Interview with blues
legend Johnny Winter
By Ray Shasho
Johnny Winter proclaimed in a recent interview with Classic Rock Music Reporter Ray Shasho, that playing rock and roll was basically a front to appease audiences. His heart was saying no to rock and roll while his soul was saying yes to the blues. Winter abandoned rock ‘n’ roll to resurrect the blues.
Johnny Winter is acknowledged worldwide as a legendary blues artist, but he also holds the title of American rock ‘n’ roll hero. Winter wore both hats equivalently on stage. Only Johnny Winter could scream ROCK ‘N’ ROLL! …. a battle cry to a generation of rebellion youths in front of sold-out arenas and stadiums, with his kind of intensity and emotional reverberation. No other audience could reciprocate to those words more passionately than at a Johnny Winter concert. And who more revered than Johnny Winter (except for the man himself) could follow up his ROCK ‘N’ ROLL battle cry with perhaps one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs in history, “Johnny B. Goode.”
Johnny Winter was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. In 1969, Winter signed with Columbia Records in one of the largest solo deals of the time. Winter was enticed to join his first band after listening to local deejay J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper of “Chantilly Lace fame”) spinning 50s rock ‘n’ roll music over the airwaves. But it was the blues that would become his essence, and his admiration for legendary American blues artists like Robert Johnson, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters to name just a few.
Winters first album was entitled, The Progressive Blues Experiment originally issued by Austin’s Sonobeat Records in 1968, and rereleased by Columbia Records in 1969. Winter’s self-titled second album with Columbia was also released that year, the album included covers by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King. Winter’s successful debut album set the stage for an appearance at the famed Woodstock Festival in New York. Winter was not included in the Woodstock movie or initial soundtrack because of contractual issues between Steve Paul (Johnny’s former manager) and festival organizers.
Johnny Winter’s next album, Second Winter, featured some of his predominant concert setlist material, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” In 1970 Winter formed a new band featuring several members of The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy”) including legendary guitarist and songwriter Rick Derringer. Steve Paul was also The McCoys manager and responsible for bringing them together. The band released, Live Johnny Winter And spotlighting Derringer’s penned, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” It was during this time that Winter fell under the spell of Heroin addiction.
In 1973, Johnny Winter returned to the music scene with his fifth studio album, Still Alive and Well followed by Saints and Sinners (1974) and Captured Live (1976).
In 1977, Chess Records, long-time record label for legendary blues guitarist and vocalist Muddy Waters, dissolved. Johnny Winter revitalized Waters by inviting him into the studio to record what would be recognized as Muddy Waters comeback album. Winter produced and played on the Chicago-style electric blues album entitled, Hard Again. It was Muddy Waters first album released on Blue Sky Records, a label created by Steve Paul for Columbia. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
Johnny Winter continued to produce and play on several studio albums and a best-selling Live album with his good friend Muddy Waters … I’m Ready (1978), Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live (1979) and King Bee (1981) Waters final release. Two of those albums won Grammy Awards. The string of Johnny Winter albums initiated for Muddy Waters produced the most lucrative period in the career of the legendary bluesman. Muddy Waters died in 1983.
Since 1984, Johnny Winter focused solely on blues oriented-material in the recording studio.
Most recently, Winter headlined the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, Swedish Rock Fest and Europe’s Rockplast. Winter performed with The Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater for their 40th Anniversary of the bands inception. He’s also performed at the 2007 and 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festivals.
In 2008, The Gibson Guitar Company released the Johnny Winter signature Firebird guitar in a ceremony presented by Slash (Guns N’ Roses guitarist) in Nashville.
Johnny Winter continues to earn the title of one the hardest working performers in the music business by consistently touring worldwide. His latest release is befittingly entitled “Roots.” It’s the heyday of Winter with back to basics blues. I give it (5) stars. The album features compositions by some of Johnny’s favorite blues artists and includes guest performances by … Vince Gill, Warren Haynes, John Popper, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, selected by Johnny’s producer/manager and guitarist Paul Nelson.
Producer Paul Nelson told me that this may be the first in a series of Johnny Winter traditional blues CD’s featuring incredible guest artists.
Johnny Winter’s latest tour kicked off in late July and ends in Paris April 2013. The tour is billed as the ‘Rock ‘N’ Blues Fest’ and ‘Hippiefest’ depending on the city. The concert headlines Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, Leslie West (Mountain) and Kim Simmonds (Savoy Brown). Hippiefest arrives at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fl on Saturday, August 25th at 7p.m. Purchase tickets at www.rutheckerdhall.com
The Johnny Winter band is: Johnny Winter (guitar and vocals), Paul Nelson (guitar), Scott Spray (bass), and Vito Liuzzi (drums).
I had the rare opportunity to chat with Johnny Winter and his producer/manager Paul Nelson on Wednesday. We talked about “Roots,” the upcoming tour, Johnny’s lifesaving rehabilitation from prescription drugs, a healthier Johnny, and the future of the blues.
