Johnny Winter (February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014) was an American music legend. Beginning with his first appearance on the pages of Rolling Stone
in 1968, Johnny epitomized the fiery and flamboyant blues-rock guitar hero. Between 1968 and 1980, he cut fifteen albums that defined the blues-rock form, ranging from the raw power of “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” to the subtlety of acoustic Delta blues. Despite his massive success, Johnny wanted to get back to the blues roots from which his rock music sprang. In 1984 he signed with Alligator Records, where he made the pure blues records that he always wanted to make. His three critically acclaimed Alligator releases, two of which received Grammy nominations, solidified Johnny's reputation as one of the top blues artists in the world.
Johnny's storied career began when he was fourteen years old. He and his keyboard-wizard brother Edgar formed Johnny and the Jammers in their home town of Beaumont, Texas. With their high-energy blues, Johnny and the Jammers became a local phenomenon, winning talent shows and eventually landing a recording contract with the Dart label. Their first single, “Schoolboy Blues,” was released when Johnny was only fifteen. After the dissolution of the band, and with the exception of a brief stint in Chicago in the early '60s, Johnny was a regular in the Houston and Beaumont recording studios, cutting dozens of tunes as both a leader and sideman. When he wasn't in the studio, he was playing club gigs or sitting in with touring blues artists like B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland and earning a word-of-mouth reputation on the "chitlin' circuit."
In early 1968, Johnny, now living in Austin, TX, formed a trio with Tommy Shannon on bass (later with Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble) and Uncle John Turner on drums. In their quest for gigs, the trio was turned down by dozens of clubs, most of which were simply unwilling to hire a hard blues band. Finally they won a berth at Austin's Vulcan Gas Company. They were drawing good crowds, but the only recording option they had was with Bill Josey, a local entrepreneur who recorded them on some portable equipment (these tapes later appeared on Imperial Records as The Progressive Blues Experiment
). Discouraged, Johnny packed it up and went to England. "We had just cut the sides that Imperial Records would later release on album," he recalled. "I had gone over to England and I had the idea of moving the whole band there. When I came back, an article had come out about me in Rolling Stone
, and every major label was phoning."
Johnny soon signed to Columbia in a much-publicized "million dollar" deal. Though the exact figures were never disclosed, Johnny's contract was reputed to be the most lucrative record deal made up to that time. He was hailed in the national press as America's contender to win back the crown of "guitar king" from Britain's Clapton, Page and Beck.
Johnny recorded four classic albums with Columbia, with each release moving further from traditional blues and more toward full-fledged rock. They included the essential hard rock landmark, Johnny Winter And
, his best-selling album ever. By the mid-1970s, Johnny was the #1 top-drawing arena rock act in the country. In 1974 he began recording for Blue Sky, a CBS-distributed label founded by his manager Steve Paul. Not only did Johnny release four solo albums on Blue Sky, but he also produced several Muddy Waters albums, giving the blues legend the chance to record for a major record label. Two of those albums, Hard Again
and the follow-up, I'm Ready
, won Grammy Awards. "Working with Muddy made me feel people were finally realizing that I'm not faking, and can really play blues," Johnny said. ''I felt I'd established myself."
After a four-year recording hiatus, Johnny joined the Alligator Records family in 1984. His desire to record nothing but authentic blues made for a perfect fit. When Johnny released Guitar Slinger
, it was widely hailed as his best (and bluesiest) album ever; it charted in both Billboard and Cashbox as well as earning a Grammy nomination. The next year, Johnny followed up with Serious Business
. The blistering album won Johnny his second Grammy nomination with Alligator. 3rd Degree
, his final Alligator release, came out in 1986. The album featured several special guests and an array of blues styles. Original Johnny Winter Trio players Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner, as well as Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, made guest appearances. Johnny also played two solo acoustic cuts on the National Steel guitar (the first time he'd played the National in the studio since 1977). The 2015 vinyl-only album It’s My Life, Baby – The Best Of The Alligator Records Years
, collects eight classic tracks from these releases, featuring one brilliant, career-defining performance after another.
While with Alligator, Johnny was living his artistic dream, recording nothing but pure blues. Surprisingly, his Alligator albums earned their way onto rock radio, and a video for the song "Don't Take Advantage of Me" played on the fledgling MTV network for over six months. But no matter how much commercial success Johnny's Alligator albums received, they never compromised his commitment to his roots.
After his three Alligator releases, Johnny’s management convinced him that he needed to return to more commercial blues-rock and the world of major labels. Winter never stopped touring and recording, although he was facing growing health problems. He released a number of critically acclaimed live and studio albums while remaining as in-demand as ever. He died on July 16, 2014, while on tour in Switzerland. Shortly after his death, his final studio album, Step Back
, was released.
While he continued to bring joy to fans around the world with his live shows and his recordings, Johnny Winter never again recorded with the inspiration of both being signed to a blues label and the accompaniment of real Chicago blues musicians. It’s My Life, Baby – The Best Of The Alligator Records Years
will delight old and new fans, and remind them of Johnny’s intense love of the blues tradition, and his desire to bring the deepest and most authentic blues to the widest possible audience.