ON HIS TIME IN "JOHNNY WINTER AND..."
RICK DERRINGER ON JOHNNY WINTER AND...
Guitar great Rick Derringer talks candidly to Tom Guerra for Vintage Guitar magazine about his days performing as a bandmate of Johnny Winter in "Johnny Winter AND," and producing some of Winter's most popular albums. Look for a new book on Derringer and other 70's rock guitarists, due to hit the stores in late 2001.
TG: Hi Rick, great to talk to you again. When did you first become aware of Johnny Winter?
RD: It was through Steve Paul, (owner of The Scene nightclub in NYC). Steve had read that now-famous Rolling Stone article (on Johnny Winter) and had mentioned to everybody that he was going to go and find the guy, and sure enough, he found Johnny and brought him back to New York. The first time I saw Johnny play was at the Fillmore East, and I think it was in 1968. I didn't meet Johnny that night, but did a few months later when Steve brought both Johnny and Edgar to see The McCoys at a club called The Tarot Club.
TG: How was it decided that The McCoys become the AND in JW AND?
RD: Well, both Johnny and Edgar were sufficiently impressed when they saw The McCoys that night, and that's when Steve hit us with the idea that both Johnny and The McCoys should do something together. The McCoys were in a bad situation... our music had become characterized as "bubblegum" and we didn't want to be seen like that. We wanted a way to gain some credibility since we thought we were pretty good players. Johnny came on the scene with some real respect, so we looked at this as an opportunity to get what we were looking for, some respect ourselves (laughs)!
TG: JW said your playing complemented his and he enjoyed playing with you. How did you guys figure out who was going to play what?
RD: We didn't, and that's why it worked. I've always been a guy who's pretty supportive, its just my nature, so I came in to the situation with the attitude that I wanted to support Johnny and make it work. I was the kind of guitar player who had grown up when electric guitar playing was still in its infancy, so I first learned how to play rhythm. This allowed me to be very supportive of Johnny, who was and is known primarily as a lead guitar player, and frankly, is not a rhythm guitar player. So our roles became very defined very easily because of the nature of our styles. I took the rhythm place, which a lot of people didn't know how to do the way I could, and this was really the first time that Johnny had a rhythm guitar player. On the other hand, when he gave me a solo, I certainly knew how to take advantage of that opportunity.
TG: When you played with Johnny, what were you guys playing for guitars and amps?
RD: I was playing mostly my Les Paul and my Gibson 355. Johnny was mostly playing his Epiphone in those days, that little solid body model. For amps, we both were playing through Marshalls .
TG: You produced several of Johnny's best albums, including "Johnny Winter AND", "Johnny Winter AND Live", "Still Alive and Well", "Saints and Sinners", "JDWIII" ...What was working in the studio w/ Johnny like?
RD: I produced all of his stuff that was either gold or platinum (laughs)! Johnny was great in the studio; he was there to make the music that he wanted to make. We lived right beside each other and had a rehearsal studio that was just ours, with nobody else using it, it was part of Johnny's house, so we could rehearse every day. We played all of the songs on the first Johnny Winter AND every day before we recorded them, so that when we got in the studio, it was totally easy, as we knew exactly what we wanted to do. My job at that time was to communicate Johnny's wishes to the engineers and to the people in New York . He felt that on his first projects with Eddie Kramer, being from Texas , he needed "somebody to translate" (spoken with Texas accent). He felt like his wishes weren't getting through. So as a guitar player and a guy who has some common sense and a friend of his, I was able to communicate his wishes to the hierarchy.
TG: Johnny did some of your songs, did you write them for him or have them already written. What did you think of his versions?
RD: I wrote "Rock N' Roll Hoochie Koo" for Johnny and that band, we also did "Out on a Limb," "Ain't That A Kindness," my brother wrote a song called "Am I Here?", we did a lot of our songs. Johnny was the boss, so what I felt about them wasn't really relevant. But when I got the chance to go back and record them myself, then I was able to go back and reflect about what I was able to improve.
