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Johnny Winter
Diego Tuson/AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Winter

Winter storm

Music | Full-tilt blues rocker leaves a legacy of intensity

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

From his striking albino features to his precognitive tattoo obsession, Johnny Winter made an unforgettable visual impression. But it’s for his many years of audio impressions that the full-tilt-boogying guitarist has been remembered since he died last month at the age of three score and 10.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, Winter grazed the popular-music stratosphere early. Just one year after signing with Columbia Records in 1968, he’d released two well-received studio albums and performed at Woodstock, establishing what would turn out to be his sonic legacy: electric blues and rock ’n’ roll taken at a blistering pace and characterized by rapid-fire fretwork and fervently hollered vocals. On the intensity meter, Winter’s needle seldom fell out of the red.

That intensity fueled his first decade, during which he placed six albums on Billboard’s Top 100. By 1973, however, he found himself commercially eclipsed by two of his former band members—Rick Derringer (who scored a hit with “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” a song originally recorded by Winter) and Winter’s younger brother Edgar (whose album They Only Come Out at Night and its singles “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” became FM-radio staples).

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Propitiously, 1973 was also the year that Winter’s manager, Steve Paul, founded Blue Sky Records, the label best known for facilitating the resurgence of Muddy Waters when, at Winter’s urging, the 63-year-old blues legend joined its roster. The first fruits of the Blue Sky–Waters partnership was the Winter-produced Hard Again, which eventually won a Grammy and earned a reputation as one of the finest blues albums ever.

His behind-the-scenes success notwithstanding, Winter never forsook his solo career. Besides releasing nine studio albums between 1980 and 2011, he was also the subject of a growing number of compilations, the latest of which—Sony’s impressively consistent four-disc True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story—was released in February.

He didn’t forsake the stage either. It was, in fact, just two days after performing at France’s Cahors Blues Festival that Winter died.

Megaforce Records will release his recently completed album, Step Back, in September. It features cameos by Dr. John, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Brian Setzer, Joe Bonamassa, Leslie West, Ben Harper, and Eric Clapton. Although obviously not intended as a final farewell, it nevertheless confers upon Winter the honor of going out in the company of his best-known peers and legatees.  

Cool Breeze

Capitol Records

Eric Clapton plays an even more important role in yet another multi-artist bluesman tribute, only this one’s eulogistic overtones are intentional. 

As the subtitle makes clear, The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale (Bushbranch/Surfdog), credited to “Eric Clapton & Friends,” commemorates the music of J.J. Cale, the inventor of the rural-blues idiom known as the “Tulsa sound.” Laid-back and laconic, it was the diametric opposite of the Johnny Winter blues.

In the long run, however, it was more influential. Lynyrd Skynyrd covered Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.” Clapton made hits of Cale’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” and often seemed to be imitating Cale intentionally. Ditto for post–Dire Straits Mark Knopfler.

Ditto also for the cast of The Breeze as a whole. Although the credits allege the participation of Knopfler, Tom Petty, John Mayer, Don White, Derek Trucks, and Christine Lakeland, the only performances that aren’t subsumed under Clapton’s masterly Cale impersonation are the two by the unsubsumable Willie Nelson.

An “appreciation,” in other words, the album is. It’s also, ultimately, all that it is. Would that it were more. —A.O.

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