A Fire Still Burns in Winter
By T.E. Mattox
ohnny Winter is the ultimate Road Warrior. He's been at it since the
middle of the last century when he began working with his younger brother,
Edgar. As I looked at date after date on his current tour schedule,
I just shake my head and finally say, "I can't believe you're still
alive!" His response is instantaneous, "Sometimes I can't either,"
he laughs. The man's a survivor; guess that comes naturally when you
name one of your first bands, Black Plague? "Yeah, that was one of
the names we had….because we all wore black." (You just know Johnny
Cash was kicking himself for not thinking of it first.)
Backstage in San Diego, CA photo: Y. Mattox
The Johnny Winter Band is just finishing their East
Coast-West Coast national tour prior to heading overseas for the better
part of a month. It seems Winter and his blues are revered in Europe
just as much, if not more than they are here at home. Johnny thinks
it's because "they don't get as much of it as they do in America."
But after this last nation-wide blitz, it's apparent the JWB is altering
perception the old fashion way. One blues fan at a time. Johnny just
smiles, "We're trying."
Humble, almost to a fault,
this American icon still has the utmost respect for those who paved
the blues highway, and holds fond memories of those early gigs and 'special'
shows of his youth. The first that comes to mind was a place in Beaumont,
Texas, called the Raven. "I didn't play there at all except with
B.B. King. I sat in with B.B. and it was great, we got a standing ovation.
We came in and he thought we were from the IRS, he thought we were tax
people and he didn't want to let me play. (laughing) He asked
to see my union card and I showed it to him and he finally decided to
let me play. He said he felt like if he was in a white club and they
didn't let him play that it might be because he was black, and he didn't
want me to feel he wouldn't let me play because I was white, so he decided
to go ahead and let me."
Considering the times,
I can't imagine some of those rowdy clubs, especially down through the
South. "There were some VERY rowdy ones!"
Ever fear for your life?
"A lot of times! A LOT of times!" (laughing)
Willie Dixon and James
'Snooky' Pryor always talked about a club in Chicago called The Bucket
'O Blood. Ever frequent that one?
"Nah, but I heard of it. (laughing) Bucket O' Blood!"
Any place or event that
you'll never forget? "I remember one place in Galveston where this
gigantic guy kept asking us to play 'Midnight Hour.' We'd already played
it three or four times and he said if you don't play the song again,
I'm going to destroy the band stand. And he rushed the band stand and
I hit him in the head with my guitar and knocked him out."
A moment of quiet before show time
Whether it was a roadhouse, bar, or club it really came
down to adaptability and versatility. "Some of them were really unbelievable."
And the occasional country dance. "Yeah, we played some of those.
A band always had to be able to play some country (music)."
Back in those days when bands first started out, cars
and U-Haul trailers became your lifeline and the next town always presented
possibilities. The payoff for those long days and late nights was that
'rare and special' opportunity to get on stage and perform with other
'well-travelled' bluesmen. For Johnny Winter that made it all worthwhile.
"I jammed with Freddie (King) a lot in Austin; he was a real good
guitar player. He loved to jam. We had a good time and playing with
the original guys was more fun. I learned a lot playing with those guys.
I had a great time doing it."
Another musician that had a significant impact on Winter's
career and blues education was a man he met at the Vulcan Gas Company.
"It was a place in Austin, Texas on Congress Street. It used to be
an old hotel." The headliner that night was McKinley Morganfield
(Muddy Waters). "He was playing and we opened up for him." That
booking began a relationship that would continue to strengthen and grow
as the years went by, bonding both men as close as father and son.
Johnny talks to the troops around the world on the
American Forces Network
More than a full decade after that first meeting, Winter
would return the favor by producing four critically-acclaimed and award-winning
recordings for the delta bluesman. Johnny just smiles, "I loved him
and he loved what I did for his career." Recording sessions that
even today, remain vivid to Johnny Winter. "It was one of the high
points of my life. I loved working with Muddy. He's always been an idol
of mine. We did everything in just about one cut, at the most, two.
It went real quick, 'cause he had good players that knew how to play
blues. And it went really fast."
Good players? There's an understatement for you. On
the Hard Again disc, along with Muddy and Johnny on guitar, there was
'Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Charles Calmese on bass, 'Pine Top' Perkins
on piano, James Cotton on harp and Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith on drums.
The other three Waters albums produced by Winter, I'm Ready, King Bee
and Muddy 'Mississippi' Waters Live, also featured Big Walter Horton,
Jimmy Rogers, Jerry Portnoy, Luther 'Guitar Junior' Johnson and Calvin
Jones. Good players? Ya' think?
