This is an interview I did with Johnny when he played in London back in the early 1990s.
It was originally published in Guitarist magazine.
“You had to be able to play a lot of different things in the clubs or you’d get killed! You had to play Cajun music - the French Cajun two-steps - and in parts of Texas there was a lot of Mexican music, and of course there was the Louisiana and New Orleans stuff as well as jazz and country. You can’t get away from country.”
Visions of The Blues Brothers’ rendition of Rawhide apart, this experience of running the gauntlet of various Texan styles seems to have benefited Johnny…
“All that stuff just kinda blends into blues, but it is real hard to compare someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson to Albert Collins. Then there’s people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker; there’s a lot of difference in the Texas musicians. It’s real hard to listen to someone and say, ‘Oh yeah, this guy’s definitely playin’ Texas music.’ But there are just so many different styles of music involved; you don’t know what you’re going to get with a Texas musician. But it’s usually going to be a pretty well-rounded thing. I think that’s probably the one thing: Texas music has just got more variety to it than the Delta stuff or Chicago or New Orleans. But it sure was a great place to grow up - you heard all kinds of stuff on the radio…”
Johnny Winter was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944 and began playing clarinet five years later. Before long he had switched to ukulele, and graduated from there to guitar at the age of eleven. His first group was a vocal duo with brother Edgar, very much in the Everly Brothers tradition. By the time he’d reached his teens, Johnny had been exposed to rock’n’roll…
“That was the most exciting time! I was about 15; I made my first record and I started playing in night clubs and I had my first drink. It was a real exciting year; all the stuff was brand new and you could be driving to the gig and hear your record on the radio. I was just a little kid, living at home and going to school - 15, but boy it was real exciting. You’re out there playing for people, you’ve got girls chasin’ you and stuff... Now that was real nice!
“The first CBS record, ‘Johnny Winter’, is one of my favourites. ‘Progressive Blues Experiment’ was another. I made a record with Sonny Terry, called ‘Whoopin’, that I also like a lot. There are a few others, but those records are the ones I enjoyed the most.”
Do you still enjoy playing live?
“Oh yeah! To me that is the most enjoyable thing: playing and having an audience involved in it. Making records is a lot of fun, too, because you know that you have it there forever, and after you’re dead, hopefully, people are still listening to it. That’s nice, but you still don’t know what people think of it until you put it out. So it’s just not quite the same as playing for people, so I guess that is my first love.”
Do you still enjoy the travelling?
“Probably not as much as I did when I was a kid; the travelling part is hard. I guess what I would really like is if I could get my own club and have everyone come to where I was. It’s still interesting, but not like those first few times outside the States when I’d go sightseeing - y’know, checking everything out. Now I’ve been most places it’s just like going to work and doing your gig. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re in Philadelphia or in London or California or wherever; crowds don’t really change that much.”
Do you think your style has changed much through the years?
“Yeah, I think so. Not a lot, but I keep changing. Hopefully I also keep progressing, or really there’s no reason to keep going. In fact I’ll change with the last record that I heard; if I hear someone I really like on a record, or even at a gig before I play, then the chances are I’ll be playing some of his licks. I’ve gotta be real careful about listening to tapes before I go out there, so I don’t put on something too far out.”
Another aspect of Johnny’s playing is his slide work. Who were his early influences in this quarter?
“Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Son House were the first people that I really heard. When the ‘Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues’ album came out, that was one of the main things that made me want to play slide. Early Muddy Waters stuff: his stuff was the first slide that I heard and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if someone was playing steel guitar; it sounded like they were fretting the guitar and slidin’. I’d never heard anything like that before.
“Eventually, just from listening to albums you could tell what tunings they were using, because a lot of them weren’t using a regular tuning, most of them would tune to a particular chord. There are so many good people now, but back then they were definitely the big three - although of course Elmore James was in there too.”
