Hailed as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, Johnny Winter was a prolific and highly respected musician whose high-energy live performances were a fixture of the blues scene for over half a century. The brother of multi-instrumentalist Edgar, both of whom were born with Albinism, Winter's big break arrived in the late '60s when a performance of B.B. King's "It's My Own Fault" inspired Columbia Records to award him the largest advance in music business history. A regular jamming partner of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Winter then achieved minor chart success with an 1971 eponymous live album recorded under the title Johnny Winter And before heroin addiction threatened to derail his career. However, Winter bounced back with 1973's Still Alive and Well, while songs written in his honor by the likes of John Lennon, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger highlighted how far his influence extended. Winter's talents as a producer were also showcased on three Grammy-winning albums with musical hero Muddy Waters and although his recording output diminished from the '90s onwards, he remained a constant presence on the live circuit, playing up to 200 gigs a year right up until his death at the age of 70 in 2014.
Born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944, Winter began performing with his brother Edgar at the age of ten where after learning how to play the clarinet and then the ukulele, he settled on the guitar as his instrument of choice. After cutting the 45, "School Day Blues," as a member of Johnny & The Jammers in 1959, Winter went onto release several singles under various guises throughout the following decade before achieving his first taste of chart success with a cover of the "Harlem Shuffle" recorded with Roy Head & The Traits in 1966. Two years later, Winter formed a trio with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer John "Red" Turner for his debut album, The Progressive Blues Experiment. But his big break arrived when he was invited to perform at Mike Bloomfield's show at New York's Nassau Coliseum, his powerful rendition of B.B. King's "It's My Own Fault," prompting the watching Columbia Records bosses to offer him the largest advance in the history of the music business.
Winter's self-titled first album for the label reached the Top 40 in 1969, the same year that he also performed at Woodstock, briefly entered into a relationship with Janis Joplin, and became a regular jamming partner of Jimi Hendrix. Winter's increasingly high profile inspired several smaller labels to raid the archives and release a number of his early recordings against his wishes, a method which dogged his career (reportedly only 15% of his commercially-available releases are legitimate). In 1970, Winter disbanded his trio and recruited guitarist Rick Derringer, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs and drummer Randy Z from pop-rock outfit The McCoys to form Johnny Winter And. Showcasing a new rock-oriented direction, the band's eponymous first LP hit the shelves later that year and was quickly followed by a self-titled live album. However, the band failed to capitalize on the latter's Top 40 success due to Winter's heroin addiction and lengthy stint in rehab which put him out of action for nearly two years.
The group eventually returned to the fold in 1973 with the highest-charting record of Winters' career, Still Alive and Well, which not only featured a cover version of The Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" but also a track written specially for him by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ("Silver Train"). John Lennon also penned a song on John Dawson Winter III ("Rock & Roll People"), which alongside Saints and Sinners hit the shelves in 1974, while 1976 live albums, Captured Live! and Together, the latter a collaboration with brother Edgar, added to his list of Top 100 entries. Having previously helmed Thunderhead's 1975 self-titled debut, Winter then guided Muddy Waters to Grammy Award-winning success with three LPs (Hard Again, I'm Ready, King Bee) and live album Muddy "Mississippi" Waters - Live, and also invited the blues legend and his band to perform on his own 1977 release, Nothin' But The Blues.
Following 1978's White, Hot & Blue and 1980's Raisin' Cain, Winter left Columbia and released his next three records (1984's Guitar Slinger, 1985's Serious Business, 1986's Third Degree) through indie blues label Alligator before making a misguided venture into synth-led blues boogie on The Winter Of '88. After signing to Virgin Records imprint Point Blank, Winter wisely went back to basics on 1991's Let Me In and 1992's Hey, Where's Your Brother, but spent the next decade focusing on performing rather than recording. He returned to the studio in 2004 for the Grammy-nominated I'm A Bluesman and after adding to his live output with a collection of official bootlegs and a souvenir of his 2009 set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he teamed up with the next-generation southern country rockers Derek Trucks, John Popper and Vince Gill for 2011's star-studded effort, Roots. In early 2014, Winter celebrated his 70th birthday with the retrospective, True To The Blues, but six months later, just days after performing at France's Cahors Blues Festival, he was found dead in his Zurich hotel room. A second consecutive collaborative album, Step Back, was released posthumously in September the same year, with the high calibre of its guest stars (Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons) only confirming how highly regarded Winter was amongst his peers.