Do you remember Chuck Berry’s hit song Johnny B. Goode? I’m sure most of you reading this post have heard it before as it is considered one of the most popular songs of all time. The third verse of that song really sums up the life and career of this week’s featured artist Johnny Winter.
His mother told him “Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”
Go Johnny go
Go go go Johnny go
Go go go Johnny go
Go go go Johnny go
Johnny B. Goode
Not only do the lyrics seem to describe Winter, but you should hear his version of the hit song! He truly was a gifted guitarist. Last month we lost one of the real musical giants of our time. Never mind that Johnny Winter was a blues musician, he was so influential that his style and ability affected other musicians across many genre lines. Other musicians, especially guitar players, respected the immense talent of Johnny Winter, and he was ranked 63rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.
Those of you very familiar with Johnny Winter may wonder if it’s correct to classify him as a blues guitarist. I believe blues is the accurate genre to describe his music, as a definition of blues that I found will help clarify his style of play. Blues is a musical form and genre that originated in African-American communities in the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. The blue notes that, for expressive purposes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale, are also an important part of the sound.
Most of us do understand that blues music basically is where all modern music originated. However, there are various forms of blues music that may sound like rock and roll, but still retain the blues classification. When you listen to Johnny Winter perform, he seems to be the embodiment of the blues definition, easily moving back and forth seamlessly across the genre lines; comfortably playing with Greg Allman and Lynryd Skynyrd, as well as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Yes, he played and recorded with them all.
I remembered very well Johnny Winter and his time performing and recording with Muddy Waters. In fact, it was my first real introduction to the music of Winter. Muddy Waters was of course a Chicago blues legend and lived just a few blocks from where I was born and raised. I knew of the importance of Muddy Waters even as a young child as my parents and other older relatives made sure I was familiar with his music. It was then that I noticed a younger albino guy, the older brother of rock star Edgar Winter, who always seemed to hold a place close to Waters. Winter often told the story about how, as a child, he dreamed of playing with the blues guitarist Muddy Waters. In 1977, after Waters’ long-time label Chess Records went out of business, he got his chance.
Winter produced and played guitar on the Grammy-winning “Hard Again” (1977), as well as the Grammy-nominated “I’m Ready” (1978), Muddy “Mississippi Waters Live” (1979) and “King Bee” (1981). Waters told Deep Blues author Robert Palmer that Winter had done remarkable work in reproducing the sound and atmosphere of Waters’ vintage Chess Records recordings of the 1950s. The albums gave Waters the highest profile and greatest financial successes of his life. Muddy Waters grew to love Johnny Winter. That love was apparent every time the two performed together. It has been documented that Muddy Waters thought of Winter like and adopted son.
After Muddy Waters death in 1983, Winter would continue making music for over thirty more years, right until his own death last month, July 16, 2014 at seventy years old. Johnny joined Alligator Records in 1984. His desire to record nothing but authentic blues made for a perfect fit. When Johnny released Guitar Slinger later that year, it was widely hailed as his best (and bluesiest) album ever; it charted in both Billboard and Cashbox as well as earning a Grammy nomination. The next year, Johnny followed up Guitar Slinger with Serious Business. The powerhouse album won Johnny his second Grammy nomination with Alligator Records.
Winter recorded nineteen solo studio albums as well as work on a variety of albums of other artists. Johnny Winter performed and recorded literally until the end of his life; he has an album Step Back scheduled to be released September 2, 2014 on the Megaforce label. The music world will miss the skinny white guy who became a blues legend in his own right. Johnny was Good.