Like any bluesman worth his salt, blues-guitar legend Johnny Winter has walked a hard road throughout his 63 years. It’s a road littered with heroin addiction, clinical depression, estrangement from his brother Edgar, lapses in creativity and, more recently, a bout with bankruptcy due to the mismanagement of his late longtime manager Teddy Slatus (who passed away in 2005). Despite his setbacks, Winter perseveres. In interviews he seems excited about being back on the road, and reuniting with collaborator Rick Derringer. His latest tour hits Missoula’s Wilma Theatre Sunday, March 2.
Things were never easy for Winter. The advances made by the civil rights movement in the early ’60s were on especially shaky footing in places like his hometown, Beaumont, Texas. But being born cross-eyed and albino, Winter was well aware of the effects of bigotry, so there was no race barrier for him. He learned about the blues through late-night radio stations beaming in from places like Houston. Before long, Winter was trying to imitate the sounds of fellow Texans like Gatemouth Brown, as well as the electric blues emanating from Chicago.
“The first blues show I went to go see was BB King,” drawls Winter. “This was an all-black club and, despite me being white and underage, I was instantly accepted because I knew just as much about blues as anybody else in the club. I really wanted to play that night, so all of these people kept asking BB if this young kid could come and play. He kept putting them off because he didn’t know if I was good or not. Finally, he gave me his guitar and I got up and played and got a standing ovation. I was hooked after that. By the time I was 17, I knew how to play blues, and by the time I stepped up on BB’s stage, I knew I was good.”
Although places like San Francisco and New York were already coming down off the buzz of psychedelic blues, Winter’s 1969 debut nonetheless started a bidding war among record labels, and his 1971 live album Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer would prove to be his biggest seller. Winter quickly established himself as one of the most heartfelt and soulful guitarists around, with his unique thumb-pick technique that more than hinted at his traditional blues upbringing. Despite a battle with heroin addiction, he quickly became one of the biggest arena draws of the ’70s. Between 1977 and 1979, Winter concentrated his energies elsewhere, producing a trio of Muddy Waters comeback records and performing in Waters’ live band.
Winter often describes this brief period of working with his hero as the high point in his career, and it’s when talking about Waters that Winter suddenly comes out of his shell.
“That was just such a thrill for me,” he says. “I really didn’t like the last couple of Muddy Waters records all that much, and wanted him to go back to the sound he was doing with Chess Records. I would just make sure the sound was okay, and we would do everything in one take with everybody in one room—just like Muddy always wanted to do it. I’m telling you, Muddy Waters was always such a gentleman.”
With one fell swoop of Eddie Van Halen’s whammy bar, Winter suddenly found himself in the ’80s, horribly outdated. Pressure from management and record labels briefly convinced him to keep in step with the times. His new playing style had more to do with technicality and speed than it did with heartfelt blues riffs. His releases, largely half-hearted blues-rock material, became fewer, and tours in the ’80s and ’90s saw him ever lower on the bill at festivals, or merely serving as the warm-up act for newer blues-rock stars. Rumors of his declining health took on a ring of truth as shows were cancelled with increasing frequency, and in the ’90s he was forced to perform in a chair due to complications with his hip.
In 2004, just when things were looking most dire, Winter surprised everybody with the Grammy-nominated I’m a Bluesman, putting an end to the chatter suggesting that he may have lost his touch. Gone were the tepid experiments in rock ’n’ roll as Winter concentrated on what he does best.
“I like doing rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “It’s fun to do every now and again, but what I really like doing is just straight-ahead blues. That’s what feels really natural for me, and what I feel best doing. There is no way you can fake blues. You just have to feel it.”
Johnny Winter plays the Wilma Theatre Sunday, March 2, at 8 PM. Willy Roland opens. $31.