Woodstock Performers: Johnny Winter
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. The Band had wrapped up their 50-minute set at 11:00 p.m., and Johnny took the stage at midnight. Appearing on the bill after Johnny was Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Johnny Winter was already well known by blues aficionados by the time Woodstock rolled around. His star power was cemented at the festival.
Who was Johnny Winter?
This kid from Beaumont, Texas was one of the very best bluesmen ever to pick up a guitar. After building quite a following in Texas and the US South, he released his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, on a small independent label called Sonobeat in 1968 when he was only 24 years old.
He first came to the attention of folks outside of Texas and the south when he was written up in Rolling Stone magazine, in a piece they did on the Texas music scene. The article described him as "a 130lb cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard." New York club owner Steve Paul read the article, and pursued Winter so he could become his manager. Paul even set up a bidding contest between record labels over who would sign this guitar great. Columbia won.
Following an impressive appearance at The Fillmore East, where he played one song as the guest of Mike Bloomfield, Winter soon entered the studio to start work on his first LP for Columbia. Released in April, 1969, the self-titled LP featured four songs written by Winter, with the balance being covers of songs by blues legends, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins and B.B. King. Guests on the LP included Big Walter Horton playing harp and Willie Dixon playing acoustic bass on the track "Mean Mistreater." Quite a feat for an unknown musician, and a signal of the greatness that record execs saw in him.
The time to get out there and promote the album was in the summer of 1969. Perfect timing to put in an appearance at Woodstock.
Johnny Winter is the only white man who really understands the blues.— Blues legend Muddy Waters in an interview with Rafael Alvarez
Guitar Great Johnny Winter at Woodstock
Johnny Winter's Woodstock
With the long rain delay on what should have been the final day of Woodstock, everything had been delayed again. And so it was that Johnny Winter became the first act on the unofficial Day 4 of the festival.
Johnny and his marvelous band—his brother Edgar on sax and keyboards, Tommy Shannon on bass and “Uncle” John Turner behind the drums—hit the stage in the first minutes of Monday morning and played a blistering 70-minute set of the best blues rock to be heard anywhere.
They opened up with a powerful cover of the A. Atkins/J.B. Lenoir blues classic “Mama, Talk To Your Daughter,” with Johnny at center stage delivering the kind of guitar licks he was becoming known for. This song would appear on Johnny's third studio album (his second on the Columbia label), Second Winter. They followed that up with “Mean Town Blues,” a song written by Winter that appeared on his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment. This spectacular song featured a breakdown on slide guitar, with Johnny playing his 12-string Fender (strung with only six strings which made it easier for slide). Johnny slips the conduit pipe onto his finger at 2:48 in the clip below...awesome guitar work!
Johnny Winter Performing "Mean Town Blues" at Woodstock
They continued their set with a great, long cover of B.B. King’s “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” which morphed into James Gordon’s “Mean Mistreater.” The song appeared on Johnny's self-titled album, and was later covered by Grand Funk Railroad on their 1970 Closer To Home LP.
With the set at the halfway mark, Johnny introduced his brother Edgar, who played sax and keyboards for the balance of the set. They kicked it off with a cover of Bo Diddley’s “I Can’t Stand It,” and followed that up with John D. Loudermilk’s classic “Tobacco Road,” with Edgar doing vocal duty and absolutely shredding his voice. The main set ended with a cover of Ray Charles’ “Tell The Truth.”
The crowd was in a lather at this point, and not one soul remained seated. For their encore number, they played a sizzling “Johnny B. Goode,” the Chuck Berry classic that would appear on the Second Winter album.
Johnny Winter Performing "Johnny B. Goode" at Woodstock (audio only)
Life After Woodstock
With a hefty advance comes hefty expectations. Columbia wanted to turn Winter into another Hendrix or Cream, but all he wanted to do was play "real raw country blues." He wasn't into competing with Hendrix, not even a little. The pressure on him was immense, and it wasn't long before he succumbed to heroin. He battled that addiction for years, including a nine-month stint in River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans, though he continued to write, perform and release albums.
When Edgar left in 1970 to form his own R&B/rock band, Edgar Winter's White Trash, Johnny started a new band called Johnny Winter And, with ex-McCoys members Richard and Randy Zehringer and Randy Jo Hobbs. The McCoys were best known for their 1965 hit "Hang On Sloopy." Richard would go on to have a pretty impressive career known as Rick Derringer.
The debut LP from Johnny Winter And didn't do so well commercially, but their followup live effort, Live Johnny Winter And, went to #40 and was later certified Gold. The album, parts of which were recorded at The Fillmore East, was released in March 1971. It wasn't long after this that Johnny was felled by heroin. He wouldn't make another album until 1973's . This is arguably one of Johnny's best efforts, and one I still have on vinyl. It contains two tracks written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, a phenomenal cover of "Rock Me Baby" by American blues legends Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur Crudup, and a growlin' version of Derringer's "Cheap Tequila." Still Alive and Well
It was in 1977 that Johnny finally found his way back to the blues he loved when his childhood hero Muddy Waters asked him to produce his comeback album, Hard Again. When that one won a Grammy for Best Blues album, they collaborated on another, 1978's I'm Ready. That one also won a Grammy. And, they had a three-peat with 1979's Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live. After years of playing rock-blues to crowds in sold-out arenas, Johnny was finally back in touch with his roots.
Johnny had an amazing run. He released 18 studio albums during his lifetime, and five live albums. He continued to record and perform until his death on July 16, 2014, two days after playing a concert in Zurich, Switzerland, from emphysema and pneumonia. His 19th and final studio album, Step Back, was released posthumously in September 2014. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues chart and in the #17 spot on the Billboard 200 chart. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Blues Album at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
Johnny was featured on a Woodstock compilation released in 2009 that included his entire Woodstock set. Of the musicians who played with Johnny at Woodstock, Edgar Winter went on to have a solid career, occasionally collaborating with Johnny on various music projects. He is best known for the LP that was released by The Edgar Winter Group. Their LP They Only Come Out at Night contained the monster hits "Free Ride" and "Frankenstein." Edgar is scheduled to appear at Bethel Woods Center on August 16, 2019 as part of the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock.
Tommy Shannon went on to become a member of the backing band Double Trouble, playing behind blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn until Vaughn’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1990. He has also played with both Eric Clapton and John Mayer. Drummer "Uncle" John Turner died in 2007 from Hepatitis C.
Five Musical Facts
- In 1962, when Johnny was only 17 years old, Johnny and Edgar went to a club in Beaumont, Texas to catch blues legend B.B. King. King called Winter onto the stage to show what he could do, and was reportedly very impressed by this "white kid."
- Johnny was a massive star in his day. In 1968, Led Zeppelin landed a then-record contract with Atlantic Records for an unheard of $200,000, largely due to Jimmy Page's previous success. In 1969, Johnny did even better, inking a deal with the Columbia label as a solo artist for the staggering sum of $600,000.
- Woodstock was notorious for many things, including not paying the performers. Johnny was different, and actually received $3,750 for his show. He did not appear in the 1970 movie or on the soundtrack, as his manager Steve Paul didn't think there was any money in it.
- Jimi Hendrix, who Johnny thought was the best guitarist around, would sometimes invite Winter into the studio to jam. The two recorded one song together, "The Things that I Used to Do," on which Winter played slide and Jimi played regular guitar.
- Johnny and Muddy waters developed a really close relationship while working together. Johnny idolized Muddy, and was one of only a handful of folks to attend Muddy's wedding to Marva Jean Brooks. Muddy came to regard Johnny as a son.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson