JOHNNY, MUDDY & STAYING TRUE TO THE VISION
It would be stating the obvious that modern Texas Blues would not be the same without the guitar and voice of Johnny Winter. In fact, it would not be overstating the case at all to suggest that modern Texas Blues might not even exist without the genius of Johnny Winter. Winter was that vital link between the electric blues of T. Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the two Kings, Freddie and Albert, and the coming electric scene of Z.Z. Top, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Break that link, and Texas Blues is an entirely different animal, different scene.
Like Peter Green, his major contribution was in his own unique style and tone and staying true to his own vision, no matter what the cost commercially. Unlike Peter Green, he was able to overcome his own demons while forging a career that will certainly put him alongside Green in The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
But perhaps his greatest contribution to the blues was…
He gave us back Muddy.
I came upon Johnny Winter the classic way most of us did when it came to the blues; by listening to somebody else. In this case, through his brother, Edgar. Maybe not as extreme as discovering Muddy Waters through Foghat, but just as exciting to a young teenager.
In the spring of 1973, I shared a bedroom with one of my older brothers, and my Mom had just bought us a radio for our shared nightstand. I think this was to help stop me from driving my brother crazy by singing myself to sleep every night. Thus ended the burgeoning career of a young singing superstar. Then again, it also began a love affair with all the voices that played us those records on air.
I vividly remember the night this crazy deep instrumental rocked out of that tinny little speaker. A sound that literally made both of us sit up and say “What the heck was that?”. We had never heard anything like that before. A classic example of FM on AM.
“That” was Frankenstein by The Edgar Winter Group and while Johnny wasn’t a part of that particular album and project, further research would have his name enter my universe as this crazy blues cat on guitar.
Later, when I became a disciple and groupie of the entire Woodstock Era, his named returned to me. Here was playing without the often annoying and irritating special effects, the foot pedals and distortion that was often more sound but actually less guitar. This was electric purity. The cost to Winter would be in unsold records and the acclaim that others would garner by force feeding blues into their own rock. Winter was unmoved. His sound would always be true blues rock… heavy, and driving, and with all that amazing tone over top.
Like so many other bluesmen, white and black, Winter was constantly pressured into being something he wasn’t. Columbia Records signed him to a massive advance and promptly tried to sell him as the next Jimi Hendrix. It could never work. Hendrix was a genius who used blues as a jumping off point to so many other sounds. Winter was a genius who saw no jumping off point needed. He drew on the classic Texas blues tradition and pushed it forward. Light years forward. But, It wouldn’t be until SRV that record executives realized the potential in this sound all by itself, no artificial sweeteners added.
This made his pairing with Muddy Waters feel so natural. After his initial epic sides with Chess Records, the label spent the better part of two decades chasing scenes that made Muddy sound like anything BUT Muddy. Folk, psychedelia, Rocker, anything to force feed Waters to a young audience. The results were, at best mixed, and at worst, disastrous. In this environment, Winter had a kindred spirit.
Thus, in 1977, Winter gave perhaps his biggest contribution to the blues world and basically to the music world in general. He put Muddy in a studio, sat in a producer’s chair, and did something truly revolutionary:
He let Muddy be Muddy.
The result, “Hard Candy”, did what Chess Records was never able to accomplish: introduce Waters to a new audience while bringing him back into the mainstream of the sound that Muddy created in the first place. Raw, electric, driving… epic.
New and Old fans rejoiced.
Grammy Awards, recognition and the second phase of Muddy’s career burst on the scene. Recognition of Winter also followed, with his own Grammy nominated albums, and election into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988. That he is not in The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame is a crime that needs attention. While there, attention also needs to be paid to another pioneer who stayed true to his sound and pushed it forward: Delaney Bramlett.
Johnny Winter’s love of his craft stayed with him throughout the rest of his life. Listen to his post-humous release “Step Back” and you hear an artist still vital, still energized. Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa and Billy Gibbons aren’t on board as crutches to simply help him along and sell albums. They are there as equals, working with a guitarist on par with any of the electric axemen that have come before or since.
Johnny Winter’s greatness did not come in spite of his devotion to sticking to his vision. It came because of it. A blues pioneer with a lesson for all that will come after him. To thine own self be true.
Do The Do.