Legendary Blues Guitarist Johnny Winter Dead at 70

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Submitted by Cashbox Canada

John Dawson Winter III, the guitarist, songwriter and producer has passed away on July 16, 2014 at the age of 70.

Son of John and Edwina,Winter was born in Leland, Mississippi, but the family moved to Beaumont, Texas, while he was still an infant. Both Johnny and his younger brother Edgar were born with albinism. The pair began playing music before they went to school, Johnny initially trying the clarinet before switching to the ukulele and guitar while Edgar played keyboards. In 1959 the Winter Brothers, already known from local talent and TV shows, cut the singles School Day Blues and You Know I Love You for the Houston label Dart Records. In 1962 Johnny formed Johnny and the Jammers, with Edgar on keyboards. In the early 60s Johnny recorded numerous singles for such local labels as Frolic, Diamond and Goldband, and scored a local hit with Eternally, distributed by Atlantic. Between 1965 and 1967 he played regularly across the deep south with Black Plague (featuring Edgar) and his own band It and Them (also known as The Crystaliers). In 1966 Johnny hit the Billboard Hot 100 with a version of Harlem Shuffle, which he recorded with the Traits.

Winter was a regional star in the US south, but major success came knocking in the wake of a 1968 article in Rolling Stone magazine about the Texas music scene. He was then playing with his own trio, completed by the drummer Red Turner and the bassist Tommy Shannon, which had recently recorded the album The Progressive Blues Experiment on Austin's Sonobeat label. Winter was written up alongside names such as Janis Joplin, Steve Miller and the Sir Douglas Quintet, and was memorably described as "a 130 lb cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard".

Winter found himself pursued by the New York club owner Steve Paul, who had read the article and launched a campaign to become Winter's manager (which he eventually did). Paul set up a bidding contest between record companies that was won by Columbia, resulting in the debut album Johnny Winter (1969) reaching 23 on the charts. The follow-up, Second Winter, appeared in November 1969 and reached 55, but Winter's progress was being impeded by a stream of reissues of his older recordings on various labels. The Progressive Blues Experiment had reappeared just before his Columbia debut, and further non-Columbia releases included The Johnny Winter Story, First Winter and About Blues.

The story of the blues and rock guitarist Johnny Winter a complicated and colourful one. A  natural born talent hailing from Texas, Winter was signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1969 for $600,000, what was considered an unheard amount at the time for a solo artist. He released his first Columbia album in April 1969, and in August that year he appeared in the midst of the rock 'n' roll history  at the legendary Woodstock Festival.

But Johnny Winter was unhappy with the the way his record company was promoting him, trying to pigeon hole him to be like Jimi Hendrix or Cream when what he really wanted to do was play real country blues in his own unique style "I loved Jimi and I loved Cream, but I wasn't trying to compete."

For several years Winter worked with various trying out different musical styles. In the early 1970’s he was in deep drug addiction and ended up in the hospital. After nine months of treatment for heroin addiction in the River Oaks hospital in New Orleans. When he was released he was more focused and knew the sound he was looking for. It was when the blues veteran Muddy Waters asked Winter to produce his comeback album, Hard Again (1977), that Winter felt he had finally come home to his blues roots, after several years of playing a flashy rock-blues mixture to arena-sized crowds. The album won a Grammy for best blues album, and when Winter produced Waters' follow-up, I'm Ready, it won another. Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live (1979) completed the Grammy hat-trick. "The high point of my career was working with Muddy," Winter reflected.

Winter continued to record through the last few decades but he then suffered a period of decline, under the management of Teddy Slatus, who apparently exploited his continuing drug abuse while wreaking havoc with his finances. He bounced back with I'm a Bluesman (2004), earning another Grammy nomination. He then devoted himself to issuing the Live Bootleg Series, collections of archival concert recordings, which reached Volume 10. In 2011 he was back on his erstwhile label Sonobeat for Roots. A new disc, Step Back, featuring a host of guest guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer, Joe Perry and Billy Gibbons, was scheduled for release later this year.

"I always knew, even when I was a little kid, that I had more musical talent than most people," Johnny said. "But I was willing to be a musician without being a star and still am. Because my music is more important, in the end, than any rewards that might come from it."

Winter is survived by his wife, Susan, and brother Edgar Winter.