mentioned that you were a big influence on him as a guitarist and a teacher that set him on his way. Was teaching your main gig back then?
Luther Nallie: Yes, it was. I was also doing some club dates off and on, but teaching was my living. I did teach Johnny and Edgar both, Johnny more than Edgar. I remember this kid coming in who had previously taken lessons from Seymour Drugan, a fine guitarist who had played on the “Breakfast Club” on one of the major radio networks. Johnny had me scratching my head a lot of times because he would soak up anything I taught him immediately, and I would have to think up something else real quick to show him. He was a very normal boy, very polite, and extremely talented. It was always a pleasure when it was time for Johnny’s lesson or if he just happened to come by to visit. I taught Johnny for about a year, I think, and this was in 1956 in Beaumont, Texas, at Jefferson Music Company.
Johnny says you were responsible for teaching him his thumbpicking technique, and a lot of things that went way beyond basic blues…
Everybody knows what a super blues player Johnny is, but I don’t think they know that he can do a lot of other things very well, also. He does Chet Atkins style very well, as well as many other styles. He’s also capable of singing any type of song – country, pop, or whatever. Again, everybody knows what a great blues singer he is.
Did Johnny ever teach you anything?
Heavens, yes! Every time he learned one of the new things the guys were doing with rock and roll, he would show it to me.
So it sounds like he was a pretty quick study…
I was in the army from June 1957 to May ’59, and when I came back, Johnny was just a monster blues player. I was so proud of him – not of what I had taught him, but what he had done for himself.
What have you been doing since your days in Texas?
I’ve been with the Sons of the Pioneers – Roy Rogers old group – since ’69 and am still going at it. Johnny and I stayed in touch for a long time as he was growing up, or should I say maturing, but I’ve lost track of him in the last 15 or 20 years. I saw Edgar a few years ago in Reno. We were playing Harrah’s Reno and Edgar was playing Harrah’s in Tahoe, so I got to visit with Edgar for awhile and was really good to see him.
What are you doing these days? Still touring?
Yes, I am. We spend most of the year in Branson, Missouri, doing morning shows at the Braschler Theater. And we still travel some during the summer. We spend our winters doing a Chuckwagon Supper thing in Tucson from January to the middle of April. We’re based in Branson, and I live in Hollister, Missouri, and have made my home there since 1984.
Thoughts on Johnny Winter: Luther Nallie
Mark Erlewine is the proprietor of Erlewine Guitars, Austin, Texas, maker of custom instruments including the Lazer, Johnny Winter’s main guitar.
“I first became aware of Johnny Winter when I was in high school in Wheaton, Maryland. I got hold of a copy of the Progressive Blues Experiment album, and not too long after, saw him at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970. My family used to run the bar backstage at the festival, and I was lucky enough to witness an amazing set that featured Johnny and Luther Allison trading licks.
In 1974 I moved my guitar shop to Austin and began building guitars, including the Chiquita, the mini-travel guitar. Years before I had apprenticed in my cousin Dan Erlewine’s shop, and learned a lot from him. In the late ’70s I went to a Johnny Winter show, and I brought a Chiquita backstage… Johnny loved it and bought it on the spot. A few years after, I designed a headless guitar called the Lazer, which was built to my specs in Korea by IMC. Well, I took a black Lazer with me to a Johnny Winter show, and brought it back to him… and he bought that, as well! I think he was tired of the weight of the Gibson (Firebird) he was playing. He then bought a red Lazer before approaching me about a building a custom white one. Around the same time, the contract with IMC was up, and I began building Lazers on a custom basis.
Johnny wanted a two-pickup model with a single-coil in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge that could be split with a toggle switch. This became the Johnny Winter model, and featured a decal of one of his tattoos in between the pickups. Over the years I also built him custom gold metalflake Lazer, which I’ve never seen him play (laughs)!
I’ve kept in touch with Johnny over the years, which is difficult because he is rather reclusive. One time he wanted me to repair his main Lazer, the white one, and I had to drive down to San Antonio, pick up the guitar and take it to the shop, then return it, all in the same night. Another time, his management set up a 2 a.m. meeting at my shop. One thing I can tell you about Johnny is that the few times we’ve been together, he’s been really nice, really friendly, and very complimentary. His skin is so pure and white, and wrinkle-free… must be because he stays out of the sun!
These days, I usually get calls from his guitar techs when they need special parts for his Lazers. His main guitar is still the white Lazer, which has barely anything left on the frets because he plays so hard. This must be his prized guitar, because he refuses to let me put new frets into it… kind of like Willie Nelson and “Trigger”… he won’t let me touch the frets on that, either!
I can usually tell when and where Johnny is out touring, because I start getting calls from his guitar-playing fans telling me they’ve just seen him and asking me about the Lazer and how they can get one!”
Photo: Neil Zlozower.
Nov. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.