I must’ve been about thirteen or fourteen when I first heard Johnny Winter. My pal Mark had access to his big brother’s record collection and in there was a copy of Captured Live, a gnarly 1976 live set featuring the man with what was apparently one of the less celebrated lineups of his band. Of course, I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that this stuff rocked, and hard. Mark’s favourite track, as I remember it, was the storming version of Bony Moronie, an old rock’n’roll track that I knew well from my rockabilly obsessed childhood. Johnny tears it up on that one. My favourite was the massively long object lesson in electric slide firepower that was Highway 61 Revisited.
I hadn’t heard anything quite like it. I’d heard some slide, of course. Most of my early favourite rock bands – Zeppelin, Queen et al – employed a bottleneck here and there to some degree of cool, but not like this. Damn! It was hearing that track in particular that prompted me to first try playing slide myself. I saw in photographs that Johnny used a metal slide which directly influenced my initial decision to do the same – it just looked cooler than glass (in the end, after experimenting with various types over the years, I did indeed settle on brass as my slide of choice).
As the years went by I picked up more of Johnny’s classic albums – among them the brilliant self-titled major label debut, and its indie predecessor The Progressive Blues Experiment as well as a couple of his Alligator label releases, various compilations and so on. Late in the mix though was Second Winter, the three-side second major label release. It featured the studio version of Highway 61 Revisited, more concise than Captured Live’s take and just as good. By this time – a decade on, at least – I was fully aware of Dylan’s original, and a fan of that too, but Winter’s version, like Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, is The One. Second Winter is jaw-dropping, one of the great electric blues albums, one of the great guitar albums. A host of quality covers includes the definitive take on Percy Mayfield’s Memory Pain but it’s arguably the original material that stands strongest. Album closer Fast Life Easy Rider is a blues rock masterclass, seven minutes of attitude and musical muscle. Just about perfect.
My first taste of Johnny Winter live was an unfortunate one. We know now that into the 2000s, he was struggling with prescription drugs and alcohol but that wasn’t common knowledge at the time of his appearance at Bishopstock, an English blues festival, in 2001. On the third and final day, Johnny was expected to close the show, on a fantastic bill that had seen stellar performances from Gary Moore, Ben Andrews and Booker T. & The MGs (sobering thought: Moore, Andrews and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunne from the MGs are all gone now too). However, in the end his ‘set’ consisted of him being supported up to the mike to make a barely coherent apology for not being able to play due to hurting his wrist backstage. It was all over so quickly that my mate Michael who’d driven us down there missed it as he’d gone to get the teas in. Although there were updates on the condition of Johnny’s wrist injury on his website for a while after that, rumours abounded – mostly along the lines that he’d just been wasted or, worse, he’d had a stroke. Either way – things weren’t looking too good for him.
Over the next few years however things took an upturn and word got around that he’d cleaned his act up after extricating himself from a dodgy management situation. He started touring regularly and released his first studio album in years. The album may not have been a patch on former glories but it was a step in the right direction, earning awards and nominations on the way. With every year there were reports that, although now frail and performing seated, he was getting the fire back in his playing and his singing. Happily I got to see him at The Ferry in Glasgow around that time, up close and personal. It was a great experience. Maybe the lead work wasn’t quite as incendiary, the slide work not quite so sure as in his heyday (how could they have been?) but there was a new sense of worldliness there, helping propel his performance to the level of ‘veteran class act’. He had reached that position now occupied by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Keith Richards, once by John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash, going on to consolidate it with constant, well received touring and a more surefooted album with the obligatory all-star guest list.
After that gig at The Ferry, I had the chance to meet him but I didn’t take it. I believe it was common for Johnny’s tour bus to stay outside the venue for as long as it took to meet and greet the fans who wanted a picture with the great man. I know a few folk who have those very pictures and I’ve seen a fair few more posted on social media this past few days. It’s a measure of the man that he was happy to do that for people. Still, on the night I thought he looked pretty tired, though happy, at the end of the gig. I didn’t want to impose.
So, Johnny Winter died on July 16th 2014, aged seventy. Very sad, for sure, but there’s a sense of triumph in his story too. In the aftermath of that infamous 2001 Bishopstock appearance, it seemed we’d be reading his obituary any time and it would have been just another sad story of ‘how the mighty have fallen’. Instead he pulled through, writing his own final chapter, one of overcoming adversity and growing into the deeply deserved status of living legend and elder statesman of the blues.