And for those of you that didn't get the memo, the Hard
Again album got its name, "cause Muddy said this music's so good
it makes my 'peepee' Hard Again."
With a studio crammed full of talent like that, was
there any experimentation in the recording process? "No, he (Muddy)
didn't experiment much; he just did what he was used to doing. And I
pretty much knew what I was doing, I didn't have to experiment. I knew
exactly what he was supposed to sound like. He said I knew his music
better than he did, (laughing) but I don't think that's true."
I wouldn't want to debate that with any of my blues
friends. I just know that I burned through multiple copies of every
one of those vinyl treasures.
The road still beckons to Winter; after all this time
and all the miles, is there anything he'd change? Regrets? "I wouldn't
Johnny has always been adamant about how personal the
blues are to him. And he describes them as…"very emotional,
expressive music, that make you feel good. It doesn't make me sad at
all. Some people think blues is sad music, but it makes me very happy.
And the fact that I can still do it. I'm just glad to still be around."
And when he walks off the stage for the last time, how
does he hope history will remember Johnny Winter? "Just that I was
a good bluesman; that I just loved to play for people and loved the
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
Lucky for us, the future holds no limits for Johnny
and the band. "I just want to keep doing the same thing for as long
as I can. I'll do it till I can't do it anymore." The 40th Woodstock
anniversary stirred up a lot of memories for boomers of my generation
and Johnny says he will never forget "the mud…. and all the people."
His music highlights the newly released Woodstock Experience. Check
out the extended version of 'Mean Town Blues' and the three tracks that
feature his brother, Edgar. It's like a walk down memory lane, or more
specifically, 'Tobacco Road.' Another newly released project that's
essential to any audiophile's library, and well worth the investment,
is entitled Johnny Winter 'Anthology.'
So, what can Johnny Winter fans expect in the coming
year? "Some good music." Any studio time, new recordings? "We're
going to try to do it in the next year. We just can't afford to get
off the road." And word on the street is….there will be an autobiography
on the life and times of Johnny in the not-too-distant future. One can
Paul Nelson and Johnny tearing it up
There is no denying the wealth of incredible new talent
on the blues scene today and that includes the Johnny Winter Band. Johnny
recognized Paul Nelson's gifts the first time he met him. "We were
recording and he was at the studio in Stamford, Connecticut. He's a
great guitar player." Again with the understatements.
As it happened, Nelson, the former Berkeley College
of Music student and guitarist with the metal band, Liege Lord, was
working as a session player at the Carriage House Studios in his home
state of Connecticut. "I was in there doing session work for the
XFL." Paul told me. (The XFL was wrestler Vince McMahon's short-lived
foray into a new Football League.) "Well, I did all the music, and
Johnny walked in because his session was right after that. And he heard
me playing and said, 'hey you sound pretty good, I'm coming in here
to do my next record, would you be interested in writing a song for
me for the record, I'm looking for a slow blues?' I go, uh yeah, great!"
Long story short, he loved the first song so much he
asked for two more. Nelson said Johnny then mentioned, 'you know
there's some rhythm guitar parts in there, you want to play second guitar?'
"Well, let me check my schedule…OF COURSE! So he goes, that's great,
you know as a matter-of-fact, you should just come on the road with
me. Three days later I'm in Bishopstock (Festival) in England sitting
at a giant table getting ready to perform. I'm sitting next to Taj Mahal
and all these blues greats, having a tuna fish sandwich. I'm thinking,
this is great!"
Nelson, an overachiever in his own right, is now multi-tasking
as both manager for the JWB, guitarist and on-stage incendiary to one
of our few remaining living legends. As if history is repeating itself,
the student has become the teacher, and Paul Nelson has an All-Access
badge. "To me, it's like having the greatest guitar teacher in the
I, too, have learned from this truly American bluesman.
For example, I bet you didn't know that in the past two years, Johnny
has taken time out during his tour schedule to participate in, and be
a featured part of, three different radio specials aired over the American
Forces Network. And the reason you didn't know, is because he didn't
make it about self-promotion or publicity. He simply did it for our
men and women in uniform.
The shows included a Blues retrospective during Black
History Month; another provided a real-time glimpse backstage at one
of Johnny's recent Southern California appearances, expressly for our
troops serving overseas and aboard U.S. Navy ships at sea. He was also
the guest host for an AFN|radio Holiday Special called, 'A Rock 'N Blues
Christmas' with Johnny Winter.
Being a Johnny Winter fan since my youth, our conversations
have taught me one thing for certain. Referring to him as simply legendary
is an understatement of massive proportions.
If you want more news and information about Johnny Winter,
the JWB, or tour dates check out his website at www.johnnywinter.net
The same goes for Paul Nelson at www.paulnelsonguitar.com