Your own slide guitar style is pretty unique; do you use glass or metal slides? “I use a metal slide. It’s a piece of pipe that I got at a plumbing supply place; I bought a twelve foot piece of pipe and had it cut into pieces a little over an inch long. Even today I still can’t find one in a music store which fits my finger. I use it on my little finger. When I first started playing, there wasn’t anything like that in the stores. I tried a lot of things, like test tubes and lipstick holders and medicine bottles; I used the crystal in my wristwatch - all kinds of things. Then a guy in Denver called up and told me that I should go to a plumbing supply place and try a piece of pipe, because that way you can find one that fits your finger, and I’ve been using the same slide ever since 1967, I believe.”
Have you ever tried the traditional approach of snapping off a bottle’s neck?
“Yeah, I’ve tried a few bottles. They were always a little bit big and I just liked the metal a little bit better. I just think you can get more sustain that way. But I love the way Ry Cooder sounds, y’know; he uses bottles and just has a great sound.”
During the late seventies, Johnny collaborated with and produced albums for the legendary Muddy Waters, and in so doing was almost single-handedly responsible for the great bluesman’s comeback. What are his most outstanding memories of Muddy?
“Just all real good memories. Muddy was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and yet you wouldn’t guess that he would be such a sweet guy. His records were so earthy and you can’t imagine such a nice guy singing all this nasty music!
“But a lot of times Muddy used to say, ‘You should have seen me when I was young, I was a real hell raiser!’ I’m sure he was, but the last few years when I knew him he’d gotten a lot of respect from people and he wasn’t having to struggle any more, and I think he knew the people loved him and he liked that. He was real glad that he was getting some acceptance. I didn’t see any of that crazy side that he always told me was there. I was told stories about him and I know that he was pretty much a hell raiser, but when I knew him he was just a really nice guy. He was also a very firm bandleader; he didn’t take any shit. If he didn’t like something, he’d let the musicians know exactly what he wanted or expected from them. But he was real good at being nice and diplomatic at the same time. He didn’t have to scream at people to get his way; he just told them and he knew that they knew they had better do it that way or there was gonna be trouble!”
You played with John Lee Hooker, too. Would you say there was a marked difference between him and Muddy?
“Yeah. Although they were both Mississippi bluesmen, with John Lee you’d never know when he was gonna change chords. He’d sing until he got tired and he’d start playing guitar and then he’d do that until he got tired and then he’d sing again. It wouldn’t be what you might think of as being in time, and so you really had to listen and be real careful, because John Lee was gonna play his stuff and you better fit into it because he wasn’t gonna fit in with you! But I was real familiar with his records and so I knew it was gonna be that way; in fact it was really kinda fun to have to take a guess at when he was gonna change. But their music was really deep blues, Mississippi Delta stuff, and so the feeling was the same, although they went about it differently... They both had real distinctive styles.”
Johnny’s albums are a mix of blues standards seasoned with few of his own tunes. I wonder if he prefers arranging songs to writing them…
“Yeah, I do. But also I just don’t like the songs I write as much, usually. I just have a hard time writing songs; it’s just not what I do real well. If I felt like I could write enough songs for a record that were good, I would, but it’s not where my real talent is. I wish I was a better songwriter.”
Throughout your career you have veered away from the blues into other areas. Are there any areas that you still want to explore, outside the blues framework?
“Well, of course, I’ve played some rock‘n’roll - stuff like that. The only other thing that I’ve thought I might do one day is do a country album. I’ve grown up hating and loving country music, too; sometimes you just didn’t want it to be there ‘cos it was the only thing you’d hear on the radio in Texas, before rock‘n’roll. But I think I could make a good country record. Someday, if ever I found the right producer and a label was interested, I’d like to give that a shot.”
Is there anybody around now that you would like to play with, having had so many and varied collaborators in the past?
“Man, I’m sure there are...” he says, thoughtfully “But most of the people I’ve either played with already or they’re dead now. I’m always on the lookout for the guys who are around. I guess the fifties was my favourite period for the blues and so the guys that were making records - most of the Chicago people who were playing in the fifties and who are still around - are the ones that I am always interested in playing with.”