Here’s my interview with legendary blues & rock ‘n’ roll guitarist/ singer/ songwriter/ JOHNNY WINTER and Johnny’s manager/producer/guitarist/songwriter/Paul Nelson.
Ray Shasho: Greetings from Florida … thank you both for being on the call today.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “Our pleasure Ray … we’re going to be down in Florida pretty soon with the Rock ‘N’ Blues Fest.”
Ray Shasho: We’re actually calling the show Hippiefest in Clearwater.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “I guess Hippiefest is an occurrence that happens every year, but I don’t think anybody really wanted to be called a Hippie, so somebody decided to change the name to Rock ‘N’ Blues Fest.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, the latest release, “Roots” is just that … back to the heyday of Johnny Winter. It’s a great album … the Blues needed this album.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “Thank you, that’s what I was trying to achieve for him as a producer and it was an honor for me to get that job. But there is resurgence, maybe not a huge resurgence, but certainly an appreciation for it. To bring these songs back and be part of Johnny’s comeback with all those guest artists contributing, and Johnny contributing what made him tick … it was a great thing.”
“Now we’re going to do Roots 2 … this could be an ongoing series, it’s is a serious deal.”
Ray Shasho: Have you thought about the guest lineup of artists for Roots 2 yet?
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “Eric Johnson couldn’t make it for the last one so he’s definitely on the list, Billy Gibbons said yes; working on Eric Clapton, Dr. John couldn’t make it because he was in the studio, Gregg Allman was in the hospital at the time, we’ve got Mark Kopfler working on “Okey Dokey Stomp.” Nobody is saying no …so that’s great.”
Ray Shasho: I know an incredible guitarist up in Montreal who would probably love to play on it, by the name of Frank Marino.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “We just talked about that the other day, we’d love to have him on it, and we’re actually working on that. You’re the second or third person who has mentioned Frank, and it just makes sense because he’s a huge Johnny fan. I was a big fan of Frank’s as a guitar player myself. Frank Marino, Tommy Bolin, Jeff Beck … I was more of a blues-fusion guy. If Johnny knew the kind of music that I use to play, it would probably scare him.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve followed Johnny Winter’s career since his first album with Columbia Records and have always thought of Johnny as 50 percent rock ‘n’ roll and 50 percent the blues. Do you think he’d consider a pure rock ‘n’ roll album with guest artists as well?
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “He’s told me this many times before … at the height of his rock period, when he was playing to sold out arenas etc …he really felt like he was selling himself short. He really and sincerely did not want to be part of that. It was his manager’s idea and the sign of the times. He realizes now how important it was for him, but he felt like he sold out to the blues. But because who he was in a rock band and listened to so many blues artists, he actually helped the blues during that period more than any other blues artist, because he cited Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and all those guys. But sure … I’d love to see him do that and an acoustic album as well.”
“Johnny is doing so great now; the Letterman show was great, the DVD, the Roots album, and he’s really having one hell of a comeback. So, it’s opened so many possibilities for him now that he’s back on his game and it’s really nice to see. Playing guitar with him is an honor, helping his career is an honor, and it’s just great to see him enjoying himself and back to where he should have been ten years ago.”
Ray Shasho: I covered Johnny’s last appearance in Clearwater at the Capitol Theatre and the thing I noticed immediately was how much weight he had gained ... but in a healthier way!
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “It’s natural weight, not fake weight from drugs and alcohol. And also now you’ll see … he’s standing, which is like a miracle. He’s the only guy I know as he’s getting older he’s getting younger because he’s getting back to where he should be.”
Ray Shasho: He’s gone from rushing back and forth … almost a blur on the stage, while screaming ROCK ‘N’ ROLL at the audience, compared to last year’s performance where he’s sitting down in a chair on stage for the entire show.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “With blues players it can be part of the ambience to sit down on stage, but to be in that shape before his time …it just shouldn’t be. Old management let that happen. In blues years he’s still a young guy. I’m just trying to give him back how any musician would have wanted to be treated if they got into that condition and didn’t know what to do.”
Ray Shasho: When did you and Johnny first meet?
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “About eight years ago we were at the Carriage House, I was recording for the World Wrestling people and he was in the next room recording I’m a Bluesman. He sent his management in and had me meet him. He said, “Hey you sound pretty good, I like the way you play, I’m looking for a couple of songs for my new record, do you want to write some?” I said, okay. The next day, I wrote and recorded three tunes for his album and he loved it. Then he asked me if I wanted to play on his album. I said, okay. Then he asked why don’t you come tour with me … I said, okay. So a friendship developed and we understood each other musically.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, you were obviously meant to come into Johnny’s life and save your hero.
Johnny’s manager, producer, guitarist Paul Nelson: “It was very hard to watch. The stuff that’s described in interviews and in books is just the tip of a very big iceberg. I saw stuff that I didn’t think could happen to people. Just very bad …it’s a movie.”
JOHNNY WINTER got on the phone next.
Ray Shasho: I remember when they use to say that James Brown was the hardest working man in show business … I’ve got to say without a doubt these days its Johnny Winter. I chat with a lot of legendary musicians who tell me that they want to slow down when it comes to touring at this point in their lives, and those long tours are over for them. How do you consistently tour every year the way you do?
