There are not a lot of famous people I would shed a tear for, and fewer still demand that I publicly pay them my respects. I was looking forward to seeing Johnny Winter next month with The Edgar Winter Group. I have seen the brothers onstage separately many times, and I have seen them together before, when they definitely had the most fun. News of the legend’s passing broke late Wednesday night in a post from Rick Derringer’s wife and was confirmed by several musicians from the Winter camp. [update] This morning an official release stated, “Texas blues icon Johnny Winter has passed away on July 16, 2014 in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland.”
Best known for Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” Johnny Winter provided a warm soundtrack for life. As expertly as he sang and played, his songs always felt easy and comfortable. Johnny Winter brought the blues classics and the rock standards to a new audience. He was one of the few musicians I was honored to see play live again and again. As he grew even more gaunt and even more frail than seemed possible, he always managed to outrock the best of them. He never disappointed. It’s a rare guitarist that can cover Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix and put them both to shame. He was truly a master of speed and dexterity. I’m not a musician and I’m not one to blather on about technique, but there was something in his fingers that inspired awe.
Born in Texas, by the age of 10, Johnny was already performing with his brother Edgar, who was also born with albinism. By the age of 15, Johnny was cutting records. During his 70 years, he played Woodstock, received the largest record advance in history, beat a heroin addiction, recorded with and produced records for his hero, Muddy Waters, and saw Gibson produce a Johnny Winters Firebird guitar.
Once when I saw him perform at The Palace, there was a couch, a carpet and a coffee table set up onstage like a tiny living room. A woman I assume was “his lady” came out and sipped wine while she watched the entire show from that couch. It made me smile and shake my head. Everything this man did, he did with style.
photo by Heinrich Klaffs via flickr