Johnny Winter was a blues guitarist from Beaumont, Texas. With encouragement from his parents, Johnny started playing music at a young age. He began singing with his musical father at age four and took up the clarinet and ukulele during school years. When Johnny heard Chuck Berry on the radio he switched to guitar and formed his first band at age 15. He quickly released a single called "School Day Blues" and it received local radio play. As Johnny was playing around the Texas area with his brother Edgar, he found time to take in some B.B. King, Muddy Waters and other blues players performances, as they passed through the area. Johnny took a road trip up to Chicago at age 19 and wound up meeting and jamming with Mike Bloomfield. This proved to be key for Johnny because a few years later in New York, Bloomfield invited Johnny onstage to play a song at the Fillmore East. There were Columbia record executives in the audiences and they signed him to a record deal the next day. Johnny mixed it up in the New York scene jamming with Jimi Hendrix, Bloomfield and many other artists at clubs like "The Scene". Johnny wound up being a successful recording artists producing many top selling high energy records. Johnny played at the famous Woodstock concert and many other major festivals throughout his career. Later on Johnny became very close with Muddy Waters and produced many important records in Muddy's career. Johnny continued to tour relentlessly until his life ended tragically on the road in Europe on 7/16/2014. I conducted this interview 11 months before his death.
R.V.B.. - Hi Johnny, Congratulations on your career so far.
J.W. – Oh thank you.
R.V.B. – It’s very nice to meet you and my first question for you is, Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with music?
J.W. – I grew up in Beaumont Texas and my father was very musical. He played saxophone and banjo. He sang in a barbershop quartet and a church choir and we started singing at like three or four with him.
R.V.B. – Oh you started that early? Three or four years old?
J.W. – Yeah.
R.V.B. – What was your first instrument that you played?
J.W. – The clarinet was my first instrument. I was like in the second grade when I started playing.
R.V.B. - Oh really? When did you get your first guitar?
J.W. – Oh I was twelve. I played ukulele first. I started playing ukulele when I was nine.
R.V.B. - Oh nice. Do you remember what your first guitar was?
J.W. – Yes, it was a Gibson ES-125.
R.V.B. – Oh you went right for the good stuff!
J.W. – Yeah, it was a nice guitar. It had one pickup and no cutaway, but it was a nice guitar to start off with.
R.V.B. – What kind of amp did you put that guitar through?
J.W. – I had a little Gibson amp. I don’t remember what model it was but it was a little tiny Gibson.
J.W. - Oh, a year or two, then I got a Fender Stratocaster, and I had trouble playing tha,t so I got a Les Paul custom. It was called the fretless wonder. It was a black guitar with gold trim. It was real nice!
R.V.B. – When you started playing guitar, What were your early influences – What did you listen to on the radio?
J.W. - Oh, Chuck Berry was my first big influence. That’s what made me start playing guitar in the first place. I heard Chuck Berry playing in 55 and about 56. I was playing. I heard Maybelline in 55 and said oh this is great.
R.V.B. – That’s cool. When did you start your first band?
J.W. – Oh, about fourteen or fifteen. I made my first single when I was fifteen years old.
R.V.B. – Oh yea? What single was that?
J.W. – It was called “School Day Blues” on one side, and “You Know I Love You” was on the other side.
R.V.B. – Very nice. Did you get any radio play out of it?
J.W. – Yeah, Yeah. It got to be No. 8 in Beaumont (Laugh). It sold around 300 records (Laugh again).
R.V.B. – Very nice. So how long did you remain in Texas?
J.W. - Oh, until I was about twenty three or twenty four. I went to Chicago when I was nineteen. I stayed there about six months. I played in Chicago. Then I came back, when I got tired of that. Then I came back to Texas again. We started a band and went on the road. We toured the south. We went to places like Atlanta, Birmingham, and Bossier City Louisiana. All over the south, Florida.
R.V.B. – In your stay in Chicago, did you pick up on the Blues players and the blues scene up there?
R.V.B. – Did you go out to see any of the Blues masters like Muddy Waters, or Howlin’ Wolf, or any of those guys?.
J.W. – Oh my bass player is the one who had the car, and he had gone to the south side to try to see Muddy. He had gotten beat up and rolled. He was scared to death to go back. We went in the daytime and looked around but I couldn’t get him to go at night.
R.V.B. – I see.
J.W. – He had really bad experiences there, so he wouldn’t go back at night.
R.V.B. – So when you met Mike Bloomfield there did you jam with him?
J.W. – Yeah, we played together.
R.V.B. – So you went back to Texas and you started a band and you started touring.
J.W. - Yeah, we got a booking agent in Atlanta, and started touring the south.
J.W. – Edgar was playing piano and sax. Ikey Sweat was playing bass. David Holiday was playing drums, and I was playing guitar and singing.
R.V.B. – So where did you go after you finished your tour of the south?
J.W. - I made my way up to New York when I was around twenty four. Rolling Stone did a big story about me saying I was one of the good people in Texas. Steve Paul at The Scene called me up, and had me come to New York and started managing me.
R.V.B. – Did you bring the same band up there or did you play with other people?
J.W. – No, it was Uncle John Turner on drums, Tommy Shannon on bass. We had just started a blues band about a year before.
R.V.B. – So where did you play up in New York?
J.W. - Oh we played all over. We started jamming at Steve’s club... The Scene, and I played the Fillmore with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. That was the first time I’ve been to the Fillmore. Mike was real nice. He remembered me from Chicago and gave me a real big build up. I played for them. Clive Davis from Columbia was sitting in the audience. He signed me to Columbia.
