From the moment Johnny Winter made his national debut on the stage at Woodstock until his death Wednesday in Zurich, Switzerland, he played the role of blues proselytizer. Winter, who had turned 70 in February, was drawing on the same well in 2014 – early rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1950s, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles – as he did during his hour-long midday set at the landmark music festival in 1969.
His mission, he told me in Austin, Texas, during SXSW, was “to bring it to the people of today who haven’t listened to the old music. It’s better than anything they hear today.”
Blues had become a jumping-off point for rock guitarists of the early 1970s, a time when enthusiasm for the traditionalists had ebbed. Winter tried his hand at more commercial efforts, enhancing rock melodies with virtuoso playing, but it never captivated audiences the way his grittier takes on older material had. While he never had hits, his determination to stick with honest, barely adulterated blues earned him legions of die-hard fans and admirers among guitar players, inluding Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young and Ace Frehley.
A Texan from Beaumont, ostracized for his albino features, Winter developed a reputation as a player with a feel for the blues rather than lightning-fast six-string duelist. He jammed with rock greats picking up on similar influences – Hubert Sumlin’s work with Wolf, Buddy Guy in Muddy Waters’ band, Chuck Berry – making believers out of Michael Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix. It led to Clive Davis signing him to CBS Records for an unheard-of $600,000 deal.
His debut for CBS, now Columbia Records, reached No. 24 on the Billboard 200, a strong showing for an album of nearly all covers. Rootsy yet energetic takes on the blues, a mission statement was discreetly tucked away for those who paid attention to his liner notes. His version of “Mean Mistreater” featured the upright bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon and the blues harpist Shakey Horton, two elder statesmen of the blues on the edge of fading into the genre’s back pages.
He would continue to play that role of blues preservationist, aiding in the resuscitation of the careers of James Cotton and Muddy Waters, first through recording Waters’ songs, such as “Walking Thru the Park,” and then aiding his comeback album in 1977, “Hard Again.”
His two final studio recording, 2011’s “Roots” and “Step Back,” which Megaforce is scheduled to release Sept. 2, furthered his role as collaborator and preservationist as he recorded songs by Waters, T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Elmore James with Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and others on the first album. The second, announced a month after Sony Legacy issued the four-CD box set “True to the Blues,” features Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Dr. John and Leslie West playing the songs of Dixon, Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Fats Domino and Bobby Bland.
The project, organized by his manager and guitarist Paul Nelson, “fueled his need to relearn songs from the past. It was educational.”
When they started the first “Roots” project, it was one element in a program to wean the guitarist off methadone, which he had been addicted to for ages. Winter’s troubles with heroin began in the early 1970s, crippling his career at various times and keeping him out of the studio for long stretches. Studio albums from the late 1980s forward had gaps of six to eight years as he bounced between labels.
Winter never gave up on touring, though, performing at least 100 concerts a years for decades, getting up to 160 dates when his health improved over the last four years. Winter was three dates into a European tour at the time of his death; he had just completed a 13-date run of the Midwest in June. He was scheduled to perform 15 dates in the East and West in August.
Winter’s performance at SXSW in March coincided with the world premiere of Greg Olliver’s documentary “Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty.” In it, Winter is frank about dealing with his demons – his upbringing, his OCD, and his drug abuse and its effect. It’s also visual testimony to the improvement of Winter’s health. The film has not yet been picked up for distribution.
Winter’s performance at SXSW was like most he was giving over the last few years. Seated and backed by a three-piece band, Winter stuck to the loud and fast music of his youth, Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie,” Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” It felt as enriching and powerful as it had four decades earlier.