Blues musician Johnny Winter dies at age 70


Johnny Winter performing on stage, barechested. (Fin Costello/Redferns)
July 17

Johnny Winter, an American bluesman known for his ­lightning-fast guitar riffs and his collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and his childhood hero, Muddy Waters, died July 16 in a hotel room in Zurich. He was 70.

His representative, Carla Parisi, confirmed the death. There was no immediate word on the cause.

Mr. Winter had been on an extensive tour that recently brought him to Europe. His last performance came July 12 at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria.

The tour; a documentary exploring his music, youth and substance abuse battles that premiered at the SXSW Festival; and a newly released four-CD set of recordings were all part of a revival of Mr. Winter’s career in his 70th year.

Mr. Winter, instantly recognizable because of his striking long, white hair, was a leading light among the white blues guitar players, including Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who followed in the footsteps of the earlier Chicago blues masters. Rolling Stone magazine named Mr. Winter one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.

Mr. Winter idolized Waters — and got a chance to produce some of the blues legend’s more popular albums.

John Dawson Winter III was born Feb. 23, 1944, in Mississippi, but was raised in Beaumont, Tex. He was the older brother of Edgar Winter, also an albino, who rose to musical fame with the Edgar Winter Group.

Johnny Winter was one of the most popular live acts of the early 1970s, when his signature fast blues guitar solos attracted a wide following. But his addiction to heroin during that decade and later battles with alcohol and prescription medication, including methadone, also drew attention.

His career received a boost early on when Rolling Stone singled him out as one of the best blues guitarists on the Texas scene. That helped secure a substantial recording contract from Columbia Records in 1969, which in turn led to an appearance at the Woodstock music festival and gave him a wide following among college students and young blues fans.

Music writer Fred Schruers said Mr. Winter played a major role in introducing the blues to a new audience.

“The real legacy of Johnny Winter is that he brought the blues to an audience in tie-dye that might otherwise have neglected the entire genre — and his timely work producing Muddy Waters only deepened that contribution,” Schruers said.

Crowds were dazzled by the speed — and volume — of Mr. Winter’s guitar playing, which had its roots in urban blues but incorporated elements of rock-and-roll.

He paid homage to Waters with “Tribute to Muddy,” a song from his 1969 release “The Progressive Blues Experiment.” Mr. Winter continued to pick up accolades, producing three Grammy Award-winning albums for Waters and recording with another older blues legend, John Lee Hooker.

Mr. Winter performed often with blues and rock singer Janis Joplin, and the two became close during the 1960s.

Among the blues classics that Mr. Winter played during that era were “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl.” In 1976, he teamed up with his brother Edgar for a live album, “Together.”

Johnny Winter was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988. A list of survivors was unavailable.

“To me, the blues has more emotion in it than any other music I’ve ever heard,” Mr. Winter told Guitar World. “You can tell that the people that sing and play the blues mean what they are saying.”

— Associated Press

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