Johnny Winter: “It’s fun … I like to play. Touring gets a little hard but playing never does.”
Ray Shasho: Paul says you’d never do another rock n’ roll album again, I was thinking maybe a traditional rock album with special guest artists like you did on Roots.
Johnny Winter: “The only rock ‘n’ roll I ever liked was, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis … I‘d never want to do a whole rock and roll record. I like the blues too much.”
Ray Shasho: Paul and I also imagined Johnny Winter experimenting with a little fusion.
Johnny Winter: “(Laughing) Never happen … I don’t like fusion.”
Ray Shasho: You helped out one of your idols, Muddy Waters, by inviting him into the studio after his record label Chess Records went out of business. You produced and played on a series of blues albums with Muddy and not only rejuvenated Waters career, but also rejuvenated the blues.
Johnny Winter: “Yea, that was great, I just loved doing that. Muddy was just one of the coolest people that I ever met. I loved him as a person, loved his music, and I really miss him. They’ll never be another one like him.”
Ray Shasho: Blues artists were usually perceived as hanging out and jamming all night while drinking Jack Daniels.
Johnny Winter: “Muddy Waters drank Champagne, he couldn’t drink Whiskey anymore. His doctor told him he had to stop drinking Whiskey. He drank so much Whiskey that his eyes were bleeding, so he stopped.”
Ray Shasho: Johnny … got a good story about Muddy Waters?
Johnny Winter: “He said the real reason we made the album Hard Again was because the music was so good it made his pee- pee hard again (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: You developed a thumb picking style for playing the guitar by watching Chet Atkins; did you ever get a chance to play with him?
Johnny Winter: I love Chet and his music … never got a chance to meet him. My first guitar teacher also played with a thumb pick and got me into doing that.
Ray Shasho: Are you particular about what slides you use when you’re performing on stage?
Johnny Winter: “I’ve always used the same metal slide for years and years.” (Dunlop recently manufactured the Johnny Winter Signature Texas Slide)
Ray Shasho: I watched an interview that you did talking about the early days of experimenting with various types of slides.
Johnny Winter: “Yea, stuff that just didn’t work very good. I tried my wristwatch and screwed up the crystal, and then I tried lipstick holders and test tubes.
Ray Shasho: You and Brother Edgar are both gifted musicians, were you guys ever musically competitive?
Johnny Winter: “No, we always worked good together. He always liked jazz more and I never really understood jazz. He wasn’t particularly a blues fan but probably wanted to. But we’ve played together for years.”
Ray Shasho: Johnny, you’ve performed and collaborated with so many important artists over the years. Here’s your “Field of Dreams” moment, if you had a wish, what artist past or present would you like to jam or collaborate with?
Johnny Winter: “Robert Johnson.”
Ray Shasho: Is Robert Johnson the father of the blues?
Johnny Winter: “Son House and Charlie Patton were around before Robert … but Robert was better.”
Ray Shasho: Ever since I can remember … there has always been a mystique encompassing Robert Johnson’s life, especially the “Crossroads” urban legend. What are your thoughts about the “Crossroads” claim?
Johnny Winter: “I just don’t believe it … I don’t think you can sell your soul to the devil. Tommy Johnson, the blues artist that Canned Heat (“Canned Heat Blues”) got their name from, said he really did sell his soul to the devil.”
Ray Shasho: Has he ever tried to make a deal with you Johnny?
Johnny Winter: “No, I’d never do that … I believe in God, I’m a Christian.”
Ray Shasho: What do you remember most about Woodstock?
Johnny Winter: “All I remember is that it was a mess … rainy and muddy and nobody knew what was going on, I remember it just being really confusing. We left as soon as we got through playing.”
Ray Shasho: Gregg Rolie told me he stuck around to watch Sly and The Family Stone play. And speaking of Sly Stone, you performed on his latest album… I’m Back! Family and Friends. How’s Sly doing?
Johnny Winter: “I never saw him. But I don’t think he’s doing that well he’s still smoking crack. It’s a real shame.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve got the new “Live in Tokyo” DVD in HD out now, and your book Raisin’ Cain is an incredible story. Johnny, thank you so much for being on the call today, but especially for all the incredible music you gave to us over the years.
Johnny Winter: “I loved every minute of it. See you Ray.”
HIPPIEFEST headlines a fantastic lineup of rock and blues legendary artists featuring- Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, Leslie West and Kim Simmonds. Purchase tickets for the August 25th show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fl online at www.rutheckerdhall.com
Johnny Winter official website www.johnnywinter.net
Paul Nelson official website www.paulnelsonguitar.com
Order Johnny Winter’s latest release “ROOTS” at amazon.com or www.johnnywinter.net
Buy the Authorized and Definitive Biography of Johnny Winter at www.johnnywinterbook.com
Very special thanks to John Lappen of Bullseye Management and Jeff Albright of The Albright Entertainment Group.
Coming up… interviews with Annie Haslam of Renaissance and Gong guitarist Steve Hillage
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