|JOHNNY WINTER -
GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
Few would argue that Johnny Winter is among the giants of blues and rock and roll guitar playing. His aggressive, fiery playing has influenced just about every rock and blues guitarist who came of age since, from Billy Gibbons to Billy Corgan, Stevie Ray Vaughan to Steve Morse. Several of his early albums, including “Johnny Winter And Live” became textbooks for playing rock and roll and blues guitar licks. But decades of addiction and mismanagement had forced Winter into relative obscurity, until just recently, when his career began a resurgence in a manner eerily similar to the comeback that Winter himself had engineered for Muddy Waters, no doubt Johnny's proudest accomplishment.
Muddy Waters had spent decades making great records and touring the world, and was recognized as a master of his craft whose influence on modern music could not be overestimated. Despite this, Muddy had little to demonstrate in terms of commercial success, and attempts made to reach a bigger audience through crossover experiments like “Electric Mud” were viewed as critical and commercial disasters.
To get his career back on track, Waters enlisted the aid of Johnny Winter, which Winter admitted fulfilled a life long dream. Said Winter in a Nov. 2001 interview for TG “Working with Muddy was definitely the biggest highlight of my career.” During the next three years, Winter played on, produced and oversaw the recording of Waters' comeback album Hard Again (in 1977), I'm Ready (1978), Muddy Mississippi Waters Live (1979) and King Bee (1980), all of which became Grammy winning albums. Longtime Muddy guitarist Bob Margolin, who recently remastered Muddy's final recordings for the Sony Legacy series, commented on Johnny's contributions to the “Hard Again” album. “ Johnny Winter's production is, I believe, one of the most distinctive and attractive features of the album. Johnny loved the old Blues records that inspired him and was frustrated with modern recordings that seemed to lose their soul and excitement. Johnny very deliberately set out to recapture the ‘old school' of Blues recording, and he succeeded dramatically. The sound of this album lends it a live personality.”
It was at this point in his career that Johnny left rock and roll behind and concentrated on playing only blues. "Winning the Grammy for Hard Again affected my reputation as a blues player real well. I got Blues Player of the Year from Guitar Player Magazine for three years in a row – this was during the Muddy Waters Blue Sky LPs. Before that, people saw me as more rock and roll. Being recognized as a blues guitar player was something I always wanted, so I felt real good, and it made me play more blues."
During the 1980's, Johnny made a string of very strong albums for Alligator Records, including the excellent, Grammy nominated “Serious Business”. But for the past twenty or so years, rumors of a debilitating drug habit fed by a manager who seemed bent on controlling Johnny while keeping his financial affairs in the dark ran rampant in the music industry. Said Rick Derringer in 2001 of Winter's longtime manager Teddy Slatus “I don't want to see Johnny dying…I don't want to see Johnny being cheated. I want to see Johnny getting everything he's earned, and I have a suspicion that Teddy wants just the opposite.”
Earlier this year, tensions came to a head which resulted in Johnny's firing of Slatus after over thirty years of management. Shortly after the termination, Slatus passed away after a fall down a flight of stairs. And now, at age 62 (Muddy's age at the time of his Winter-aided comeback), Johnny's career seems to be finally getting back on track, spearheaded by guitarist/manager Paul Nelson.
Since the management shakeup, Winter's live performances have been once again getting accolades, Gibson Guitars is planning a Johnny Winter Gibson Firebird, and other guitar manufacturers including Jim Dunlop and Seymour Duncan are planning their own JW endorsements. In addition, noted blues author Mary Lou Sullivan‘s tell-all authorized biography of Winter is nearing completion, created over the past 4 years with input from Johnny and many of his friends and musicians.
TG had a chance to sit down with Johnny at his home studio in Southern New England , along with guitarist/manager Paul Nelson… Normally a man of few words, Winter indeed seemed vibrant and excited about the revival of his career.
TG: How are you feeling these days?
JW: Feelin' real good…excellent.
TG: I noticed that you're doing a lot of touring. Does your set contain any surprises?
JW: A WHOLE LOT (laughs)…No…no real surprises, the same old stuff. We are doing some Freddie King though, both “Hideaway” and we also do “Toredown.”
TG: Tell us about the new Gibson Johnny Winter Firebird – is it based on your favorite ‘bird?
JW: Yes, it sure is…same specs and everything, based on my guitar, which is a '64 I believe.
PN: Matt Foley, from the Gibson Custom Shop, said they would be getting this out there for early 2007. Matt's going to come up and see the guitar with Johnny…they want do it EXACTLY like Johnny's guitar, duplicating all the nicks and wear, and aged pickups and pots. Giving it the full “relic” treatment.
TG: With the exception of the tailpiece, is this guitar all stock?
JW: It sure is, with the stock pickups and pots.
TG: I also have heard that Dunlop is coming out with a new Johnny Winter slide. How close is it to your slide made out of conduit pipe…
JW: Yes, I've got one right here…you are the first to see this in its package!
TG: (Comparing it to Johnny's original slide) It's an exact copy…
PN: It IS an exact copy, the same specs, same gauge, everything… it's Johnny's same slide! It's called the Johnny Winter Texas Slider, and it fits on your pinky.
TG: Are you still using the Music Man (Model?) amps that you've been using since the ‘70's? How did you get into those?
JW: Yes, I'm still using the 4x10 model. Bob Margolin turned me onto these when we were playing with Muddy (see story below).
