Obituary: Johnny Winter, renowned blues guitarist
Blues guitarist who worked with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
Johnny Winter, who has died aged 70, was widely regarded as a master of the slide guitar in the tradition of the blues musicians Elmore James and Muddy Waters.
John Dawson Winter was born on February 23, 1944, in Texas and brought up in the state. Both he and his younger brother, Edgar, were albinos and won a high school talent contest singing Everly Brothers songs.
Johnny displayed a prodigious talent on guitar, and became adept at playing blues. Though he recorded frequently for small Texan record labels, none of the 45s he released enjoyed much success. But in late 1968 Winter made his way to Chicago, where Mike Bloomfield, the guitarist with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, invited him to sit in on one of the songs which he and the keyboardist Al Kooper were performing at a concert. A reporter from Rolling Stone magazine was in the audience, and described Winter as "a 130-pound, cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard".
The result was a bidding war between record labels, which ended with Columbia signing Winter for $600,000 - reportedly the highest advance ever paid by the label up to that time. Winter's eponymous debut album was released in 1969, and he soon became one of rock music's most recognisable figures, performing at Woodstock and jamming with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In 1970 he teamed up with the noted rock guitarist and producer Rick Derringer. The studio and concert albums they released in 1970 and 1971 won Winter a huge American audience, but be became so debilitated by heroin addiction that he went into semi-retirement for two years.
Throughout his career, Winter was torn between the blues he loved so much and the more commercial rock sound demanded by his record label and management but in 1977 he was the producer of Hard Again, Muddy Waters's comeback album. It won wide praise and a Grammy, and re-established Waters as a contemporary blues artist. Winter produced three further albums for Waters.
The 1990s would turn into something of a lost decade for Winter - he became addicted to antidepressants, and delivered poor recordings and often incoherent performances. In 2005 his rhythm guitarist, Paul Nelson, took over Winter's management duties and put the guitarist in rehab. By this time Winter was said to weigh only 90lbs; he also suffered from a hip problem that would force him to perform seated. Six months later, however, he was able to return to recording and performing.
Winter found himself attracting the kind of attention he had once lavished on the black bluesmen of his youth. His album Step Back is due for release on September 2, while a documentary, Johnny Winter: Down And Dirty, chronicling his life on the road, was premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in Texas in April.
An unassuming character who declared that he never wanted to do anything other than play the blues, Winter died in Zurich on July 16 while undertaking a European tour.
He is survived by his wife, Susan, and his brother Edgar, who also enjoyed success as a musician.