Johnny Winter

by Greg Prato

With the arrival of a career-spanning boxed set (True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story) and a documentary (Down & Dirty), Johnny Winter is experiencing a well-deserved career renaissance.

There are few living blues rockers who are as authentic as Johnny Winter. After all, it was a certain silver-haired guitarist that rocked the original Woodstock festival, issued a string of classic albums during the late '60s and early '70s (Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter And, Still Alive and Well among them), and produced several acclaimed albums for blues legend Muddy Waters during the late '70s and early '80s (Hard Again, I'm Ready, the Grammy-winning Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live, and King Bee).

A man of few words (as you'll soon discover in the chat below), Winter discussed working with Waters, songwriting, and the current state of the blues.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about True to the Blues. How did the idea come up to do a career boxed set right now?

Johnny Winter: Sony's idea to do it for my 70th birthday.

Songfacts: Did you get a chance to go back and check it out at all or did you leave it entirely up to Sony?

Johnny: They just told me what they put on it. I like everything that they did, so, fine. They had control over it. I didn't.

Songfacts: It's been a few years since your book came out, Raising Cain. What are your thoughts on that book now that a few years have passed since it's come out?

Johnny: I love the book. I thought it turned out really well.

Songfacts: Going back and thinking about your life and also telling those stories, would you say that there were some stories and situations that came back that you might have forgotten about over the years?

Johnny: Yeah. Some of them did.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some modern day blues players that you enjoy the most?

Johnny: Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks are my two favorites.

Songfacts: They just announced that this is the last year that they're going to be playing with the Allman Brothers.

Johnny: Yeah. I saw that. Weird, both of them quitting at the same time. That's going to hurt the Allmans. I don't know whether they'll ever find two guitar players that good. I don't think they will.

Songfacts: I was pretty surprised by that announcement. Because I thought that they sounded really great in that band.

Johnny: They're excellent together.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Johnny: Bob Dylan's my favorite. Maybe the best songwriter.

Songfacts: What is it about his songwriting that you would that you enjoy the most? Would you say it's pretty much his lyric writing?

Johnny: Oh, yeah, definitely. He writes great lyrics. Sometimes he don't even know what he's writing about. Some girl asked him, "Do you know what your songs are about?" He said, "Some are about 5 minutes, some are about 10." [Laughing] I love that. He didn't know what they were about! "Some are about 5, some are about 10."

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song on an instrument other than the guitar?

Johnny: No, no. I always write the lyrics first and then put the music to it.

Songfacts: Looking back, what would you say are some memories of when you worked on those three classic albums with Muddy Waters back in the late '70s?

Johnny: I loved doing those. I had a great time getting to know Muddy.

Songfacts: Are there any standout memories looking back about working with Muddy during that time?

Johnny: I loved every second of it. Muddy said, "This music is so good it makes my peepee hard again." That's the reason he named the first album Hard Again. [Laughing].

Songfacts: During that time, did you ever get an opportunity to talk about current rock music with him?

Johnny: No, we didn't talk about rock music at all.

Songfacts: Who would you say were some of Muddy's favorite blues artists?

Johnny: Son House was his favorite I think, he liked Robert Johnson. Son House I think really got him into playing.

Songfacts: Your song "I'm Yours and I'm Hers." What do you remember about the writing of that?

Johnny: I don't remember exactly when I wrote that. Right before we recorded it, I think, in '69. I don't really remember a whole lot about writing that.

Songfacts: What about the song "Guess I'll Go Away" from the Johnny Winter And album?

Johnny: Oh, yeah. I remember writing that one.

Songfacts: What would you say are some standout memories of writing that one?

Johnny: I don't really remember too much about it. I just remember doing it. I don't really remember too much about when I did it. I know I did it right before the record came out.

Songfacts: Were you able to realize at the time that you were recording those albums in the last of the '60s and also early '70s that those albums were special and that they were going to one day go on to be considered classics?

Johnny: Oh, I thought they were special. Yeah, I definitely did.

Songfacts: Would you say it was a mixture because the quality of the songs and also the performances of the people in the band?

Johnny: Oh, they just sounded good to me when I heard them back. I heard some very good stuff.

Songfacts: Something that I've always thought was great about your albums and also especially when you compare it to what popular music sounds like now is I've always loved the raw sound of your albums and the kind of direct sound where it sounds like it's a live band and the band playing.

Johnny: Yeah.

Songfacts: I think that that's probably what I think makes those albums so special, especially when you listen to popular rock music now where it sounds so clean and sterilized a little bit.

Johnny: I hate that.

Songfacts: Me, too. I would say that probably amongst two of my favorite songs that you recorded were two songs written by Rick Derringer on the Still Alive and Well album, which is the title track, and I've also always loved the song "Cheap Tequila." What were your first impressions when you first heard those songs and did you realize that those were going to be pretty special songs, as well?

Johnny: I just liked them a lot. I thought he did a good job. Rick's a good writer.

Songfacts: I would say that "Cheap Tequila" is probably one of your best ballad-type songs.

Johnny: Yeah.

Songfacts: And then does anything stick out about the writing and recording of the song "Bad Luck Situation"? Because that's also a great song that I've always liked.

Johnny: I don't remember much about writing that one. I don't remember if I did it, I don't remember writing it.

Songfacts: Looking back, what would you say is your favorite album from a songwriting standpoint?

Johnny: My favorite album was my first one on Columbia, Johnny Winter. That was the first album I really got to do things the way I wanted to do them.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on the Still Alive and Well album?

Johnny: That's one of my favorites, too. I really like that one as well.

Songfacts: That's probably my favorite album of yours, as well. Did you ever hear the Smashing Pumpkins' tribute to you, a song which is called "Tribute to Johnny," and if so, what did you think of that song?

Johnny: Yeah, I have heard it. It's just jamming. They're just jamming. It doesn't sound like me at all.

Songfacts: Did you know beforehand Billy Corgan was a big fan of yours?

Johnny: Yeah.

Songfacts: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Billy and also talk to him about music and also guitar playing?

Johnny: No.

Songfacts: Okay. The last question I have is what do you think of the current state of blues music, and do you see it thriving also in the future?

Johnny: It's nothing like it was. It's not near as good. There's no people like Muddy and Howlin' Wolf around anymore.

Songfacts: Like I was saying before, I think a problem with the majority of current music is it's kind of like people aren't putting their own personal stamp on it. It's all sounding kind of the same, you could say.

Johnny: Yeah, exactly. You got that correct.

Songfacts: I agree. Like we were saying before, would you like to see the sound of music at a little more raw and also real again?

Johnny: It needs to get rawer.

June 3, 2014.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Patrick Mcadam from Renton , Dunbartonshire Scotland The great bluesman 's music will live on .R I P sir
  • Jeremy from Chicago,ilJohnny, as I write this, you are no longer STILL ALIVE AND WELL, so let me take this time to thank you for the great raw sound of music you gave us. Hopefully, the new Blues artists will pick up on this legacy and carry on. Thank you, Johnny.
    Hope you and Muddy and Howlin' Wolf will be jammin' together in Blues Heaven. R.I.P.
  • Reg from Kemptville, OnR.I.P. Johnny. May God have mercy on your soul. Thank you for the great music!
see more comments

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