Johnny Winter - True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story
“This music proves that a white man with white hair can really play the blues,” Pete Townsend says in the booklet that accompanies True To the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story, the four-CD box set retrospective of Winter's career just out on Columbia /Legacy. But age had nothing to do with Winter's look or sound. Due to his albinism, Winter's hair was always white, and he played like this ever since he first came on the scene in the late '60s.
Mike Bloomfield introduces him on disc one simply saying: “His name is Johnny Winter. This cat can play!'”Winter tears into “It's My Own Fault” from '68's Live at the Fillmore East: The Last Concert Tapes. It's his first New York appearance, the performance that brought Winter into the spotlight in 1968 as he takes B. B. King's “Its My Own Fault” for an 11 minute ride that helped change the status of blues in the U.S., bringing it out of the black community, introducing it to white audiences. And what an intro it is. Winter just wrestles it away from King, his vocal and guitar intermingling so closely at the end it's hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. Not even King would want to follow it.
Winter also takes over Chuck Berry's “Johnny B Goode” Live from the Royal Albert Hall from Second Winter in 1970, chewing up the notes and spitting them out like a wood chipper on overdrive, shredding at breakneck speed while howling like a man with his foot caught in a bear trap.
Disc two opens with a blistering, previously unreleased 1970 live rendition of “Eyesight To The Blind,” Winter ripping and bending notes, roaring like a man possessed. It's a mesmerizing performance, a dazzling display of an array of techniques any one of which any guitar player would kill to have in his arsenal. Winter sprinkles them around like breadcrumbs for future guitar generations to peck at.
Winter's stint with the McCoys, renamed Johnny Winter And, featuring Rick Derringer, is represented by a trio of tunes from '70's Johnny Winter And. “Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo” outpaces the other two with its arena rock gut punch, Winter celebrating the marriage of blues and rock in a fittingly raucous, wiggly fashion. And although he often looked so frail you feared he was gonna fall over at any moment, Winter showed amazing stamina on the live 18 minute version of “Mean Town Blues” from “70's Live At The Fillmore East, fingers rippling along the fretboard at warp speed but still managing to wring more nuances out of a simple run than most guitarists could conjure up in a career.
No Winter retrospective would be complete without '73's ironic “Still Alive And Well” from the album of the same name that opens Disc 3. Winter's health was always speculated on, his flirtation with heroin always creating doubts as to how long he'd be able to perform. At this point he'd been sidelined by that drug for nearly a year, this release his answer to his naysayers. “Let's do this fucker,” Winter says as the cut opens, then chides his overeager bassist who drops a premature plonk, “Don't hit in now, hit it on 4.” Counting it off, Winter rips it to shreds, bellowing “every now and then its kinda hard to tell, but I'm still alive and well,” proving that point with one of the most energetic, hard rockin' performances of his career.
His '76 live performance from Captured Live of “Bony Moronie” transforms that classic '50s hit for Larry Williams into a psychedelic rocker barely able to contain all the notes Winter crams into it as he varnishes the fretboard to a high sheen. “Check this out,” Winter says before taking off on a blistering run that runs the song out and puts it out of reach for anybody else foolish enough to try to cover it.
But by the next year, Winter had changed his musical perspective. His original manager, Steve Paul, had convinced Winter to switch from blues to rock, but Winter always felt he had somehow shortchanged the blues. He made up for that by producing and playing on four albums for Muddy Waters: the magnificent Hard Again, in '77; I'm Ready in '78, King Bee in '81, and '79's Mississippi Muddy Waters Live. Unfortunately there's nothing from Hard Again on this compilation, probably because its considered more of a Muddy project than a Winter vehicle. It would have been nice to have been served up a helping of “Cross-eyed Cat,” but the inclusion of “I Done Got Over It” from a '77 live recording at Detroit's Masonic Temple Theater released on 2007's Breakin' It Up, Breakin' It Down, is almost as good. You can hear Winter's energy level shoot up several notches as soon as Cotton launches into a reed bending solo. “Yeah! Play it, James!” Winter roars as as Cotton rips into high cotton and Winter tears up behind him in close pursuit.
Disc four takes Winter's career up through 2011's Roots. Along the way, we get a glimpse of Winter's brilliant return to blues with the Jimmy Reed style “One Step At Time” from '78's White Hot And Blue with Brother Edgar on piano and some great Cotton style harp from Pat Ramsey, who also does a great Reed harp impersonation on Reed's “Honest I Do” as well as singing beautiful harmony with Winter. His version of “Don't Take Advantage Of Me” far outstrips Lonnie Brooks' '97 version from Deluxe Edition, Winter filling in every available space with torrents of notes, roaring out the chorus with the confidence of a man who won't give anybody room to take advantage of him ever again.
“Dust My Broom” is a fitting closer, showing Winter still at the top of his form. Backed by his current power trio of rhythm and co lead guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Luizzi , with Derek Trucks dropping in for some additional slide, Winter gives a blues tutorial on economy and style. The cut gradually fades away, leaving us wanting more, just as millions of blues fans are wishing for as well since Winter slipped away from us at the age of seventy in a hotel in Zurich after his last concert.
This is a fitting epitaph, but still not his final statement. The latest chapter of his continuing Roots saga called Step Back was set to come out in September featuring a dazzling array of guitarists including Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Leslie West, and Dr. John. But his is not a tragic ending. Johnny Winter went out still at the top of his powers after doing yet another successful show, giving his fans what they wanted but could never get enough of. That's a legacy any man would be proud to leave behind.