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Tim: Johnny Winter Part 2

Johnny Winter
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.)

Johnny Winter backstage in San Deigo
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!" (laughing)

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."

Johnny Winter relaxing before a concert 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 Winter on American Forces Network 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 do heroin!"

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 blues."

the writer with Johnny Winter 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 only imagine……

Johnny Winter and Paul Nelson in a concert
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 world."

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


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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA



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