Johny Winter - True To The Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (2014)

Johnny Winter's True To The Blues
Johnny Winter's True To The Blues. Photo courtesy Legacy Recordings

Expectations were high for guitarist Johnny Winter when he signed with Columbia Records in 1969. The buzz created around the albino bluesman by a 1968 Rolling Stone magazine article on the Texas music scene led to a label bidding war and an unprecedented $600,000 advance from Columbia, which hoped that they were scoring the next Jimi Hendrix. Although the rail-thin and whiter-than-white guitarist wasn’t in the same league as the innovative and experimental force of nature that was Jimi, he arguably had just as strong of a blues pedigree. Over the course of a career that has now spanned six tumultuous decades and roughly three-dozen live and studio albums, Winter has proven himself time and time again as a true torch-bearer for the blues.

A skilled fretburner and dynamic vocalist that has always seemed more at home on a stage performing for several thousand friends than working in the studio, Winter’s lengthy career has certainly seen its share of ups and downs. Still, as the guitarist celebrated his 70th birthday in early 2014, Legacy Recordings released True To The Blues, a four-CD box set that (mostly) documents Winter’s entire storied career. The box’s track list is understandably heavy on the material recorded for Sony label subsidiaries like Columbia and Blue Sky, but it touches (albeit briefly) on the guitarist’s acclaimed work for Alligator Records in the 1980s and Point Blank in the 1990s, all of it combining to cement Winter’s status as a true American musical legend.

Johnny Winter’s True To The Blues

True To The Blues opens with a pair of songs from the underrated early Winter LP The Progressive Blues Experiment. Leading a trio that included future Double Trouble bandmember Tommy Shannon on bass and drummer “Uncle” John Turner, the guitarist dirties up a couple of originals with some Delta mud. “Bad Luck and Trouble” sizzles with some slippery National steel guitar licks in an acoustic-blues framework while “Mean Town Blues” is a rockin’, boogie-based stomper with plenty of wiry fretwork and a Mississippi blues vibe. Recorded in 1968 and released before his Columbia Records debut, The Progressive Blues Experiment remains an untapped vein of down ‘n’ dirty blues as only JW could deliver.

A live track from the Fillmore East circa 1968 follows guitarist Michael Bloomfield’s breathless introduction, Winter taking on John Lee Hooker’s “It’s My Own Fault” with serious intensity. Backed by Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper, Winter burns the join to the ground. Getting to the guitarist’s proper debut, True To The Blues picks four numbers from the self-titled 1969 album, best-known of them being “Mean Mistreater,” the guitarist tearing it up with an all-star crew that included blues legend Willie Dixon slapping his acoustic bass and blasts of Walter “Shakey” Horton’s electrifying harp play. It’s as bluesy as the blues can get, although Winter’s take on B.B. King’s “Be Careful With A Fool” comes damn close, the Texan growling up a storm and delivering flurries of melodious notes from his six-string.

Woodstock Festival 1969

The first disc offers only one song from Winter’s historic Woodstock performance in August 1969, but it’s a good one – “Leland Mississippi Blues” – a song that Winter continues to crank out as part of his set list today. With a monster recurring riff swirling around the audience’s head, Winter spanks the plank as Turner bangs the cans and Shannon provides a bass-heavy bottom line. Brother Edgar Winter makes his first appearance here with keyboards that barely register, but overall it’s a loud, chaotic, satisfying performance.

Winter’s sophomore effort, Second Winter is represented by four engaging tunes, my personal fave being the guitarist’s inspired reading of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” his fiery slide-guitar dancing a frenzy atop the Biblically-tinged lyrics. Winter’s original “Hustled Down In Texas” is a fine, often-overlooked entry in the guitarist’s canon, a virtual locomotive of a song with screaming fretwork, driving rhythms, and mile-a-minute vocals that tell of a sordid tale. A couple of live bonus tracks from the 2004 “Legacy Edition” of Second Winter close out the first disc here, the onstage cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” just the first of many performances of that particular song, Winter taking Berry’s spry original version and ramping it up to freeway speeds, his guitar squealing and snorting like a mad bull.