PN: Matt Wells from New York City works on them and keeps them up. They're all stock except for the speakers, which are Celestion G10's.
TG: What are your all time favorite guitars?
JW: The two I'm using now are my favorites, the Firebird and the (Erlewine) Lazer. For acoustics, I've got several old Nationals…
TG: Do you still have your white Firebird?
JW: Oh yeah, I've still got it…
TG: I've read reviews that your shows are getting better and better…what do you attribute this to?
JW: They sure are, I feel great about this. I was taking some anti-depressants for awhile and they kind of screwed my voice up and made me not play as good…so I stopped taking them and have gotten a lot better since. Stopped drinking a few years ago too…
TG: You recently reunited with both Edgar and Rick Derringer on this recent tour…how did it feel playing with them?
JW: It was a lot of fun playing with them again.
TG: Any plans for future performances with them?
JW: I don't know, do we Paul?
PN: If things come up and we're in the area and criss-cross each other's paths, we'll definitely do it again.
TG: You recently released “I'm A Bluesman”…how is that doing?
JW: It took awhile to make it, it came out good, but if my voice would have been better I would have liked it better…my voice wasn't that great on it.
TG: Any plans to go into the studio in the near future?
PN: We're working on ideas for a new record, using traditional songs that Johnny grew up with, using some artist friends of his.
TG: Will that include any acoustic stuff, maybe some bottleneck?
JW: I'm sure I will, it'll include some Robert Johnson stuff so yes. Probably some T-Bone Walker too, who was a big influence on me.
TG: Who were some of your other, less obvious influences?
JW: Gatemouth (Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown) was a big influence on me, and also Clarence Garlow, who was both a d.j., singer and guitarist was another that I got to play with. I used to listen to him on the radio, and one day I was working in a Beaumont ( Texas ) music store, and I recognized his voice.
TG: Were you teaching guitar at that store?
JW: Yes, I was giving guitar lessons.
PN: I would have LOVED being a 12 year old kid taking lessons from Johnny Winter (laughs)
TG: Were they good students? Did they do their homework?
JW: Most of them…didn't (laughs).
TG: The last time we spoke, you had mentioned that Chet Atkins was a big influence…will the new record include any of Chet's music?
JW: No, I don't think so, I don't really play that stuff anymore.
TG: The word on the street for so long was that (former manager) Teddy Slatus took advantage of your former bad rock and roll habits and weakened state while helping himself to your finances for many years as he allegedly did with other artists in the Blue Sky Record stable. Is that the way it really was?
JW: Yes, he sure did. It was terrible…just a mess, and it went on for like thirty years…
TG: Now that you have Paul on board, he seems to be really leading the charge to help get your career back on track. How do you like the way things are going?
JW: Oh, having Paul on board has helped me so much…Paul has been doing a great job. I love the way things are going…
PN: You'd better! (Johnny and Paul both get a big laugh). To tell you the truth, I just like seeing Johnny happy. And not to sound corny, but all the guys in the band are buddies, besides playing together we like to hang out, and having Johnny hanging with us, laughing and being just as alert as us really is fun for all of us.
JW: It couldn't be better.
TG: Do you guys play together too?
PN: At the shows, I do the intro, play a bit before Johnny comes on, then we play together for like three seconds…like one chord…but that one chord sounds great! (laughs). And then I split and Johnny does his show.
TG: You were largely credited for Muddy's resurgence in the ‘70's…and now 30 years later, you're considered one of the elder statesmen of the blues and having a resurgence of your own, at the same age as Muddy. Looking back over the years, what are some of your favorite recordings that you've done?
JW: Oh, all the stuff with Muddy…The Progressive Blues Experiment, and the Johnny Winter album, and “Nothin' But The Blues”. And I love the stuff we did for Alligator Records… Guitar Slinger, Serious Business and Third Degree.
Recording with Muddy in Dan Hartman's studio (The Schoolhouse) was great…I'd worked with Muddy before, and we didn't really rehearse, just played the songs. As far as my role as producer, I had a really good engineer (Dave Still) that I worked with, and I played him a bunch of stuff and certain sounds that I really liked, and other stuff I didn't like and he was a big help. I love that “Hard Again” album…
TG: Johnny, its pretty safe to say you have seen it all in the music business, from the ups like playing Woodstock to the downs of addiction and mismanagement. Do you have any advice for young people just getting started in the music business?
JW: Just listen to as much music as you can, and play as much music as you can. From the business end…oh, that's hard. Finding a good manager is really difficult.
BOB MARGOLIN on turning Johnny onto Music Man amps:
“I played at the Last Waltz with Muddy, and met Eric (Clapton) there. At the time, there were big ads on the back of Guitar Player for Eric endorsing Music Man amps. I asked Eric if he really used them and liked them and he said he did. He offered to let me use his on Muddy's set, and I did, and liked it. I bought one, a 2-10" 65-watt model, for $330 at Wurlitzer Music in Boston right away.
When we were recording “Hard Again”, I told Johnny about the amps, and the next time I saw him, he had en endorsement deal with Music Man, and they gave him one of each kind.”
Tom Guerra would like to thank Paul Nelson and Mary Lou Sullivan for their assistance with the interview.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Guerra recently released his third cd “Racket of Three” with indie rockers Mambo Sons, and has been busy promoting the disc around the Northeast.