Way back during my high school days in the 1970s, music became much more to me than just something I enjoyed. It became my life. I just couldn't get enough. I loved everything from Deep Purple to Alice Cooper, from Arlo Guthrie to Merle Haggard. One of the top five acts in my book was Johnny Winter. To be honest, Johnny and his brother Edgar Winter shared a very special place in my heart and soul. My bedroom at my parents’ house look like a museum of rock 'n roll. Among all the posters, black lights, and stereo equipment on a huge black and white poster of Johnny Winter. That thing must have been four feet tall. It was a straight on shot of Johnny blazing across the fret board, circa 1971.
During a two-year period in the early-70s, Johnny Winter released three albums that would forever change and influence my musical perceptions. First came Still Alive and Well, followed by Saints and Sinners, and then John Dawson Winter III. I loved the rocking cover of The Stones “Silver Train,” and the country – yes, country- “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me.” The title track of “Still Alive and Well” was a rocker, as were songs like “Stone County.” “Cheap Tequila” was another favorite. Heck, I loved ‘em all. I played those LPs endlessly. I had never, ever heard a guitar played like that. But with these albums, Johnny Winter also managed to teach me something brand-new. He taught me about the blues.
Prior to my discovery of Johnny, I had not been exposed to blues much at all. My parents were country music fans, and I kind of sought out hard-hitting rock and Top 40 tunes. Then I heard “Too Much Seconal,” and “Sweet Papa John.” I began reading their interviews in the Creem and Circus magazines in which Johnny expounded upon his love of the blues. I learned about the albums that came before these three, including an epic work called The Progressive Blues Experiment. I rushed out to search for it, locating a copy in, of all places, the Rexall Drug Store.
A couple of years later Johnny started touring and recording with the great Muddy Waters. Even though I didn't know much about the blues I did know that Muddy Waters was a legendary name. Between those recordings and all of the magazine articles and interviews surrounding their release I managed to learn quite a bit about blues artists of the past. I started delving into the music of Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Lee Hooker, BB King, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Then one day I hit upon the “holy grail” of blues, Robert Johnson. I was hooked into the blues, all because of Johnny Winter.
At some point during the 1970s Johnny made the decision to abandon rock 'n roll completely. He was a blues man, and for the rest of his life, he would be all about the blues, with maybe a “Bonie Moronie” or “Highway 61 Revisited” tossed into the set on occasion. I'm glad I got to witness the rock 'n roll side of Johnny Winter in 1975 at Greenville Memorial Auditorium. It would be 16 years later before I would see Johnny in concert again. The 1991 show at Clemson University was an amazing study in the blues. It was a night I'll never forget, for more reasons than one. I saw him perform in Atlanta one year later and once again in 1993. All good.
Around the year 2000 I was invited to attend Johnny's show at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach. He had been going through health issues and addiction issues at the time, and was just a shadow of his former self. The music suffered. It was so bad; people were just getting up and leaving, cursing and demanding their money back. I was supposed to visit Johnny on the tour bus after the show, and I recall how excited I was. But after three songs, we left. It made my physically ill to see him in this shape. I had no desire to go on the bus. We had centered an entire weekend beach trip around Johnny’s concert, and now it was ruined. But that’s not the end of my story, and I’m so glad it isn’t.
About four years ago I heard that Johnny was out touring again and doing well. Other than a bad hip that forced him to perform while seated, he was doing better than he had in years and years. I had the chance to interview him for a magazine I was writing for and he was great. That and a couple of incredible new albums made me forget the bad experienced at the beach. The Johnny I loved was back.
When I got a text message this morning telling me Johnny had died while on tour in Switzerland I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I felt like a part of me had died. Lots of great music, lots of great memories. Godspeed Johnny Winter. We’ll see you in the light.
-Michael Buffalo Smith