Atlanta Pop Festival

By 1970, after spending a year in the intense heat of the national spotlight, Winter formed a new band with members of the former teen pop band the McCoys, lead by singer and guitarist Rick Derringer, and calling the new outfit Johnny Winter And. It’s here that True To The Blues gets very interesting, disc two leading off with three performances from the Atlanta Pop Festival circa 1970, two of them never released, one released only on an obscure LP and never before on CD. These long-lost gems are worth the wait, “Eyesight To The Blind” provided an explosive performance with Winter’s guitar soaring above the band, Derringer providing a steady melodic foundation, and the rhythm section stomping and stammering like nobody’s business.

Winter’s own “Prodigal Son” is equally impressive, a mid-tempo blues-rock bonfire with flame-thrower fretwork and a laid-back Texas blues ambiance. “Mean Mistreater,” from Winter’s debut album, is given room to stretch out under the blazing Georgia sun, the song’s deliberate pacing and scattershot rhythms punctuated by Winter’s howling vocals and stunning guitarplay. One can only hope that this Atlanta Pop Festival set sees proper release as a stand-alone album sometime in the near future. The material from 1970’s Johnny Winter And studio LP sounds quite staid by comparison, but it’s not without merit, if only for the first of many versions of Derringer’s signature tune “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.” The song’s now-familiar riff was fresh and funky back in ’70, and Winter’s Howlin’ Wolf-styled guttural vocals play nicely off the song’s infectious melody.

Johnny Winter And Live

Better yet are the tracks culled from Johnny Winter And Live, released later in 1970 to take advantage of Winter’s meteoric rise in popularity. The newfound band had a dearth of material but found new tunes to explore nonetheless, the most fetching of these being a bang-up cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Peppered with red-hot git licks, Winter and crew otherwise play the song fairly straight, with new drummer Bobby Caldwell’s bombastic percussion pumping up the jam. Another familiar Winter cover, of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” comes from the Live At The Fillmore East 10/3/70 album, which sadly remained unreleased until 2010. Johnny Winter And tackle the song with reckless aplomb, the guitarist’s stinging licks matched in spirit by the band’s ferocious rhythm attack.

Disc three opens with my favorite period of Winter’s lengthy career, the mid-1970s roots ‘n’ blues albums Still Alive and Well (1973), Saints & Sinners and John Dawson Winter III (both 1974). The first two were produced by Derringer, who had jumped ship to brother Edgar’s band by this time, and all three display Winter’s talents in a wider light, the guitarist incorporating more rock, soul, and country twang into his native Texas blues sound. The Derringer-penned “Still Alive and Well” remains one of Winter’s best ever performances, a tumultuous tornado of blistering guitar, defiant vocals, and pummeling drumbeats courtesy of another new band member, Richard Hughes. A cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Rock Me Baby” is equally energetic, Winter’s stunning slidework simply mesmerizing in its fury, while the original “Rock & Roll” crossing over onto ZZ Top’s turf with a boogie-based rhythm and funky guitar licks.

Saints & Sinners

If Still Alive and Well was Winter’s “comeback” album after battling heroin addiction, Saints & Sinners built upon the previous album’s “twang ‘n’ bang” aesthetic with a glossier studio sheen in an attempt to pump up the guitarist’s radio airplay. Fronting a re-jiggered band line-up that included bassist Hobbs and drummer Hughes, along with new second guitarist Dan Hartman (from Edgar’s band) and brother Edgar on keys and sax, “Hurtin’ So Bad” showcases Winter’s R&B chops, the performance replete with wailing horns (included Randy Brecker’s trumpet). Winter’s elegant fretwork here reminds of B.B. King, but he’s back to his old self by “Bad Luck Situation,” his six-string assaulting the heavens with a lively blues-rocker that suffers from a poor production mix.

While Saints & Sinners would almost enter the Top 40, John Dawson Winter III struggled to hit #78 on the charts, a damn shame considering the quality of tunes like “Self Destructive Blues,” a bubbling, boiling cauldron of supersonic guitars and crashing rhythms that blew away the sleek production gel lathered on Saints & Sinners. “Rock & Roll People” was written specifically for Winter by longtime fan John Lennon, the song a fine mimicry of Texas blues with a strange but delightful British feel that Winter tames into submission with some sweet guitarwork and strident vocals. True To The Blues offers only one song from the frequently-overlooked Together album, recorded live with Edgar in 1975. With Derringer back in the fold and joining all of the other usual suspects in the band, “Harlem Shuffle” provides a soulful lil’ slice of heaven, the song brimming over with engaging rhythms, tasteful guitarplay, and timely blasts of sax.

