When Johnny Winter passed in July of this year, the world lost one of its true champions of the blues. He recorded his first record in 1959 at the tender age of 15– “School Day Blues” as “Johnny and the Jammers”–and this final record, Step Back could be credited the same, only at age 70 Winter’s “jammers” are the crème de la crème of the blues world.
Produced and backed by ace guitarist Paul Nelson, the 13 cuts here show that Johnny Winter hadn’t lost a step along the way. Opening with “Unchain My Heart” with the Blues Brothers Horns (“Blue” Lou Marini and Tom “Bones” Malone) Winter shows his soulful side, with his distinctive vocals and guitar adding a new shine to the classic cut made familiar by Ray Charles in 1961. Winter gets down and dirty with Ben Harper on the next cut, “Can’t Hold Out (Talk To Me Baby)”, dueling slide guitars a blazing.
From Eric Clapton on “Don’t Want No Woman” to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on “Where Can You Be” or Leslie West from Mountain on “Long Tall Sally”, the guests are numerous, and Winter slays them all, but some of the albums most rewarding moments are sans superstars, such as the butt-shaking “Killing Floor” featuring Nelson or Johnny’s solo take on Son House’s “Death Letter” which showcases Winter’s facile fingering on steel guitar. It’s just as ferocious and haunting as the original, and shows that Johnny Winter never lost his love for, and prowess with the most elemental roots of the blues.
By the time the record ends with Winter and Dr. John on “Blue Monday”, you know that you’ve been in the hands of the master. While it saddens to think that the blues giant has laid down his guitar, it comforts to know that he left a long and rewarding body of work, work that has few equals. Johnny Winter was the blues, and Step Back proves it, yet again. RIP Johnny.