For more than 50 years, Johnny Winter made his guitar sing the blues. A lightning fast player mixed with a growling voice, Winter was part of a long lineage of Texas blues guitarists like Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan who simply didn't just play the blues but channeled them as if their fingers were lightning rods.
Winter felt the blues onstage. Tilting his head back, he'd close his eyes and allow his fingers to dance across the fretboard. Acoustic, electric, 12-string, 6-string, he dominated them all with the blues and became a guitar legend by the time he reached his mid-'20s.
Sadly, the "Texas Tornado" died on Wednesday, July 16, in his hotel room in Zurich, according to his publicist. He was 70 years old.
"He was laid back and soft spoken and let his guitar do the talkin'," remembers Clint Birdwell of Bird Records Texas. "He was the first white Texas guitarslinger to hit it big, and man could he play and sing. He loved playing in Dallas and jamming with other blues artists." That list of artists includes Dallas blues legends Bugs Henderson, Anson Funderburgh and Lance Lopez.
Winter wrote a song about Dallas, called "Dallas," and he was a fixture at the Dallas International Guitar Festival.
"He was an amazing guitarist," says Funderburgh. "He not only played the blues--he lived them."
"I am shocked and saddened beyond words that Johnny Winter is now gone," says Lopez. "I have lost my hero, my mentor and one of my best friends."
Born John Dawson Winter III in Beaumont in 1944, he spent his formative years learning to play music on various instruments like the clarinet and the ukulele. That is until he discovered rock 'n' roll and later the blues on the radio when he was 12 years old. "I thought this is great music," he said in an interview at the Blues and Soul Festival in Tokyo, Japan. "I got to learn how to do this." His great grandfather bought him his first guitar. It was a Gibson.
"When you come from a place where there are a lot of great players, it forces you to get good real fast," Winter told Guitar World. "There's a gunfighter tradition in Texas: you gotta be better than the other guy, or else you're finished."
Known as one of the greatest blues guitarslingers to come out of Texas, Winter learned how to play the blues from the original Chicago bluesmen -- B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Sonny Boy Williamson -- and Mississippi Delta bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson and Son House.
"I would learn how to play a record note-for-note," Winter told Don Menn in The Guitar Player Book. "After I kind of got the feel of what was supposed to be going on, I just took what I heard and assimilated it, and I guess it would come out part mine and part everybody else's."
It paid off. In 1968, Rolling Stone writers Larry Sepulvado and John Burks wrote, "If you can imagine a 130-pound, cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you've ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter." His blues was so fluid, so soulful that record labels got into a bidding war and Columbia reportedly paid him one of the biggest advances ever given to a new artist.
In 1969, Winter released his self-titled major-label debut, featuring appearances by blues legends Willie Dixon and Walter Horten and played Woodstock, the first major music and art festival. There were so many people that he had to ride in a helicopter instead of a car because the freeways were closed down. When he arrived, he thought he still had some time before his set, so he used a bag of garbage as a pillow and fell asleep in the press trailer. But it wasn't too long after his arrival when one of the handlers said, "Well, you guys are all here. Nobody else is, so you guys play now." "We woke up real quick," he said.
It was at Woodstock that Winter would meet another guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix, and later record "The Things I Used To Do," an old Guitar Slim song, with the virtuoso at the Record Plant. "I love Jimi's guitar playing," he later recalled. "He was one of the best guitar players I ever heard. I really appreciated what he was doing."
Over the years, Winter would record and produce with other legendary guitarists, including three Grammy Award-winning albums for Muddy Waters. He was also nominated for several Grammy Awards and inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
In September, he planned to release Step Back, an album featuring an all-star cast of music legends such as Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
Since learning the news of Winter's death, fans have been posting old videos of Winter slaying his guitar onstage on YouTube and comments on his Facebook page. "If there's a Rock 'n' Roll heaven," posted one fan, "we're gonna have a hell of a band."