RIP Johnny Winter: Texas Blues Icon Dies at Age 70

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Michael Weintraub/Sony
The quintessential Texas bluesman: Johnny Winter
Guitarist Johnny Winter, one of the true greats of Texas blues, passed away Wednesday night in Switzerland. His publicist sent the following message at 5 a.m. Thursday, and said a longer official statement would follow "at the appropriate time."

"His wife, family and bandmates are all saddened by the loss of one of the world's finest guitarists," it said.

Winter, a native of Beaumont, was 70 and known for his work with Muddy Waters and albums including Second Winter, Nothin' But the Blues and Serious Business. Following is an interview Rocks Off's Bob Ruggiero did with the legend back in February, when Columbia Records released the multi-disc career retrospective True to the Blues. We will have additional tributes to Winter soon as well.

A December 1968 edition of Rolling Stone featured Texas musicians who were at the time making inroads into the magazine's home city of San Francisco. Featuring a cover photo of cowboy-hatted Doug Sahm (balancing toddler son Shawn on his knee), it mentioned players and singers both known (Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs) and others familiar only to hardcore fans.

But it was a mention of a shit-hot blues player, Johnny Winter, that seemed to generate the most buzz. Soon, the Beaumont native found himself in demand. The article described "A cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues you ever heard."

A guest appearance with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the Fillmore East gave a major audience their first real look at this mythical figure. Columbia Records execs were in the audience, and it led to a then-unheard of advance for an unknown act -- a reported $600,000 -- resulting in Winter's 1969 self-titled debut.

And while his career and personal life have seen plenty of ups and downs, Johnny Winter has always stayed the quintessential Texas bluesman, true to the genre even when seeing other guitar heroes reap more popular acclaim.

So it's fitting that in time for his 70th birthday on February 23, he's feted on disc with the career spanning 4-CD box set True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (Columbia/Legacy).

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"I was very happy with the way it turned out. They did a good job picking stuff," says Winter, ever succinct in answering questions, from somewhere on the endless road. "I'm happy with it"

True to the Blues features 56 tracks culled from a whopping 27 albums (as well as unreleased material), and spans tracks recorded in 1968 at legendary Austin club the Vulcan Gas Company to 2011 collaborations with Vince Gill and Derek Trucks, taken from 2011's Roots CD

Also making their appearance for the first time are incendiary live cuts from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, as well as Woodstock. Sadly, Winter's management didn't think much of the event at the time, hence his absence from the movie.

"It was very emotional music with a lot of feeling. More than I'd ever heard," Winter says of his first attraction to the blues, which he shared with brother Edgar. His similarly albino sibling also carved out a career as a musician, albeit in a more rock direction ("Frankenstein"). The two would play with each other's bands for decades.

But this was also back in the day where, say, having any song by any artist of any era instantaneously at the click of a computer mouse was something akin to science fiction. The Winter brothers had to become something of musical detectives to find the blues.


Story continues on the next page.


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