Crossroads Revisited with Don Wilcock: Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter at Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT
Johnny Winter at Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT

Editor’s Note: This is the newest weekly feature at American Blues Scene Digital, where celebrated journalist Don Wilcock, a Keeping the Blues Alive Award recipient for Journalism, gives readers a cultural and firsthand look back at some of the most historic moments in history!!  

By 1969 I thought I’d seen it all. I’d grown up in the Eisenhower era when rock and rollers wore black slacks and pink shirts, and your comb was as important as smart phones are today. Soul brothers wore the nicest suits they could afford. Then in fast succession, The British invasion went from suits with no lapels to suits with huge lapels to military garb with as much rococo as an only child’s birthday cake. The San Francisco scene was Salvation Army chic, hobos with attitude and hair everywhere. But still everybody looked like a kid trick or treating.

And then there was Johnny Winter!

If Jimi was the black alien from Andromedia, Johnny Winter was yin to Jimi’s yang. An albino who, if you didn’t look closely, you’d have thought he might be the wicked grandmother in a Roger Corman B horror film. Rolling Stone put him on the cover of their issue on Texas rockers. Now Rolling Stonewas not a slick four-color glossy in 1969. You couldn’t score a copy at WalMart or the Seven Eleven.

I lived in upstate New York, and I’d go down to the Village in The City every few months, duck my head and crawl into one of the many sub-basement hippy heaven stores, all brilliant colored tie-dyed yo yos, bongs, rolling papers and the smell of chipotle. And there on a table would be six or seven back issues of the hippy freak flag rag, Rolling Stone. The size of the New York Daily Newsfolded over, one of those back issues had Johnny on the cover. At first glance, this guy defied categorization. Nobody knew androgynous in ’69. And his mane was whiter than the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver. There was no one or two-word description of who – or what – he was. He was the cover artist for a big spread on Texas music.

At the time, Lubbock, Texas might as well have been Duluth, Minnesota to underground music fans. I mean it was from Port Arthur, Texas, that Janis Joplin escaped when she immigrated to San Francisco, and her return home for a high school reunion a year later was a culture clash of such volume that it pushed her into increased substance abuse and eventually killed her. Waylon Jennings was a Texan, but the term outlaw country hadn’t been invented yet. Lubbock’s best known rocker Buddy Holly was a decade gone, his body splashed across a wintry Iowa cornfield with that of the Big Bopper and Richie Valens.

Texas? Give me a break.

The article mentioned Winter’s album The Progressive Blues Experimentwhich I immediately sent for. Thin as a zombie, he sported a red cape on the back black cover, and the liner notes proclaimed “Winter is hard and heavy in his hypnotic blues bag. Before the recording session, there was Johnny Winter and his guitar. During the session, Johnny became the guitar.” The record opened with Muddy Waters “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and closed with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four.”

Since Elvis first recorded Arthur Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s Alright Now, Mama” in 1955 I’d been obsessed with the hybrid rock and rollers made out of Chicago blues. But to that point, the marriage threatened annulment. Sun Records had Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sonny Burgess who were as much country as they were blues. The British Invasion brought us Eric Clapton – a guitarist kids thought was God but who was treated like a step sister by Sonny Boy Williamson. The Stones, Animals, early Yardbirds, and the Pretty Things came closer to the bone, but after hearing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s Chess recordings, listening to youngsters from St. John’s Wood affecting Mobs Mabley accents left me feeling like I was listening to knockoffs. Even Janis who came off almost as raw as Big Mama Thornton on “Ball and Chain” had a band, The Holding Company, that sounded like what they were holding should have been kept in their pants.

Winter was different. He had the energy of the Wolf, a unique delivery that matched Hubert Sumlin, and he played slide like his life depended on it. Forget Duane Allman. This guy crossed over. And he did it on his own terms. He wasn’t a hybrid. He was high bred for the funk-in-your-trunk, get-down, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, trips-tastic, Speedo nirvana. He was the escape that Janis never made. He lived the music.

I drove from Fort Lee, Virginia to New York City to see Winter at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East late in ’69. He swept across that huge stage under a white flood light and turned his guitar into a fire hose that dosed an audience high on everything from Tai sticks to yellow acid. His velvet black cape framed his white head and pink eyes, and everyone there knew we were seeing a rock superstar in the making.

Through scores of albums and years of touring, Winter delivered on his Fillmore promise of greatness. At times he would strip gears and become a rock machine. At other times, as when he produced Muddy Waters late in his mentor’s career, he pushed the master into geek freak fireworks.

For years Winter was managed by a man I won’t honor by mentioning his name. But God acts in interesting ways. That guy fell to his death literally so that Johnny could live. Paul Nelson dusted Johnny off, took him off his cocktail of prescription drugs and supported him on guitar like one of those beds the ads claim will eliminate your pain. No one expected an albino to live as long as Johnny did. But like so many of his black brothers, he kept on keeping on. For decades he looked like a skeleton walking, but his fingers never slowed down and he died with his boots on and his tattoos winking.