Acclaimed guitarist and blues rock pioneer Johnny Winter died yesterday at the age of 70. Like his heroes, he was a touring bluesman to the end and was found dead in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland after having played a festival in nearby Austria. Years before Stevie Ray Vaughan or Billy Gibbons came to fame, Johnny Winter was the archetype of the hotshot Texas blues guitarist that could play fast but tasty with an earnest reverence for the genre’s original masters.
John Dawson Winter III was born in 1944 and grew up in Beaumont, Texas with his brother, the keyboardist Edgar Winter. The two albino brothers started playing music early and Johnny issued his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment with future Stevie Ray Vaughan sideman Tommy Shannon on bass, in 1968. He signed with Columbia Records in 1969 and appeared at the Woodstock music festival that summer. In 1970 he formed the group Johnny Winter And with former McCoys guitarist Rick Derringer. The group recorded the original version of the classic rock standard “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” and their 1971 concert recording, Live Johnny Winter And, was essential listening for aspiring ‘70s guitarists. A passionate blues fan, starting in 1977 Winter landed his dream gig producing and playing on three Grammy winning albums for Muddy Waters, the father of electric Chicago blues.
As a player, Johnny Winter was adept at all styles of blues guitar, from acoustic finger-picking to slide and was an exciting lead guitarist, ripping out fast, frenetic runs on his ubiquitous Gibson Firebird guitar. He was a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and was included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Winter was due to release the album Step Back on Megaforce Records this fall, which featured collaborations with fellow blues guitarists Eric Clapton and Joe Bonnamassa among others. The documentary Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, by Lemmy director Gregg Oliver, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year.