Johnny Winter has been one of my biggest guitar heroes from the time I first picked up the instrument right through to the present. The term "Blues-Rock" is too frequently applied to any Rock guitarist who aspires to play Blues but to be a true Blues-Rocker like Winter, SRV or Rory Gallagher requires being a dyed-in-the-wool Blues player first and, because you're a long haired white guy, blowing the roof off a Rock audience who may or may not be hip to Blues. Few can pull it off. For me he was the blueprint.
Somewhere around the age of 15 I bought my first Winter album, Serious Business, the second of his three Alligator albums. "Master Mechanic" and "Ain't Your Business" were among the first songs I learned. This was arguably one of the best periods for Winter; Stevie Ray Vaughan had kicked off another Blues revival a few years earlier and Bruce Iglauer's Alligator Records was reviving the careers of many older Blues artists while introducing new ones. Alligator Records was also instrumental in revitalizing the careers of a few Blues-Rockers, getting them back to their roots rather than trying be commercially appealing. Lonnie Mack and Johnny Winter both did some of their best work on Alligator.
August of that year I attended my first concert, Johnny Winter at Stage One in Houston. Unable to contain my excitement I bounced off the walls for a week beforehand. Ezra Charles and The Works opened the show with a hot set of piano driven Rock 'n' Roll ala' Jerry Lee Lewis and then Johnny took forever to hit the stage. In the meantime the club ran out of beer. And then there was little 15 year old me, attending the concert with my mom since I was underage, surrounded by all these 8 foot bikers with hair down to their waist, covered in tattoos and out of beer. "Intimidated" doesn't begin to describe it.
That went out the window when he finally did hit the stage. He came out decorated with tattoos that looked like watercolors on his albino skin and wailed. His touring band was Jon Paris on bass & harmonica and Tom Compton on drums, who had previously played with that other blazing-at-the-speed-of-light BluesRock guitarist Alvin Lee. Since I'd worked my way to the front of the stage before they started I wound up in front of Paris instead of Johnny but hey, I was there! When he switched to the Firebird for slide it was a whole other world for me. Near the end of the show, probably on "Johnny B. Goode", he came over to Paris' side of the stage, stood behind him and they did 'the arm swap' playing each others' instruments. For a teenage budding guitarist the show was an initiation.
Afterward we waited four hours for him to come out and he signed my copy of Serious Business. Not in person, though. They took everyone's stuff onto the bus and then handed it back out the windows. Jon Paris had signed it in person. Although Alligator Records used a house band for most of their recordings rather than the artist's road band Paris had played harmonica on four songs. A year later while hanging out with Albert Collins & The Icebreakers Johnny B. Gayden, the house bassist for Alligator, signed my copy of Serious Business as well. Of all my autographed records that remains a favorite in the collection.
It had been so loud my ears were ringing for the next three days but that was like an 'afterglow' to me. Like most of my generation Stevie Ray Vaughan was the one who inspired me to pick up guitar and get into Blues but Winter was the one who solidified it for me. I would never see SRV now but I had seen Winter and nothing compares to being there in person. He had provided the template.
Around '89 or '90 while living in Tokyo during my late teens he was booked for his first Japanese tour. Guitar and Blues fans were ecstatic. The tour was later cancelled and to this day I regret returning my ticket for a refund. That would be a cool piece of memorabilia to have.
The next time I saw him was in Cleveland, possibly at The Agora though I don't remember for certain, ten years after the first time. By now his health had deteriorated and it was painful to watch. Switching to his Firebird for slide he struggled for several minutes to pull his hair out from under the strap, something that all longhaired guitarists do in a second. He played a lot of clams and overall sounded uninspired to say the least. For the next few months I kept looking for him in the obituaries. Live in NYC '97 came out and it was as bad as the recent show. Most of my other musical heroes had died off and the few others that were still around were also sliding downhill. This was a good time to pursue other musical interests.
A couple years later while living in Cincinnati he played some place in northern Kentucky. Cincinnati residents frequently head over the state line, the city sits right on the Ohio River, but this was deeper into Kentucky than I'd ever been as a river/state-line crossing Cincinnati resident. He was doing a double bill with his brother Edgar and although the last show was sad there was no resisting a double bill with Edgar. Doesn't happen often, maybe every ten years or so. Edgar came out and played his ass off. Johnny came out and was about the same as last time. Edgar joined him for the encore on "Goin' Down". He was still in bad shape but I'd seen them together.
The following year I took my wife to see him in Cincinnati. She asked if he was going to play "Medicine Man" from Let Me In, an album we listened to a lot. I told her, "We're not really going to hear him. We're going just to see him in person, to be in the same room with him." Before the first song was over she leaned over and said, "I see what you mean." But he did play "Fast Life Rider" from Second Winter and that was pretty cool.
Although his deteriorating health had took its toll on his playing his records were still in regular rotation at the Vicars home. The Progressive Blues Experiment, Second Winter, Johnny Winter And Live, Still Alive & Well, all three Alligator albums, Let Me In and Hey, Where's Your Brother?. When designing the Modbird guitar, which was supposed to be compact enough for stowing overhead on planes while still being a full size guitar, Johnny Winter's Lazer was one of several main reference points.
