johnny winter photoWe Lost Another Giant, Johnny Winter dies.

I just got word that Johnny Winter died in Zurich, Switzerland, while he was on tour.  Johnny Winter, the gifted albino blues guitarist, was 70.  He was still touring right up to the very end.  Amazing.  He went out doing what he loved best, traveling and playing music.

Along with his brother Edgar Winter (also an albino,) he blazed the trail for Texas boogie blues that influenced a whole generation of guitarists including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons.  Ever wondered why there are so many great blues guitarists in Texas?  Johnny Winter is one reason.  The man was true to the blues.  If you’ve ever heard Muddy Waters’ incredible version of Mannish Boy, one of the heaviest blues tunes ever recorded, and you heard that stinging guitar lead, that’s Johnny.  He produced that in Muddy’s living room, by the way.  Playing with Muddy Waters was only a small part of the Johnny Winter experience.  The man lived a breathed the blues.  He tuned his back on other more popular forms of music to stay true to the blues.  

I have a Johnny Winter story I’d like to share with you.  One morning his tour bus pulled up to the old KFOX Studios at Koll Business Park in San Jose.  He was playing in town that night and I always tried to have as many great guitarists on the show as possible, so naturally I invited him to come down to the station for an interview and maybe a little jam session.  

His road manager came out and laid down the ground rules.  No jamming, no jimmy-jackin’ around, plug the gig and talk about the blues and get the hell out.  OK, fair enough.  His road manager warned me that Johnny was legally blind and his hearing was shot, other than that he was in tip-top shape.  Oh, and one other thing, he uses a walker and it takes about 10 minutes for him to cross the room.  I say I’m good with all that, so bring him on.  

They lead Johnny into the studio, we did it on the ground floor production room so he wouldn’t have to climb the half dozen stairs to the KFOX studio.  I sat him down and put some earphones on him and cranked ‘em up so he could hear.  

Johnny looked about 100 years old.  His long hair was as white as snow.  His face was like something carved into Mount Rushmore, with deep grooves and bags upon bags under his eyes.  Still, he had a spark in his eye and you could tell he was ready to rock.

The interview was not that great.  Johnny answered with a lot of “yeps” and “nopes” and didn’t feel much like talking.  I had a guitar in my hands the whole time and I’m trying to play “Memphis” by Chuck Berry (a song I knew he cut on one of his albums) and I kept PLAYING IT WRONG ON PURPOSE.  I did this about 5 or 6 times and he finally grabs the guitar out of my hands.  “That ain’t how it goes!  Gimme that guitar!”  And he played it perfectly all the way through.  I felt guilty tricking a legend like Johnny Winter into playing the guitar but I got a killer version of “Memphis” on tape and we talked about Willie Dixon and he opened up.  It turned out to be a great visit.

They led him back onto his tour bus and he disappeared into the misty morning.

Photo by aaronHwarren