TG: And your recording of "Hoochie Koo" just got an award, right? Congratulations...
RD: Yes, it just received an award from BMI on one million airplays.
TG: You did a tour with Johnny a few years back (in 1997), how was that?
RD: That was great, it brought Johnny back to life in some ways... Without anybody to give him some competition or to push him, Johnny, like anybody, might get a little bored or sink into complacency. Those shows allowed Johnny to hear us go on before him every night, and once again hear me trying to do the best I can. I'm a pretty competitive guy, and Johnny really responded. Each night, he got a little better better, his solos got a little hotter and I think it worked out pretty well.
TG: You've been playing a lot of blues over the past ten years or so...how did playing with Johnny influence your blues playing?
RD: Frankly, it wasn't that great of an influence. The influence Johnny did have on me was his slide playing. The first time I heard Johnny play at the Fillmore East, I wasn't really impressed. He had come on the scene with everybody telling me how great he was, and I didn't hear it. Johnny overplayed, and because of his eyesight problems, he would sometimes go to the wrong fret and hit the wrong note. I was a little kid from Ohio that was into perfection, and I just didn't get it! I was hearing a bunch of mistakes, when all of a sudden, he strapped on the slide guitar, and I said, "Now I get it." There was nobody at the time who was playing slide guitar like Johnny, and nobody, or no white guys at least, that was playing country blues like that on the acoustic guitar. And it was at that point that I realized what Johnny had to offer.
He taught me some things specifically, more than just from listening to him. We sat down and he showed me things like the open tunings he used, and some different fingerings. He showed me all the things that I now know about slide guitar and country blues.
TG: Getting to your own career, how are things going and when can the readers of VG expect another album?
RD: Well you know, my whole life has changed a lot over the past couple years. In the nineties I was doing those Blues Bureau records, but over the past two years, I have really gone back to my Christian roots and have been born again. I know some people will be surprised to hear it, but I've found that my music, whether its blues or rock, or whatever you want to call it, can be channeled into a positive direction that actually helps people.
Because of this I've been working on an all-Christian album. I've just finished a 12 song demo, which I've been taking around to all of the big Christian labels in Nashville . Some of the biggest Christian artists have agreed to help me with it, including Charlie Peacock, Phil Keaggy, John Elefante, Leo Ahlstrom from NewSong, and Myron LeFevre. My family is involved and my wife Brenda is a great, great writer. She helps me with the writing of everything and also sings with me. I owe a lot to Brenda. Also, our kids Lory and Marty also sing on the record.
And what makes me happy now has changed as well...Its one thing to play in a bar or at a biker festival, and hear a guy who's been drinking beer all day come up and tell you how good you are. For a long time in your life that will make you happy. I started The McCoys in 1962, so I'm approaching my 40th year in the entertainment business. So, after awhile, you can only get so much happiness from a guy who's drunk come up and tell you you're great. For me, I go in and play a few Christian songs for an audience, and now I have people come up and not tell me I'm great, but tell me that my music is helping save their lives, helping them in the Lord, and helping them end their vices. That makes me feel good!!! I never knew music could have that power before. I'm approaching a whole new part of the music business and a whole new life for me, and that's what I'm looking forward to. A few years back I went through a terrible time, and I started praying for the answers and I got them. And part of that was finding Brenda...I know it makes me sound like I'm running for Miss America or something, but its for real, and its helping change peoples lives. I've been playing a new version of "Still Alive and Well" that says "Jesus Christ has risen up to Heaven from the grave, and he's still alive and well." Some people are afraid of going this route, but its not scary, its only positive good stuff. It's not a cult and you get a lot back. I want Johnny to come to one of my concerts and hear my testimony...
TG: Are there any other things regarding your experiences with Johnny Winter that you'd like to share with the readers of VG?
RD: No, just that I had a great respect with Johnny and still do. He's really great, and I really enjoyed my time with him. We both learned a lot together!
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