By Danny Coleman

“I like good blues, that’s my favorite kind and he plays good blues,” said the one and only James Cotton in a recent interview about the now deceased Johnny Winter.
Johnny passed away recently in a hotel room in Switzerland of reasons unknown at the time of this article. However, it is well known that Winter had not been in the best of health over these, his last years; yet he was still managing to thrill audiences with his fluid fingers and amazing talent.
Born John Dawson Winter III in the state of Texas February 1944, “Johnny” as he became known and his just as talented brother Edgar, were urged along by their parents at very young ages in the field of music. By the time Johnny was age ten, he had joined Edgar on stage and played the ukulele and sang on a local children’s television show.
By age fifteen, Winter had made his first recording and by 1968, his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, released on a local Houston, TX. record label Sonobeat Records. Later on that year, Johnny was asked to play a tune at the Fillmore East in New York City by his buddy Mike Bloomfield, who along with Al Kooper, were the acts that evening. Winter performed B.B. King‘s “It’s My Own Fault” and witnesses say he blew the roof off of the historic concert venue; so much so that the representatives of Columbia Records who just happened to be in attendance signed him within days with a reported advance bonus of $600,000; an unheard amount at the time. JOHNNYWINTER
Johnny had long been studying blues masters such as B.B. King, Willie Dixon, Big Walter Horton, and Muddy Waters; allowing them to both shape and heavily influence his career as well as its direction. Winter would go on to not only perform with these greats but to produce albums for Waters and multiple other blues artists; garnering Grammy nominations and victories.
Several years ago now, this writer had an opportunity to meet Winter prior to a performance at a winery in New Hope, PA. Not being sure what to expect upon entering into his lowly lit tour bus, my nerves were mildly on edge as I was about to meet a guitar legend. The encounter that followed was not what I had anticipated but a dichotomy of history both past and present, youth and advanced age, health versus wellness and the eerie feeling that this man’s battles, demons and struggles were all exorcised as he was seemingly at ease yet tired and weary.
Johnny’s guitarist and road manager directed the meeting, offering up beverages and snacks; all lost on me as in this moment I found myself firmly torn between feeling sad and wanting to pick this piece of musical history’s brain. You see, Winter’s health was the roller coaster just before it’s about to crest the first big hill to drop. He spoke in breathy tones and his failing eyesight would not allow for much emotion to be deciphered, had it not been for the occasional voice inflection and the few smiles that crossed his dour lips when asked about a certain gig or guitar; I’d have not known if he were even lucid.  This was Johnny Winter and the meeting which lasted a sum total of twenty minutes, was still one of the finest moments in my fledgling radio/journalism career. The encounter was informative, sobering and oddly enough exhilarating all in one. Upon exiting his motor home, thoughts of the show and his pending performance raced through my mind as I was questioning whether or not this once dominant player was going to be able to deliver the goods on stage.
The long line of attendees had dissipated and my time spent in Winter’s presence had allowed for easy entry into the field house where the show was to take place. The opening act, a local New Jersey band, called Blues In Disguise, featured Paul Plumeri, one of best blues guitarists on the entire eastern seaboard. They performed what was arguably and perhaps one of their best sets of all time; garnering a standing ovation from the intimate crowd of approximately 200. Thoughts of the opener outshining the headliner began to creep into my head based solely on what I’d witnessed only an hour earlier.
Winter’s designated time had come and gone with no appearance and the crowd, made up of predominantly, shall we say, “Experienced” fans seemed to be getting restless. From my vantage point stage left, I was ushered aside as the near door opened and several stage handlers, along with security guards opened a pathway for the frail, hunched over Winter as they grasped him by hand and led him to the stage. Once there, while the appreciative crowd stood and applauded this piece of musical history, a crew member placed a chair center stage. Winter was seated while another placed a guitar in his hands. What took place next was nothing short of magical; this man, who only two hours before, had to be directed where to look for photos, transformed right before my very eyes.
Gone was the frail, slow moving and tired individual from the bus and in his place was an extremely talented artist; the canvas on which he painted being the fret board of his Fender Guitar. Winter seemed to travel back in time as his fingers swiftly flew along the neck, tickling the strings with precision and grace. Every bending note, every lead ride played to perfection as if he’d never aged a minute from his heyday. The breathy halted voice was also gone as he growled and clawed his way through his repertoire. What was witnessed on this evening was pure and raw ability, straight forward blues and rock ‘n’ roll played masterfully by one of the best.
The hour plus set ended and Winter was once again led off stage, looking every bit the tired, frail man he did earlier. Was it the healing powers of music which transported him while on stage? Perhaps it was the adrenaline of a capacity crowd? Whatever the case, Johnny left it all on stage, performing an incredible set and giving the crowd what they paid for. Nobody can say they were cheated by this man now on the right side of his mid-sixties.
The news of his passing marks yet another end of a lengthy career. Players and performers like Winter and his ilk are becoming fewer and farther between as time and age encroach upon their abilities and lives. The things they’ve seen, the trails they’ve blazed the adversity they’ve faced, whether self-inflicted or circumstantial all melded into making them who they are and/or were. Some of the greatest music from Beethoven to today has been born from adversity, tragedy and personal struggles. Battling stigmas, heroin and whatever else came along; Johnny Winter never wavered, always playing his best; even when he may not have been at his. So, here’s to you Johnny, the pleasure was all mine….Rock On my friend, rock on.








My Time Spent with Johnny Winter
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