Johnny Winter is simply one of the all-time greatest guitar players I ever saw–and also one of the most charismatic. In his heyday he could sell out arenas and keep audiences spellbound with just his performance alone—no fancy light shows needed.
The reason was, not only was his left hand lightning fast, but he also did a lot of finger picking with his right hand at the same time. This caused many more notes to explode out of the guitar at once, like sparks streaming out of a pinwheel. But what really sent everything over the top was when he put a slide on. He played slide parts with one finger and kept the other fingers free to play even more notes. So, you heard all the finger picking with the right hand, all the regular licks with the left, and now all the slide parts added on top, and all together at once! Magnificent! It sounded like he had ten fingers on each hand playing on a dozen strings–and it was positively euphoric! Put that together with his Texas blues voice, his on-stage presence prancing around with slinky style movements while playing all these licks, and you’ve got real magic.
In fact, click on the link below to hear the fast version of “Mean Town Blues.” IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!
“Mean Town Blues” is my all time favorite Johnny Winter classic.
I have fond memories of Johnny, as he was one of the first artists I got to know pretty well while working at Columbia Records. I tell these couple of stories not for the “kiss and tell” aspect, but because it was a real moment in time, and perhaps they capture a little bit who he was.
He used to always greet me the same way, “Paul, my favorite promotion man!” I was never sure if that was true or if he said the same thing to all the promotion guys, but I like to think it was. At least he knew I was a player myself, so when I complimented him, he knew I knew what I was talking about.
In those days Johnny was a wild man—sometimes I was afraid, a bit too wild. Although, that may not be fair to say, as it’s not for me to judge and he played great every night no matter how f*cked up he was. I guess, kind of like Keith if you think about it—so who can argue when the art comes flying out like that.
I remember being backstage once, and Johnny and the band, which at the time also featured Rick Derringer, were warming up and jamming at lighting speed in a back room. I got close so I could peak in and listen. They finish this blistering jam and Johnny (his head swaying back and forth, eyes half closed) says, “Wow, that was grrrreat!! What was that man?!!” And Derringer looks up and says, “Johnny, that was ‘Highway 61’ you’re gonna play it in 5 minutes when we hit the stage.” “Awesome man!!”
The next part is a bit funny, but again in the end, you can’t argue with the art.
For those of you not familiar, go back to YouTube and check some live performance footage out. Johnny was very tall and thin, an albino with long blond hair, so he had this unique look. On stage he used to slink around while he played—looked really cool. But, when he got really high he used to slink around back stage too, playing air guitar while yelling at the top of his lungs in that gravely Texas voice, “Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!!” So, there is Johnny just coming out of a jam where he’s so fueled on God knows what that he doesn’t even know what he’s playing, now feverishly slinking around back stage playing air guitar yelling “Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!!” A roadie says it’s time to go on. So, they lead him up the stage stairs with his arms still stretched out in air guitar mode, and drop a real guitar in his hands (Johnny played a Gibson Firebird—it was his trademark). Without missing a beat he just starts playing the real guitar and slinks right up to the microphone (head still swaying back and forth) and continues to yell “Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!!” Nothing had changed from backstage to onstage except now he had a real guitar in his hands and all the mics were on—amazing. And the volume was turned up to eleven I might add (a Johnny Winter show was always a very loud show). But damned if that wasn’t one of the best performances I ever saw him do! So, again, for all the times we have seen musicians pretty loaded before they go on stage, and no matter how much we may worry, or think this can’t be cool, it’s very hard to argue with a brilliant performance.
One of my other favorite stories is when Johnny played the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was the early 70’s and the people who lived in Salt Lake at the time were very straight, middle America, kind of folk (I figure most were Mormon).
Johnny looked strange enough as it was naturally, but at the time he also liked wearing a big black, magician like, top hat. So, he and his girlfriend at the time, the rest of the band and I, decided to go out to dinner the night before the show. We walk into a family style restaurant, Johnny dressed in black with his top hat, the road manager who had extremely long wild hair and a big beard (and who also wore big furry boots), me with a giant Jew fro with mustache and goatee at the time, and the rest of the crew who were all assorted hippy freaks. To the rest of the people in the restaurant we must have looked like we just landed from Mars. Certainly, they’d never seen anything like this before. So, we walk in, and the entire restaurant full of parents and their kids, put their silverware down, looks up and just stair at us—everything just goes quiet. It was like those old E. F. Hutton commercials where everyone stops what they’re doing, go silent, look up and they say, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” Just bizarre. The maître de walks up and says, “You guys in a band or somethin’?” Of course we nod our heads and wisely he showed us to a table in the back.
We sit down and Johnny says to me, “Paul, my favorite promotion man (ha, ha), do me a favor and go across the street and buy me some whiskey set ups—we won’t be able to get any in this restaurant”. The alcohol laws in Utah were insanely strict at the time (still are I figure) and for some reason, at convenience stores they only sold hard liquor in these little airplane type bottles that Johnny called set ups. So, I go and knowing how much Johnny likes to drink (and how tiny those bottles are) I buy everyone the guy will sell me. But there’s a limit to how much they will sell. At any rate, I came back with a paper bag full to the brim.
The next morning I go to pick Johnny up from his room to take him for an interview. The room is totally trashed with these little empty bottles strewn all over the place—in the living room, bedroom, bathroom—just everywhere! Clearly one of those famous rock and roll parties had taken place but the aftermath just looked funny because of all the little bottles it took to fuel the party.
This was a moment in time when a lot of rock musicians just “were.” They didn’t think much about marketing, maybe not even enough about their careers–they just lived the life of rock and roll, and lived to play.
Whatever anyone wants to say about Johnny Winter, his legacy is one of pure musician, and showman too I suppose. One thing is for sure, I’ve never seen anyone play guitar like that before or since.
© Paul Rappaport 2014