NEW YORK: A Bluer Shade Of Pale - by J. Blake

Posted on 6/09/2009 by J. Blake

He was born John Dawson Winter III on February 23, 1944 in Beaumont, Texas, but the world knows him as a guitarist named Johnny, who throughout his now 40+ year career as a recording artist, has proven time and time again that even the “whitest” of white guys can play the Blues. He was born cross-eyed and albino and as a boy dreamt that one day he would play alongside Muddy Waters. His career in music began at the age of 11 when he and his younger brother Edgar played as an Everly Brothers-style duo. His first official band, The Jammers (also featuring Edgar), scored a Houston record deal when he was just 15 years-old and the pale gangling guitarist has never looked back.

Throughout the late 1960’s and 70’s his popularity grew as he received critical acclaim from publications like Rolling Stone Magazine and the respect of the premiere Blues/Rock virtuosos of the day. With the advent of “previously unreleased” live material being made available on CD, fans can now hear Winter playing alongside everyone from Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield at the Fillmore East on 12/13/68 to The Allman Brothers Band live at the Atlantic International Pop Festival on 7/5/70.

As a solo artist Johnny Winter has had a long and impressive career. He has performed at many landmark music events, including the Toronto Pop Festival in 1969, as well as the original Woodstock (also in 1969) and to date has (according to officially released 39 albums including the now iconic LIVE! JOHNNY WINTER AND (1971) and STILL ALIVE AND WELL (1973). The late 1970’s found Winter fulfilling his boyhood dream as he not only performed on, but also produced Muddy Waters’ (fan favorite) final three studio albums.

Sadly it seems that these days he is not doing well, having to be helped to a chair on stage in order to perform. In the words of Howlin’ Wolf his “health is failing and he’s going down slow”, but he keeps trucking along with a jam-packed touring schedule, performing all over the country almost nightly…and unfortunately often leaving his audiences unsatisfied with extremely short sets and often less than inspired guitar playing. Though I personally have not seen a solo Johnny Winter show in quite sometime, I can vouch that when he sat in with The Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater in NYC on 3/10/09, he seemed to be completely oblivious of the surrounding band and frequently played out of key. With that said he is an American Blues treasure who unfortunately, like most of our living Blues icons, is way past his prime.

On an anecdotal note, I can still remember purchasing my first Johnny Winter CD. I was in college, a blues lover and an aspiring guitarist. At the time many of my friends were into Progressive Rock bands like E.L.P. and Yes and I was at the beginning of a long lasting love affair with an Italian Prog. Band called Goblin. In what I thought was a stroke of genius I decided I was going to form a “Progressive Blues Band”, but the problem was that I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Then one day I was flipping through the Blues CD section at Borders and stumbled on to an album titled THE PROGRESSIVE BLUES EXPERIMENT by Johnny Winter. Deciding that my coming across this CD was obviously a sign of fate, I purchased it. Of course at the time I knew who Johnny Winter was and had even heard his music before, but I didn’t own any of his work and was extremely excited by the notion of finally finding out what a “Progressive Blues Band” would sound like. So I hurried back to my dorm room and slid the disc into my roommate’s CD player. I have to admit that upon my first listen, I was disappointed with the album. I was hoping for something “new”, something that took Blues to places I never heard it go before, something that fused styles and pushed the Blues’ technical and compositional boundaries while still remaining anchored in the roots music of artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I instead found myself listening to what I considered to be a very good, but pretty standard Blues CD. I now realize that the most "progressive" that the Blues ever got was probably with albums like ELECTRIC MUD and THE HOWLIN' WOLF ALBUM (which I wrote about in detail last week) or possibly with Blues-based Rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath who are now considered the forerunners of Heavy Metal.

Though I still do not understand the title THE PROGRESSIVE BLUES EXPERIMENT and to this day find it misleading, I have come to love this album. It is an amazing collection of Winter originals and classic Blues standards. His voice could never compare to Blues icons like Muddy Waters and Freddie King, but on this album his vocals are passionate and his playing is driven, inspired and at times even breathtaking. For a guy without a drop of pigment in his skin, in his prime he could certainly play the Blues with the best of them and though he is now only a shell of his former self, we as Blues fans are lucky to still have the opportunity to see him play live and will always be fortunate have a legacy of amazing albums, like THE PROGRESSIVE BLUES EXPERIMENT, to turn to in a time of need.

Keep Rockin',
J. Blake

Check out some NYC Blues with J. Blake & The Earthquake at: or as well as on Facebook.


The whole album is great, but standout tracks include Tribute To Muddy, Help Me, Black Cat Bone & It's My Own Fault.

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

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