For more than 30 years, Johnny Winter has been at the forefront of modern blues and blues-rock, and his new I'm A Bluesman disc, arriving June 15 from Virgin Records, figures to add to his Texas-sized reputation.
For this release, Johnny has again paired with his long-time producer Dick Shurman (Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan), as well as Tom Hambridge (Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood). Backing him is his road-tested touring band of ace harmonica man James Montgomery, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Wayne June, along with guitarist Paul Nelson with guest appearances by such friends as keyboardist Reese Wynans (from Stevie Ray Vaughan's celebrated backing group Double Trouble) among others.
I'm A Bluesman is Johnny's first new collection in nearly eight years. It was a question of finding the time and the right material, he says, plus a long recuperation from hip surgery. The 13-track collection includes three tunes by his friend Paul Nelson, a Connecticut-based guitar player who writes with Winter's bassist Scott Spray. They collaborated on the prison-themed "Shakedown," a relationship-gone-bad song titled "Pack Your Bags" and the album's title track, which Nelson describes as an attempt at a Johnny Winter biography.
"Johnny is a real hero to me, and I wanted to do a song about his life. I know how Johnny talks, how he phrases things, and I wanted to capture his feelings. It's about who he is, what he represents to other musicians and what he's accomplished. I'm really proud that when he first heard the song he said I'd gotten it right." Nelson also provides guitar on the song and plays on many other tracks as well.
Winter also opted to record two new songs by producer Hambridge, "Cheatin' Blues" and the first album single, "Lone Wolf." Johnny says it's always been something of a mystery to him how singles get picked, but he's especially happy with how his electric slide-playing turned out on this track. "It's a really good song," he vouches.
He's also pleased to have finally recorded "So Much Love," a tune by former bandmate Jon Paris which Johnny has played live on a number of occasions and has meant to record for years. "It's about time I've finally got around to doing it for an album," he says.
Johnny reaches back into his past for songs by two musicians, Hop Wilson and Lazy Lester, who inspired him during the early days in Texas. The nod to Wilson (1927-1975) comes in the form of a spine-tingling solo acoustic version of "That Wouldn't Satisfy," a tune Hop originally recorded for the Goldband label in 1958. "Hop was one of my heroes coming up. I never got over to see him in Houston, but I liked his records a lot. He had a real different way of playing steel guitar." The salute to the still active Lester comes in a cover of his Jay Miller-written hit on Excello, "Sugar Coated Love." Winter says, "I'm a big fan of Lazy Lester. He even played on one of my earliest records, ‘That's What Love Does,' when I was just 16 or 17."
Johnny's own compositions on I'm A Bluesman include "Sweet Little Baby," a slide-drenched song he wrote during a tour stop in Central Europe's picturesque Prague, and the disc-closing "Let's Start Over Again," composed with harmonica player James Montgomery who joined Johnny's band last year after a long career leading his own group and releasing seven albums under his own name.
Johnny and his players cut the tracks for I'm A Bluesman at several studios in New England, where Winter makes his home these days. But Winter remains a native Texan, born and bred in Beaumont, the town where the famous Spindletop gusher came in to kick off the "black gold" rush in 1901.
Winter, born on Feb. 23,1944, can barely remember a time when music wasn't at the core of his life. The Winter family, once his career Army officer father came back from the war, used to sing together, and Johnny took up clarinet at age five, followed by ukulele and then guitar. Growing up in rough-and-tumble town populated by oilfield wildcatters and shipyard workers, he spent long hours listening to a local deejay named J.P. Richardson The Big Bopper of "Chantilly Lace" fame and became hooked on '50s rock & roll. He formed his first band, Johnny and The Jammers, in 1959 at the age of 15, with his 12-year-old brother Edgar on keyboards.
Racial tensions in Beaumont were still high in those days. The town had been the site of one of the worst race riots in Texas history just nine months before Johnny's birth. Mobs wandered the streets, businesses burned, martial law went into effect, and more than 2,000 uniformed National Guardsmen and Texas Rangers sealed off the town from the rest of the world until tempers cooled. Despite that brutal legacy, Johnny remembers never hesitating as a kid to venture into black neighborhoods to hear and play music.
