Sunday, July 20, 2014

R.I.P. Johnny Winter.

First, at least for me, there was Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter's brother.

In 1973, during the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, The Edgar Winter Group had a hit instrumental called "Frankenstein." I bought the cassette of They Only Come Out at Night, and started looking for other Edgar Winter records. His previous band was Edgar Winter's White Trash, a great soul and R & B outfit, which released a double live album called Roadwork. On it, Johnny Winter made a cameo appearance on "Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo,", as introduced by Edgar:

"People keep askin' me -- where's your brother?"

In my adolescent mind, there were questions, which required going to the library to find answers. Who was Johnny Winter, and where had he been? Well, Johnny was Edgar's equally talented brother. Texans by birth, both had albinism. Johnny's absence was explained by a bout with heroin addiction, but he was back, tearing up the electric blues.

At this juncture, my exposure to the blues had been limited to 1920s- and 1930s-era recordings by the likes of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly. These performers were considered representative of the southern or "country blues," as opposed to the later progression of the blues in places like Chicago, after WWII, when the music became amplified.

Shortly after reading about Johnny Winter, I stumbled across a shoddy plastic cassette case in a cutout bin announcing an album of his called The Progressive Blues Experiment, Scraping together a few coins from my allowance, I bought it.

Talk about a shock.

This was neither acoustic nor bucolic, but rather hardcore -- raw, intense, aggressive and driven. If Robert Johnson sounded possessed by the devil acoustically, then Johnny Winter wasn't far off, except as a white man with an electric guitar. He was 24 years old when the album was recorded, and the copy I bought may have been a bootleg.

If blues music is to be taken straight and exclusively, in and of itself, then I've never been much of a blues aficionado. Small doses do me fine. But I'll never forget being knocked to the floor by that first dose of Johnny Winter.

The Lion in Johnny Winter: A Tribute to the Guitar Icon, by David Marchese (Rolling Stone)

Legendary blues musician Johnny Winter died in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 16th at 70 years old. There are plenty of reasons why that's notable — Winter was one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos, releasing a string of popular and fiery albums in the late Sixties and early Seventies, becoming an arena-level concert draw in the process — but it's the barest facts that remain the most inspiring. Johnny Winter, from little Beaumont, Texas, afflicted with albinism and 20/400 eyesight in one eye and 20/600 in the other, made an iconic life for himself by playing the blues.

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