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The Alligator Records Years

Although Winter’s commercial fortunes waned in the late 1970s as changing musical trends marginalized his blues-based rock ‘n’ roll sound, the guitarist was undeterred in his efforts. Aside from producing a handful of career-topping albums for blues legend Muddy Waters, the guitarist found time to record 1977’s Nothin’ But The Blues album with an all-star assemblage of talents from Waters’ band that included harp player James Cotton, guitarist Bob Margolin, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. One of Winter’s best efforts, there’s nary a bad song on the album highlighted by Waters taking the microphone for his own “Walkin’ Thru The Park.” Delivered in an old-school Chicago blues style, the song’s mid-tempo arrangement barely contains the energy pouring out from the studio, Cotton’s wailing harp matching Winter’s lively fretwork note for note, Winter’s gruff vocals juxtaposed against Waters’ relatively silkier tones.

Although Winter continued to pursue his purist blues muse with albums like 1978’s White, Hot & Blue (what an awful title!) and 1980’s Raisin’ Cain, his days with Sony were clearly coming to a close. Neither album displays much in the way of energy or inspiration, the guitarist going through the motions with mostly rote performances of cover tunes and poorly-written contributions from the band. The six songs offered from the two albums here at the beginning of disc four are nothing to write home about. After a four-year studio hiatus, Winter signed with the esteemed blues label Alligator Records, coming full circle back to the blues of his youth and finding new inspiration for his restless guitar. His debut for the label, 1984’s Guitar Slinger, is represented by a lone entry, but “Don’t Take Advantage Of Me” displays more engaged vocals, brighter guitar, and a more authentic, bluesier tone than Winter had shown in years.

Third Degree & Beyond

Serious Business (1985) was Winter’s second LP for Alligator, and while “Master Mechanic” is nowhere near the strongest song from that set, it’s a red-hot poker nonetheless. Winter’s fluid guitar licks scream across the grooves, a rudimentary shuffling percussion supporting the singer’s leering vocal performance. Third Degree (1986) was Winter’s final album for Alligator, and arguably his best, this cover of J.B. Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie” firing up the grill for a good, old-fashioned Texas-styled string-pull. Winter’s greasy slide-work is perfectly suited for this sort of jam, the band delivering a relentless groove beneath Winter’s half-spoken, half-sung but entirely soulful vox.

From here, True To The Blues runs through the next quarter-century of Winter’s career in a mere six songs, an egregious oversight in my mind...I would have cut the six less-than-stellar songs from the beginning of this fourth disc down to three or four and back-loaded tracks from Winter’s MCA and Point Blank albums like the Terry Manning-produced The Winter of ’88 or 2004’s I’m A Bluesman. Still, we get the roaring “Illustrated Man” from 1991’s Let Me In, a fine late-career moment that fairly leaps off the turntable, and the funky, syncopated “Hard Way,” from 1992’s Hey, Where’s Your Brother? The set concludes with a pair of songs from 2010’s Roots, Winter’s version of Robert Johnson’s classic “Dust My Broom” spiced up with Derek Trucks’ fiery licks matching Winter’s lively slidework with no little glee.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

It’s always difficult to critically judge a career-spanning box set such as Johnny Winter’s True To The Blues. The hardcore faithful already owns much – if not all – of the music on the collection’s four discs and, save for the previously unreleased Atlanta Pop Festival material, there’s little among the set’s 50+ tracks that provides fresh insight into the artist’s work. True To The Blues nevertheless offers up a fine selection of performances that may interest any newcomer or casual fan to further explore a catalog of uniform consistency and entertainment value that spans some six decades.

Honestly, Winter’s legacy was writ permanently in stone years ago, and True To The Blues only codifies what many of us already knew – JW is one bad mammer-jammer of a blues-rock guitarist. Although he’s not the most innovative of instrumentalists, he has his moments, and while Winter’s songwriting often results in uninspired lyrics, the passion and fire he brings to his performances is unparalleled by talented contemporaries like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Warren Haynes. Winter’s influence has reverberated across the blues and blues-rock world like a tsunami over the decades, though, and True To The Blues does an admirable job of trying to catch some of that Texas lightning in a bottle. (Legacy Recordings, released February 25, 2014)

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