If there’s some truth to the importance of being in the right place at the right time, Johnny Winter might attest to it. The slide guitar virtuoso came up in the ranks of show business when blues-rock was rising in popularity. He embodied an American alternative to Clapton, Page or Mayall, and offered a grittier take than Hendrix, more of the earth than the cosmos. Since debuting in 1969, Winter has rarely strayed from his signature style even as he’s stretched its boundaries, remaining True to the Blues. And that’s the entirely-fitting title chosen for Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings’ new large-scale retrospective of his still-strong career. Over four CDs and 58 tracks, True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story stands a testament not just to the soul and inspiration of its subject but to the durability of the blues idiom itself. If stylistic diversity isn’t one of the strong suits of True to the Blues, its subject’s artistic consistency is certainly one of its hallmarks.
Following an incendiary guest spot at New York’s Fillmore East, the Mississippi-born, Texas-raised albino scored what was reportedly the biggest-ever sum paid to a new signing to Columbia Records: $600,000.00. (Remember: that’s in 1969 dollars!) Mike Bloomfield (subject of another recent, engrossing box set from Columbia/Legacy) introduced his friend Winter at the Fillmore East in December, 1968 as “the baddest motherfucker,” adding an understated “This cat can play!” for good measure. Coming from the great Bloomfield, that was no small compliment. The proof is in the pudding, a scorching 11-minute jam on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault.” It’s just one electrifying moment for blues-rock devotees here.
The chronologically-sequenced (in order of recording, not release) box set draws on 27 albums originally released on labels including Liberty/Imperial, Columbia, Blue Sky/Epic, Alligator, Point Blank/Virgin, Friday Music, Collectors’ Choice Music, Megaforce and Legacy. It traces his development as an artist both in studio and live settings, accompanied by a number of greats including Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Dr. John, Derek Trucks, Booker T. Jones, Muddy Waters and even Vince Gill. Though Winter’s licks were torrid, an underlying, infectious joy in sharing this music often permeated his approach.
His swaggering attitude was exemplified on Second Winter, his sophomore Columbia studio effort from 1969 (and that rarest of creatures, a double-LP set with only three sides of music!). Winter kicked Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” up a notch via a startlingly-reinvented, rip-roaring take, with his near-spoken delivery as idiosyncratic as Dylan’s own. If Winter’s singing voice might have kept him from greater success – the same was often said of Bloomfield – his harsh, throaty yelp was never less than wholly authentic. (For comparison’s sake, the box set also makes room for a 1993 blazing live version of “Highway 61” from Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, on which the still-fiery Winter is backed by Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, plus G.E. Smith and session vets Anton Fig and Jim Keltner.) The inclusion of Dylan, Percy Mayfield (“Memory Pain”) and Little Richard (“Miss Ann,” with a tasty saxophone solo from Edgar) covers alongside his own material like the breakneck “Hustled Down in Texas” on Second Winter typified Winter’s catholic tastes. His style enlivened R&B, rock and roll, rockabilly and soul, all of which are represented on True to the Blues. And as for that vocal instrument? Winter is almost sweet on a 1977 cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” from his White, Hot and Blue album.
Unsurprisingly, each of the four discs contains a substantial amount of live material, as Winter’s rawest performances have been among his finest. True to the Blues heats up early with “Leland Mississippi Blues” from Woodstock (backed by brother Edgar on keyboards, plus Tommy Shannon on bass and “Uncle” John Turner on drums). So powerful was Winter’s performance at Yasgur’s Farm that the band sounds much larger than its actual size. His guttural growl and strutting guitar pyrotechnics upped the rock quotient and certainly must have brought some of the audience members down to earth from a heightened level of consciousness!
Just as good are three previously unreleased performances from the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, with Johnny backed once again by Edgar, plus two members of The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy,” “Fever”) – Rick Derringer and Randy Hobbs. With Derringer, Hobbs and Rick’s brother Randy Zehringer, Johnny formed the band Johnny Winter And. Fellow guitarist Rick spurred Winter on to even more creativity when their axes were pitted in battle. The band’s 1970 eponymous studio album introduced Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” the most commercial song Winter had recorded to that point. The vocals were a bit clearer, the musical interplay a little tighter, but the raw power and searing guitar pyrotechnics and flair still intact. Heavy metal thunder courses through the psychedelic “Guess I’ll Go Away” while Winter’s rapport with Derringer is evident on the drawling “Out on a Limb.” High-octane covers in the muscular, fluid power-blues manner are highlights throughout True to the Blues; he even out-performs The Rolling Stones on their own “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in a 1971 performance with his band “Johnny Winter And” from the long-shuttered Florida amusement park Pirate’s World. But Winter’s own ample contributions to the blues-rock songbook are also plentiful.
After the jump, we have much more on Johnny!
Besides “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” the rockin’ genre recurs in a number of the titles here: “Rock Me Baby,” “Rock and Roll,” “Rollin’ ‘Cross the Country,” “Rock and Roll People,” “Roll with Me.” But Winter wasn’t averse to experimentation, either, and True admirably covers his many musical facets. Dan Hartman, a collaborator of both Winter brothers and a future pop and disco star himself, co-wrote the radio-ready hard rock of “Rollin’ Down the Country” with Johnny for 1974’s eclectic Saints and Sinners. The same album’s “Hurtin’ So Bad” features a smoking horn section including Randy Brecker and Edgar Winter, and needless to say, the trumpet and saxophones add another dimension to Winter’s music. Johnny doing John Lennon might not have seemed a natural fit, but worked perfectly on the tough, taut “Rock and Roll People.” Both Winter brothers are loose and happily soulful on a 1975 revival of the 1963 Bob and Earl tune “Harlem Shuffle,” with Hartman on piano and backing vocals. Another truly joyful noise is made when Winter goes Zydeco on the 1979 performance of “Bon Ton Roulet” included here from Raisin’ Cain.
As depicted here, Johnny Winter stuck to his guns in the 1980s when many of his contemporaries were turning to modern production techniques. Winter departed Epic after Raisin’ Cain and re-emerged after a four-year hiatus on blues specialist label Alligator Records. Based on the tracks selected here, Winter was revitalized after the break. There’s a punch and immediacy to 1984’s “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” and 1985’s “Master Mechanic” – both recorded in blues hotspot Chicago – lacking in the late-period Epic material. His nimble, dexterous playing has hardly aged over the years, either, based on 1991’s “Illustrated Man” or 2011’s “Dust My Broom” with Derek Trucks (one of the two most recent recordings here).
Although it’s impossible for any set of this nature to include every fan favorite, producer Jerry Rappaport has commendably curated a selection of Winter’s best and most significant recordings. Mark Wilder’s new remastering brings out the clarity, nuance and detail in these performances. The generously illustrated booklet includes an essay from Guitar World Editor-in-Chief Brad Tolinski and appreciations from some of Winter’s most high-profile fans, among them Steven Tyler, Ace Frehley, Gregg Allman, Dan Aykroyd, Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons and of course, Edgar Winter. Federico Ruiz’s stellar design makes this a box set worthy of inclusion on your shelf, and every aspect is well-executed including the discography with images of each album cover.
Johnny has just turned 70 years old, and remains one of the most expressive guitarists in rock and blues. True to the Blues, of course, is a keepsake of where he’s been. But as he’s always reached back to synthesize elements of various genres from the past, it’s also a likely indicator of where he’s going.