Looking back, he believes people in the black community knew that he was sincere, that he was genuinely possessed by the blues. "Nothing ever happened to me. I went to black clubs all the time, and nobody ever bothered me. I always felt welcome."
He also became friends with Clarence Garlow, a deejay at the black radio station KJET in Beaumont, who opened Winter's eyes and ears to rural blues and Cajun music. Clarence, who recorded for the swamp-boogie specialty label Goldband, even taught him a few things on guitar. Johnny made his recording debut in 1960 with two of his own compositions, "School Days Blues" and "You Know I Love You," on a tiny Houston label called Dart Records. Over the next few years, as he learned his craft, he cut 45s for Goldband, KRCO, Frolic, Diamond, Moon-Lite, Hall-Way and other regional labels.
There's a famous story about a time in 1962 when Johnny and his brother went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont club called The Raven. The only whites in the crowd, they no doubt stood out. But Johnny already had his chops down and wanted to play with the revered B.B. "I was about 17," Johnny remembers, "and B.B. didn't want to let me on stage at first. He asked me for a union card, and I had one. Also I kept sending people over to ask him to let me play. Finally, he decided that there were enough people who wanted to hear me that, no matter if I was good or not, it would be worth it to let me on stage. He gave me his guitar and let me play. I got a standing ovation, and he took his guitar back!"
Winter's big breakthrough came a few years later in 1968 when Rolling Stone writers Larry Sepulvado and John Burks featured him in a piece on the Texas music scene, which prompted a bidding war among major labels that Columbia eventually won.
Johnny's self-titled 1969 disc announced loudly that there was a new guitar-slinger on the national scene. The disc included audacious covers of such blues classics as B.B. King's "Be Careful with a Fool," Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Good Morning Little School Girl," Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend" and fellow Texan Lightnin' Hopkins' "Back Door Friend." It also featured two prime original Winter songs, "Dallas" and the controversial "I'm Yours and I'm Hers," that went into heavy rotation on FM underground radio.
The album peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard chart and was promptly followed by Second Winter later that same year. Looking back, writer Cub Koda described the period as one when "Straight out of Texas with a hot trio, Winter made blues-rock music for the angels." That trio, by the way, included bassist Tommy Shannon who would go on to be part of SRV's Double Trouble and drummer Uncle John Turner.
Winter stayed with Columbia and its boutique Blue Sky label for more than a decade, turning out such well-received platters as Johnny Winter And (1970), Still Alive and Well (1973) and John Dawson Winter III (1974). He also helped to introduce blues giant Muddy Waters to another generation of listeners by producing and playing 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). The collaborations were so successful that Waters took to referring to Johnny as his "adopted son" in interviews.
After a three-year hiatus, Johnny returned with three acclaimed albums for the blues specialty label Alligator, releasing the Grammy-nominated Guitar Slinger in 1984, the also nominated Serious Business in 1985 and Third Degree in 1986.
Johnny made the jump to the Virgin family of labels in 1991 with Let Me In, a strong collection boasting guest appearances by Dr. John and Albert Collins. Produced by Dick Shurman, the disc featured the memorable "Illustrated Man," a song by the Nashville team of Fred James and Mary-Ann Brandon chronicling Johnny's well-tattooed torso. Other tracks include Winter's own title tune and his equally stand-out "If You Got a Good Woman," as well as Dr. John's "You Lie Too Much" with the good doctor on ivories.
Winter has gone on to record for Virgin his Hey, Where's Your Brother (1992), Live in NYC '97 (1998) and now the new I'm A Bluesman, which he feels is some of his best work. For the future, Johnny, who just turned 60, figures he will stick to the plan he's had since his young days in Beaumont: "I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. Keep playing and recording." It's worked so far. Visit: www.johnnywinter.net
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