Johnny Winter dies at 70; dazzling blues guitarist
Johnny Winter, a rail-thin blues guitarist known for his scorching riffs, flowing white hair and gravelly, hard-times voice, died Wednesday in Switzerland at the end of a European tour. He was 70.
His death in a Zurich hotel room was confirmed by John Lappen, his public relations manager. Winter, who had emphysema, was recently diagnosed with pneumonia, Lappen said.
Over the years, Winter had battled drug and alcohol addictions that made him appear prematurely frail. In 2005, he weighed 90 pounds, but with the help of fellow musician Paul Nelson he managed to shake his drug dependencies, gain 60 pounds, and resume a vigorous touring schedule.
“He’s stopped drinking and he’s talking to people and is more accessible,” Nelson told the Jerusalem Post in 2013. “He walks out on the stage unattended now — this is huge! He was sitting down for 15 years.”
Winter performed from time to time with his younger brother Edgar. Both were born with albinism, a disorder that keeps the body from producing the pigments that color the skin, hair and eyes. The condition also leaves albinos with severe vision problems.
In Beaumont, Texas, the brothers’ hometown, it left Johnny feeling isolated and angry. He later said it helped him identify with African American blues musicians, whose music was kept off mainstream radio stations at the time.
“We both had a problem with our skin being the wrong color,” he told author Mary Lou Sullivan in her 2010 biography, “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter.”
In 1988, Winter became the first white musician named to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
More drawn to jazz and rock, Edgar Winter became famous in his own right. Johnny was to have appeared with him on a U.S. tour next month, including an Aug. 22 performance at the City National Grove of Anaheim. However, Johnny’s July 12 show at the Lovely Days festival in Wiesen, Austria, turned out to be his last.
Bruce Conforth, a University of Michigan professor of American culture and a founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said Winter blazed a musical trail by blending down-home blues and progressive playing.
“Johnny was playing this unbelievably fiery guitar, but he was trying to do it within this very traditional context, which was so mind-blowing to most young, white blues aficionados at the time,” Conforth said. “Any [blues artist] who picked up the guitar after 1968 was influenced by Johnny Winter.”
Born in Beaumont on Feb. 23, 1944, John Dawson Winter III grew up comfortably middle class, the son of a cotton broker-turned-building contractor.
He took music lessons and sang in the church choir. At 10 or 11, he was transfixed by what he heard on a black radio station that was a favorite of the family’s maid.
“It was real raw,” he recalled, “completely different than the music my parents and grandparents listened to. I started listenin’ to blues on KJET because I liked what I heard in the kitchen.”
Doing a ukulele act, Johnny and Edgar won a local contest that qualified them to audition in New York for “Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour.” The judges were unimpressed.
As he got older, Winter played clubs around his hometown. After two years at Lamar State College, he quit, heading for Chicago to sing the blues. Within a few months, he was back in Texas, performing at bars and recording on small labels.
Still an unknown, he drew the attention of Rolling Stone, which featured him in a 1968 story on the Texas music scene: “Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard.”
The next year, Columbia Records signed him to a $600,000 contract. That summer, Winter played at Woodstock, but his set was excluded from the epochal Woodstock film; his manager at the time refused to allow it because “he thought we wouldn’t make any money,” Winter later said.
By the late 1970s, Winter had released a string of popular albums combining classic blues and original compositions. A master of lightning-fast finger work, he was named 63rd on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists.
He also produced four albums for his boyhood idol, bluesman Muddy Waters.
With an on-again, off-again career, Winter appeared to be on at the end.
Set for a September release, a new album, “Step Back,” features Winter’s collaborations with legendary guitarists Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Mark Knopfler.
In addition to his brother Edgar, Winter’s survivors include Susan Warford Winter, his wife of 22 years.
Times staffer Haley Goldberg contributed to this story.