R.V.B. – Is that when you made your first record “Johnny Winter”?
J.W. – In sixty nine, right.
R.V.B. – And your brother was on that record with you?
J.W. – Yeah, he played some too. He played some on that record. (Dog barking in the back round)
R.V.B. – Now would you say that your first couple of records were Texas blues, Chicago blues, country blues, or a little bit of the above?.
J.W. – A little bit of the above. A little Texas, a little Chicago, a little Mississippi. (dog still barking)
R.V.B. – I have the first few albums on vinyl, I’ve been listening to them, and I noticed that some songs you have the full band and some songs it’s just you playing country guitar with a slide.
J.W. – Yea exactly yea, fills and stuff. (bark)
R.V.B. – So after your first few records, I noticed you turned it up a notch as far as energy.
J.W. - The rock and roll thing.
R.V.B. – With “Johnny Winter And”, “Still Alive and Well “, and even a little on “Saints and Sinners”!
J.W. - Yeah, (Pause) “Still Alive and Well” had some blues on it too.
R.V.B. – Yeah, “Cheap Tequila”. I love that song. So would you say that the rock and roll songs that you played when you turned it up were an extension of the blues? Or just plain out rock and roll.
J.W. – Yeah, they were bluesy rock and roll. It’s not a thing I really wanted to do but my manager said the blues has been so big in the sixties and it was just kind of on its way out. He felt like if I didn’t start doing some rock and roll that I would disappear. He was probably right. I didn’t enjoy it as much but it was probably the right move to make.
R.V.B. – So in that time period you had your Woodstock show correct?
R.V.B. - Oh, that was before “Johnny Winter And”?
J.W. – Yeah, Woodstock was before.
R.V.B. – You were the headliners on one of the night’s right?
J.W. – I don’t know if there was really a headliner. There was just a lot of different bands. All were headliners.
R.V.B. – When you played there, how did you feel about it? Did you have a good time?
J.W. – Yea it was nice. It was a mess. Nobody knew who was going on when. It was all rainy and muddy but it wasn’t raining the night we went on. So we didn’t have to play in the rain. But it really was a mess.
R.V.B. – Did you go on at a decent hour or was it really late at night?
J.W. – We went on about twelve, about midnight.
R.V.B. - Oh that wasn’t too bad. Were you able to see anyone else play there?
J.W. – No we had to get out. We got helicoptered out as soon as we finished playing. I didn’t see anybody else.
R.V.B. – Oh I see. So did you tour Europe and the world?
J.W. – Oh yeah in sixty nine, we started playing all over the world. We were playing just about everywhere. We played Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, France, and all over Europe.
R.V.B. - Did you ever play Australia or the Far East?
J.W. – Yeah, I did go to Australia but it was a lot later. In the eighties I went to Australia.
R.V.B. – So after your rock and roll period, you settled back to the main stay blues for the most part in the seventies and Eighties?
J.W. – Yeah, especially when I started working with Muddy (Waters). After that I really wanted to get back to blues.
R.V.B. - How was your experience working with Muddy. You started producing at this time right?
J.W. – Oh it was great. I really loved Muddy as a person and as an artist he was just really, really talented.
R.V.B. – When you started working with Muddy like on the first album, did you primarily produce it or did you play on it?
R.V.B. – Oh very nice. Did that go for all of the albums you worked with Muddy on?
J.W. – I didn’t play on every cut on every record. I played on most of them.
R.V.B.. – You did four records with Muddy right?
J.W. – Yeah, I did four – “Hard Again”, “I’m Ready”, “Muddy “Mississippi”(Waters)” and “King Bee”.
R.V.B. – I also noticed that you worked with Sonny Terry.
J.W. – Yeah, on one record, right before he died.
R.V.B. – Now did you produce that one also?
J.W. – Yeah, I did.
R.V.B. – Is there anyone else in your career that you really enjoyed playing with?
J.W. – Albert Collins, Otis Rush, B.B. King of course.
R.V.B. – Did you ever jam with Paul Butterfield and that crowd?
R.V.B. – There are rumors around that you jammed with Hendrix. Is that true?
J.W. – Several times.
R.V.B. – How did you find that? Did you both play guitar?
J.W. – Well the first time he played bass for me. The first time I played with him.
R.V.B. – Oh yeah? Did that session take place in New York?
J.W. – Yeah at the Scene, at my managers club.
R.V.B. – Where was that club? In the Village?
J.W. – No. I can’t remember what street it was on. It was somewhere in the 40’s on the west side.
R.V.B. – Did you recently get back together with your brother?
J.W. – We played together in Paris just a few months ago. (Note he said weeks but some time has elapsed)
R.V.B. – Now the current band that you are playing with? Who are the members?
J.W. – Paul Nelson... my Manager, plays guitar, Scott Spray plays bass, I play the guitar, and Tommy Curiale plays drums.
R.V.B. – Did you recently come out with a new album?
R.V.B. – What are your current plans? Are you touring?
J.W. – We are just gonna tour. (Laugh) Just keep touring.
R.V.B. – Well Johnny it has been a pleasure to talk with you and I really appreciate you taking the time to spend with me.
J.W. – Well you’re welcome.
R.V.B. – Alright Johnny, Good luck and have a good tour.
J.W. – Thank you
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
Johnny Winter passed away 7/16/14
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For more information on Johnny Winter visit his webpage www.johnnywinter.net
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