Johnny Winter: The Blues' Last Outlaw

By: Jarrod Dicker

When Old Man Winter comes to town
He's got a special way of dropping in
And spreading cheer around
You know [the blues] is around the bend
And he won't let you down
When Old Man Winter comes to town

-Old Man Winter (Revisited) by The Moffatts

Johnny Winter
It's been a cold 40 years of Winter.

Since 1969 Johnny Winter has conquered all that there is to seize in the "blues race." He has been awarded Grammy accolades, performed at the original Woodstock festival, been recognized as one of the supreme guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone, and been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. He has collaborated, live and in studio, with myriad musicians of various genres, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Muddy Waters and B.B. King, even jamming with the young guitar protégés Derek Trucks and a href="">John Mayer. Johnny's ridden to hell and back, warding off a grave dependence on heroin and booze to continue his journey of manufacturing marvelous blues music. So, what's left to natter about concerning the fast-fingered blues legend?

Well, it's been an exceptionally hot year in the 65-year-old's wonderland. The two-disc The Johnny Winter Anthology, Johnny Winter Live Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience, and the Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director's Cut 40th anniversary DVD with never before seen live footage of Winter, were all released in 2009. And at the end of 2008 the DVD Live Through The 70's was received very well and we can look forward to the upcoming biography, Raisin' Cain: "The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter", expected release around May of 2010, covering anything and everything throughout the guitarist's entire career.

JamBase sat down with the Texas talent to discuss these recent events and also the nitty and gritty details that have made Old Man Winter the legendary bluesman he is today.

JamBase: It has been 40 years since you signed your first record contract with Columbia Records. Today, your new bootleg CD series, Volumes 1-5, have all charted top ten on the Billboard blues charts. How does it feel that after 40 years people are still listening, and, most importantly, purchasing your material?

Johnny Winter from MySpace
Johnny Winter: It feels great. I'm really pleased with how well my live series has been received. I had so much material from over the years and was very happy to find the right way to distribute it all. Also, it was great finding a label to release it as a series in such a way as it's being presented.

JamBase: It's also been 40 years since the original Woodstock festival. What were you able to take away from that experience, and what do you now cherish from it?

Johnny Winter: There is a saying that goes around stating that if you REALLY played Woodstock the memories are forever blurry. Let's put it this way, I don't remember a thing! At that time, to me, it was just another gig. But once I saw how it began developing I knew it was going to be a bigger and greater show than the 150,000 seaters we were already frequently playing. I knew then that this was something I had to be a part of. I played Jimi's original offered time slot on Sunday at around 12:00 midnight. There was no rain and it was absolutely packed. I will tell you that it's great that after all these years Warner released their Director's Cut of the 40th anniversary Woodstock DVD. It finally features my performance of "Mean Town Blues." Also, it's wonderful that Sony released my whole audio performance [Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience]. I guess, like most who were there, I'll always cherish the time spent and memories.

There is also a book pending publication on May 1, 2010 called Raisin' Cain: "The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter". Are you the writer and what will it cover?

I had a ghostwriter for this. The book covers my whole life, both private and professionally, my dealings with Janis Joplin, time on tour, musicians I've spent time playing with, my relationship with Muddy, I mean seriously, my whole life, all the ups and downs, everything! It was very emotional for me to read. The writer really nailed it. It's right on.

You specialize in American blues and have become a legend amongst both historic musicians in the Delta regime and modern performers such as Eric Clapton and Jack White. Who were your inspirations and encouraging artists while you were steppin' into the music world?

Johnny Winter
I've always loved the blues since I was a child. Listening to musicians like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Slim, Gatemouth Brown, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King all influenced my playing from the start. To me, the blues is such a strong musical style that I don't feel it will ever go away. The blues adds to every musical style. That's why it's necessary to have a blues background in whatever style of music you play.

I've read that your parents pushed you and Edgar [Winter, Johnny's keyboard/sax playing younger brother] to participate in music. What did they casually play around the house? How else were they motivating to yourself and Edgar?

They didn't exactly push us. We just really wanted to play music and they were very supportive. Daddy played sax and banjo in college. He taught me my first chords on a ukulele when I was young. Momma played piano. So, they were both very musical. Secretively, I think they really wanted me to be a lawyer [chuckle].

How is your current relationship with Edgar? Do you two still collaborate musically?

Our relationship is great! We're good friends. We still do shows together from time to time. I just recorded on the song "Rockin' the Blues" on his latest album, Rebel Road.

One of your first big breaks was when Mike Bloomfield invited you to sing and engage in the Super Session jam at the Fillmore East in New York. What was this experience like for you? Did you maintain a relationship with Mike Bloomfield?

Continue reading for more on Johnny Winter...

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