Guitar legend Johnny Winter on his blues legacy
Paul Nelson’s Master Guitar Class
Johnny Winter’s manager and bandmate Paul Nelson (and Winter’s band, minus Johnny) will conduct a one-hour class on blues, rock, scales, chords and theory from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Lawrence Arts Center. Class is limited to 35 guests, and attendees must bring their own guitars. Tuition is $40. Enroll online at lawrenceartscenter.org
At age 70, reflecting on a 45-year-long successful music career, blues guitarist Johnny Winter is not shy to share his secret to climbing the ranks in the industry and establishing himself as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
“You live long enough, you might just get that status,” Winter says laughing.
That’s not all there is to it. Born in Beaumont, Texas, Winter remembers falling in love with blues after hearing it on the radio when he was 12.
“It had more emotion and more feeling than any other music I’d ever heard,” Winter says.
He and his brother Edgar started playing Everly Brothers songs on the ukulele when Winter was 6 years old. Not wasting any time, he began recording at age 15. The guitar came naturally to him, but as he took in as much Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and B.B. King as he could, he kept his fingers at work mastering the instrument. The key to being a good musician, he says, is to practice, practice, practice.
“You just got to work at it,” Winter says. “I practiced six to eight hours [a day] when I first started.”
Now he just gets on stage and feels out the music like he’s been doing it for 55 years.
“I don’t practice at all anymore,” Winter says definitively.
Winter is stopping in Lawrence for the Free State Festival documentary screening of “Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; a free outdoor concert put on by the legendary musician and his backing band will follow the film.
The documentary, which premiered this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, recounts the Texan blues man’s life through archival clips and new footage, from his head-turning set at Woodstock shortly after Rolling Stone declared him “The Next Hendrix” to his personal battle with a drug addiction that left him near death before finally kicking the heroin habit.
It’s an intimate look at the ups and downs of Winter’s career that serves as a reminder of the legacy he forged in the blues business.
A story about Texas music in Rolling Stone in 1968 ignited a bidding war among record labels for his remarkable talent, and he ended up signing with Columbia Records the next year. Since his self-titled debut, Winter has recorded almost 40 classic rock and blues albums.
He ended up working with his first music hero Muddy Waters on his comeback in the ’70s, producing four albums for the legend, three of which won Grammys. Waters affectionately referred to Winter as his son, declaring him as one of the greatest blues players he’d ever seen.
“Well I loved [Waters’] music since I was a teenager,” Winter says. “He just made the best blues records that anyone had ever made, I thought.”
His latest effort, “Roots,” is a traditional blues cover record, made at the suggestion of Paul Nelson, Winter’s bandmate (guitarist), manager and producer of this album and forthcoming effort.
It took only 15 minutes, Winter says, to select the songs that had greatly inspired him when he first started listening to blues. Special guests appear on each track with Winter, including Derek Trucks, John Popper from Blues Traveler, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, Vince Gill and Susan Tedeschi. His next album “Step Back” will be a continuation of the roots-inspired series; the plan is to record four total, and to stay on the road to support the albums.
“I could keep doing that forever,” Winter says enthusiastically about reinventing his idols’ works.
Winter is well-known for his unwavering confidence, sneaking into a Texas club at age 17 to see B.B. King play, and convincing King to let him onstage to jam. Not one for long-winded responses, Winter simply speaks on his motivation for doing so by sharing a mentality he’s maintained throughout the years.
“I knew I was good,” Winter says. “I knew I could play.”