On March 11th, 2011, near the end of my decade-long exile to Japan, a 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of Sendai causing a massive tsunami which in turn caused the nuclear plant in Fukushima to fail. While gaijin were leaving in droves many artists wouldn't tour Japan for quite some time afterward. But one month after the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown/foreign-press disaster Johnny Winter played his first Japanese tour. As a resident of Japan at that time, a musician, and a long time fan, I have the utmost respect for him and his band for doing that tour. The bitch part is I didn't know about it until that summer. Somehow despite the huge crowds and expensive tickets a lot of shows seem to have almost no advertising. It's yet another strange facet of living in Japan. He returned again the following year and again I didn't find out until after the fact. Although he was now sitting down to play I'd heard that he was in better shape thanks to his new manager getting him clean. But I would have gone just for the fact that he played there when few others would.
June 2014, Friday the 13th. Johnny Winter is playing at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. I'm now living in northeast Ohio having returned to the States the previous year. Not too many of the greats are still living. My guitarist father and I go to the show. At the back of the building to the right of the stage is a separate bar area. We go in there to get drinks and while waiting for a bartender the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. I look around slightly confused and see that Johnny's walking through the bar area to get to the stage, Firebird strapped on. He's just a few feet away from me, hunched over and walking slow. He looks at the small crowd in the bar as if he's surprised by the applause. Wow, that was cool!
The set list is a sort of 'greatest hits'. Despite his professed reluctance to play Rock 'n' Roll anymore he does "Johnny B. Goode" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash". Ray Charles' "Blackjack" and plenty of Blues tunes fill the set. The sound guy should be smacked upside the head; the mix is awful, Johnny's guitar is too low, the second guitar is overtop, too much kick drum. I'm certain this is not what they're hearing in their monitors. He's still hitting a few clams but not near as many as he did way back in '97. Still good to be seeing him, though. He may never completely recover his health but he's recovered enough to enjoy his status as one of the elder statesmen. His slide playing his still in fine form. He switches to the Firebird for Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" and then closes the show with his infamous rendition of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" which he recorded on Second Winter and remains a pinnacle of slide guitar.
Exiting the back door, the same one the band used, there's a line outside the bus. They're letting people on one and two at a time. I run back to the car to grab my CD and before long we're ushered on. Walking into the room where he's sitting behind a small table is surreal. The same effect when I first met Albert Collins back in '88. Having met plenty of well known musicians, including some I wasn't particularly interested in but happened to cross paths with, I'm usually not star struck but meeting Johnny Winter I'm speechless. Mark it on the calendar. He's one of my lifelong guitar heroes and I thought this would never happen. Meekly I ask him if he'll sign my CD for me, please. It's the Alligator Deluxe Edition, a compilation of all three albums plus a couple previously unreleased tracks. There's the regular insert which I've taken out for him to sign and there's a small booklet that's still inside the case. He signs the insert, sees the other one inside the case and asks if I want him to sign that as well. I say "yeah, please" and he signs the case! His thick Texas accent reminds me of the older people I knew growing up there and despite all the stories I'd heard over the years I find him surprisingly normal. There's a strange but comfortable familiarity about him that's I can't quite put into words.
There's also a line outside and I don't want to stand there hogging time but I really want to make a little bit of conversation while I have the opportunity. Struggling to find a topic suddenly I look down at his forearm and say, "Oh, that's the Tony Cohen tattoo from Sydney." His eyes light up in surprise. "Yeah! How did you know that?" I tell him how Cohen did my first tattoo and had sent me a photo from when he did his, the pterodactyl on his right forearm. I show him mine, the gypsy w/ Firebird on my right bicep. Being legally blind he grabs my arm and leans in close. Asks what I was doing in Sydney. "Getting a tattoo." He laughs, "That's a long way to go for a tattoo!" I forget to mention seeing The Tail Gators there, although it was right after Keith Ferguson had left. Ferguson was from Houston and went way back with Winter having played with him in the 60's. Rumor has it when Johnny got interested Keith took him to get his first tattoo. We shake hands once more and I leave pinching myself... I just met Johnny Winter!
Little over a month later I wake up, make coffee, grab my phone and check Facebook to see if there's anything interesting or amusing. That's where I hear the news. For me this is the most significant 'celebrity death' since the early 90's when Stevie Ray Vaughan died followed by Albert King and Albert Collins. Once more there's a sense of how few are left. Just the night before I'd been watching "The Life of Riley", a documentary on B.B. King. There's a short interview with Johnny and they both talk about how they first met. It takes all day to set in and the following day, as I write this, it's still surreal. Editing this after the weekend it's only just now starting to sink in.
He seemed like he had a few more years left in him but then again he was pretty frail. At the time of this writing the cause of death hasn't been announced but it's my personal opinion that after a long, fulfilling life and career his frail body simply gave out. When it does finally sink in I'm happy for him in a way, and thankful to his manager/guitarist Paul Nelson. Nelson got him cleaned up and took good care of him and his business affairs. Instead of burning out as a parody of himself, which looked possible at the turn of the millennium, he spent his last years as a music icon and elder statesman. It's my personal belief that he died at the height of the last apex of his life and career. And like all true musicians, especially Blues guys, he just kept going until he completely gave out.
They say hindsight is 20/20. Maybe it is and maybe we just color things the way we want to. It could be debated endlessly. But in retrospect I'm thinking of how fortunate I am to have met him before he passed, to share a little conversation about tattoos by Tony Cohen, to have a couple photos and memories with him. My wife said it best, "When Alvin Lee died it was like 'oh well' but with Johnny Winter it's like losing my own grandfather."
The CD he signed is playing and I'm holding the case in my hands looking at the autograph. Although I have quite a few autographed albums his are up there with Albert Collins and Fenton Robinson, the real treasures in the collection. More than just autographs they remain physical connections to musicians whose life and work inspired me and continue to inspire long after they've shuffled off the mortal coil. Maybe that's why they never really seem gone to me, they live on in their music.