“He looks like a witch.”
Johnny Winter takes his rest
Back in my early high school days, around 14 or so, I joined the Columbia Record and Tape Club, lured in with the “11 tapes for a penny!”. Don’t remember much of what I got (I think Frampton Comes Alive was one, didn’t everyone own that?), but the two that have stuck with me were ZZ Top’s Fandango and Johnny Winter Captured Live! I can remember coming home from school to an empty house, hitting the power on my Sound-design stereo, and slamming in the 8 track of Captured Live! — yeah baby, 8 tracks — and cranking those poor speakers to their limit. First cut is the old Larry Williams tune “Bony Moronie”, and to this day I can recall the rush that would rise up my back when Winter sang: “I’ve got a girl named Bony Moronie/She’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni.” I would let that tape play over and over, louder than hell, until my mom came home from work. One day she asked what that record was that I kept playing, and when I showed her the cover, Winter with his long white hair, weird cape shirt and his eyes closed as if in a trance. She goes “He looks like a witch.”
Damn right Johnny Winter was a witch. He was an albino magus who cast spells in blues, armed with a metal slide, a cackling laugh and his history written in tattoos over his translucent frame. Unlike other white blues guitarists of the day, he didn’t just dabble in the blues, never went soft, never took the easy money of hard rock when his peers did. No, Johnny Winter was a bluesman. No dilettante copying of B.B. King or Robert Johnson for him, hell no. He was steeped in it from his early days playing in bands with his brother Edgar, hitting dive bars and juke joints, playing Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Two Steps From the Blues straight through, while people got drunk and picked a fight — or a woman. He was never healthy, looking at times like a pale specter armed with a Gibson Firebird, but man could he cut you with it. He played Woodstock, sold millions of records, influenced every guitarist who played after him, and from all accounts was a genuinely nice person. He sent Muddy Waters out on a high note, producing and playing on his last few records, including Hard Again from 1977 with the definitive “Mannish Boy”, and you can hear Muddy and Johnny laughing as the track ends, Waters sharp and sassy like a man who just slayed all comers.
Johnny Winters was a witch. A guitar slinger. A bluesman. And now he’s no more on this earth. But somewhere he’s waking up to Muddy Waters going “Johnny! I saved you a drink…here, take my guitar and let’s have us a natural ball…” and Johnny will squint those pale eyes, turn the amp to 11, and play his heart out.
Sorta like he did on earth. Johnny Winter, bluesman. RIP.