Johnny Winter still electrifying the blues
For 50-plus years, Johnny Winter had made his mark on the electric blues scene. And in an exclusive interview with Spins on Music, he talks about his latest all-star album and the biggest mistake of his career.
The people who influenced me are very important to me.
With a career that spans more than five decades, Johnny Winter has quite literally seen it all … and played with just about everybody who’s anybody.
After years of performing as a child (and forming Johnny & the Jammers with his brother, Edgar), the Texas-born singer and guitarist really fired up his pioneering version of the electric blues in the late 1960s, inspired by the likes of Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
His first album, 1968’s “The Progressive Blues Experiment,” set the table for a lucrative contract with Columbia Records and a star-studded vocation in blues-rock, which naturally has included its share of turbulence, from drug addiction and recovery to the usual music industry turmoil.
Along the way, he’s shared stages with icons ranging from Mike Bloomfield and Janis Joplin to Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and he eventually produced three of his hero Waters’ Grammy Award-winning albums.
Winter’s guitar prowess has drawn admiration from peers and the adulation of younger musicians influenced by his music.
That “rubbing-elbows-with-the-greats” gets displayed in dynamic fashion on Winter’s latest studio recording, “Roots,” which has the guitarist paying tribute to classic blues songs and artists, from “T-Bone Shuffle” to “Come Back Baby,” with help from blue-ribbon panel of guest stars: Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, Vince Gill, Edgar Winter, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper and others.
Now 68, Winter recently took time out from a dizzying 2012 touring schedule that has him playing as many as six nights a week to talk with Spins on Music about his lengthy career, the new album and more.
He insists he still gets a thrill out of performing, and while he spent much of his Grand Rapids show playing guitar while seated on stage at The Intersection, he stood at times and still proved his mettle on guitar. (See video snippets from that show below.)
That same night, the West Michigan Blues Society — led by board member Tim Richards — presented Winter with a Lifetime Achievement Award, a deserved special honor for a guitarist and singer who’s performed many times in the region.
Talented guitarist Paul Nelson, a member of Winter’s touring band who produced the “Roots” album, also took part in the brief chat with Spins on Music, held just before Winter’s shows in Detroit and Grand Rapids.
Q: So Paul, tell me a little bit about Johnny’s latest album, “Roots.” Was it your idea or his idea to play these classic songs and bring all the great guest stars together to play on different tracks?
A: I came up with the idea about two years ago and speaking with Johnny and knowing his catalog, I knew it would be good. Over the years, the record label would only allow him to cover an occasional blues tune. They wanted him to pop-rock it as much as possible. So I told him, let’s just do a whole album of that, everything they didn’t want him to do. I told him, do one song by each artist who influenced you and invite a guest in for each song. It took him 15 minutes to come up with all the songs he wanted to do. I said, we’ll call it “Roots,” and he goes, “Perfect.” The cover shot was taken about two years ago by the AC/DC camp people who took some shots during a documentary they were doing. I said that would be perfect for the cover (taken by Louis Torrieri).
Q: Johnny, do you find that the older you get, the more committed and interested you are in paying tribute to the artists and songs that influenced you the most, like you did on “Roots”?
A: I’ve always wanted to do that. The people who influenced me are very important to me. I knew all the songs. I didn’t have to learn the songs; they’re songs I love. I’ve played those songs for years.
Q: Was it a challenge arranging to have all these guests come in for the album, which was recorded at Carriage House Studio in Stamford, Conn.?
A: (Paul) Nobody said no, obviously. Actually, it started when they were having an Allman Brothers show at the Beacon Theatre (in New York City). A lot of guys on my list actually flew in. Warren (Haynes) was the first to record … other guys came in at different times. It ended up sounding very cohesive. … We brought in all kinds of retro outboard gear to give it that warmer sound. I knew it was going to go on vinyl, too, so that really helped the sound quality. It’s killer. Once Johnny picked the songs, I had the band learn the original versions exactly, then learn the secondary versions. Then we could communicate with Johnny about how to “Winter-ize” it. Then we did our thing. We learned that less is more and that really helped us live and in the recording. I think we’re going to do “Roots 2” with other guest artists. This could be a whole series that Johnny could do. It could go on for quite some time.
(Johnny) The first one’s doing pretty well and we could do a second one with all these other guests. … I really liked Susan Tedeschi coming in to sing on “Bright Lights, Big City” and my brother (Edgar playing sax) on “Honky Tonk.” Those are my favorites. … Warren’s style is really similar to Duane’s (Allman) style. I once played with Duane on “Mountain Jam.”
Q: You’re doing some shows later this year with your brother. Do you remember your first public gig?
A: I was 16 when we played this little club in Texas. I would never get nervous. We played a little rock ‘n’ roll and jivey stuff, mostly rock ‘n’ roll songs that were on the radio in 1959. Of course, we played ukuleles on TV when I was about 9 (on a children’s show).
Q: I asked some local musicians and fans to submit questions for you, so here’s a couple of them. What current musicians and players out there do you really admire? What younger guys are you really impressed by?
A: I like Warren Haynes a lot and Derek Trucks a lot.
Q: What’s your take on the current state of blues music? It certainly doesn’t get played on mainstream radio. What’s your view on the genre in 2012? Why do you keep going after 50 years?
A: It’s not like it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that’s for sure. There are some people around. But there’s no Howlin’ Wolf and I don’t think there ever will be. But there’s still people out there who love the blues and there a lot of places to play. We’re doing a lot of shows. Summers are always busy.
The traveling gets to me sometimes but it goes along with the job. Hey, B.B. King is still doing it and he’s a lot older than I am. It’s still fun. … Having the people enjoy the music is the best thing for me, making people feel good. That makes me feel good.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you made in your career and what advice would you give younger musicians?
A: Doing heroin. That was a mistake. That’s the worst thing they could ever do. That’s the worst mistake I made, I think, was doing heroin. It was horrible.