Talkin' Johnny Winter Blues

When I read that blues legend and guitar virtuoso Johnny Winter died July 16, a flutter of goose bumps ran down my arm, although I'd only spent a total of maybe three hours on the phone with the man in my entire life.

For my music column in a southeastern Massachusetts newspaper, I'd interviewed Johnny three times for -- in 2011, 2013, and most recently in January. He'd played a local venue in our readership area every winter for years.

Thinking about him this week, I could hear the sound of his voice on the phone. He had soft voice, almost mumbled, and I'd often have to ask him to repeat himself. He laughed quietly, often at self-depreciating remarks he'd just made, often at lines I didn't hear the first time.

Johnny died July 16 in a Zurich hotel room at the end of a European tour. He was 70. His public relations manager said the blues legend had emphysema was recently diagnosed with pneumonia.
Johnny had also publicaly battled heroin and methadone addictions for decades, and spoke candidly about his struggle -- but he and his manager Paul Nelson, whom Johnny credits with saving his life, had told me he'd been living clean and healthy in recent years.

"The hardest addiction to (beat) was the methadone, which I was on after the heroin," Johnny told me in 2011. "It was my guitarist Paul Nelson who got me off the methadone, which I was on for 25 years. He secretly weaned me off for the past three years without letting me know, and in doing so, most likely saved my life."

Nelson told me a few months ago that he used a technique called "tapering."

"I had to slowly lower his methadone dosage without him knowing, with doctor supervision. If people know they're going off methadone, their minds plays terrible tricks on them. So we lowered the doses, and lowered it, until one day we told him he was off it," he said. "I got him off the methadone, antidepressants, alcohol, even cigarettes. It was killing him."

Ghastly thin and ghostly pale, with long flowing locks of snow-white hair, the name "Winter" almost seemed like a joke-- a tongue-in-cheek stage name for albino guitarist, ripping with the best of them in a genre dominated and perfected by African-Americans.

Voted one of the Top 100 Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone, Johnny produced three Grammy Award-winning albums for Muddy Waters and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988.

His triumphant return to sobriety is the subject of a recently-released documentary, "Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty," directed by Greg Olliver. Olliver shadowed Johnny throughout 2012-13 to make the rock doc that premiered at film fests earlier this year.

"There's a huge difference in his vocals, his overall personality, his guitar playing now that he's sober. You can see (the change) unfold on screen in the documentary," Nelson told me in January.

John Dawson Winter III was born in the winter of 1944, whiter than snow. He and his younger brother, musician Edgar Winter, were born albino.

The Winter boys not only played in the black blues clubs in the deeply segregated town of Beaumont, Texas in the 1950s -- they had fans there.

"It was pretty red-neckish," Johnny told me with a laugh in 2013. "But there was good music around."

In 2011, he said the town "was very segregated but I did well on both sides. My music was accepted by both blacks and whites. Being an albino, I got picked on a lot and had to learn how to defend myself quickly."

The Winter brothers sang and played guitar on a children's show on a local cable access channel in Texas.

Johnny told me in January, "I always loved music, from time I was 6 years old, I was singing. My father played the sax and sang in a barbershop quartet...We were surrounded by pretty good music."

In 1962, Johnny, a skinny teenager with a shock of white hair, pestered the great B.B. King to let him play on stage with him at a black Beaumont club.

King eventually gave in. Johnny eventually got a standing ovation.

"B.B. is great. I love B.B. He's a really nice guy. He was a big influence on me, both his guitar-playing and his singing," Johnny told me in 2013.

His self-titled debut was released on Columbia Records in 1969. He rose to fame in the '70s, known for his high-energy blues-rock albums, and epic live performances featuring his gritty blues and weather-beaten voice.

He played at Woodstock, which, he told me in 2013, "was weird; nobody knew who was going on next. I played and left, so I don't have any memories except that it was rainy and muddy."
He played Bob Dylan's "Highway 61" so well that Dylan called it "Johnny's song."

"I'm a huge Dylan fan. I actually played that song at Madison Square Garden for Dylan's birthday," Johnny told me in 2011. So "that was a great honor to hear that."

Johnny was having something of a resurgence in popularity in just before his death: Gibson Guitars released the signature Johnny Winter Firebird.

Warner Bros. just released a 40th anniversary DVD of "Woodstock: 3 Days of Love and Peace the Director's Cut," featuring Winter playing a smoking "Meantown Blues."

Heck, he even as also just released "Johnny Winter's Downhome Smokin' Barbecue Sauce."
I'm not sure when Olliver's documentary will be released, but when I read Johnny died this week, one quote instantly popped in my head:

When I asked him in January why the documentary is called "Down and Dirty," Johnny told me with a faint, almost sad, laugh: "Because that was my life."

A version of this story first ran in my music column here.