Writings about Music
The Preeminence of Winter: Johnny Winter
I'll never forget the look on George Harrison's face when I countered his choice of Jimi Hendrix, and said that Johnny Winter was my favorite rock guitarist.* It was thoughtless of me to state this when George himself is in the conversation, but I recovered, and truthfully told him that he was one of my absolute favorites, too. Even though the realization still surprises me, with artists like Clapton, Page and Allman to consider together with Hendrix, Harrison and others, I cannot deny that at his best Winter surpasses all other rock guitarists.
The "Live Johnny Winter And" CD, with It's My Own Fault and Mean Town Blues; the live BBC broadcast of Jumpin' Jack Flash; and the original studio recording of Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, all featuring his extraordinary group, Johnny Winter And, represents some of Winter's best playing.
I love the other mentioned guitarists as much as anyone, and everyone mentioned here, including Winter, is equally great, of course, with different musical personalities. Yet Winter's playing, born out of the Texas blues tradition, seems purer, and less a composite. His intonation and articulation stun me every time, bringing to mind another plucked lute artist: Ravi Shankar.
John Dawson Winter III’s improvisations, like a masterful general marshaling his forces, captivate us with probing intellectual acuity and imagination, traversing and balancing the essential musical realms of Complexity and Simplicity with inspiring aplomb. His sense of theater, the visual spectacle celebrated by rock, was incendiary, bordering on the otherworldly.
Synergistically inseparable from Winter’s guitar playing is his Zeus-like use of the gatra vina, a Sanskrit term for the voice – the sole musical instrument created by God or Nature - with vina denoting instrument and gatra the human body.
Like Charlie Parker, another innovative interpreter of blues forms, Winter’s instrumental technique, including the ability to play unusually fast, was only notable because of superior clarity wedded to stunning content, expression, and inventiveness. In fact, Winter’s best playing never sounds fast or slow to me. Rather, time seems to stand still, and everything sounds and moves perfectly. I sincerely hope that more and more videos of Johnny’s live concerts between the late-sixties and mid-seventies become available because that is my personal favorite period of his career.
Winter Fantasy, composed in 1989 while living in Kapalua, Maui, was inspired by a phrase from Winter's Mean Town Blues.
Back in 2000, I was driving in my car with Ray Manzarek, and decided to put a blindfold test to him. I played It's My Own Fault from the previously mentioned CD, and Ray was floored. He found both the singing and playing astoundingly great, but didn't know who it was. One thing he said he definitely knew was that the performer was black! After I revealed who it was, Ray replied (perhaps reaching to rationalize his mistake) that it was the "same thing" if you consider albinos and blacks as having some opposite physical traits, resulting in a unique metaphysical connection.
- Michael Robinson, March 2012 - July 2014, Los Angeles
*Please note that it is incorrect to state that Winter is only a blues guitarist. He is both a blues guitarist and a rock guitarist, with the emphasis dependent upon the musical context. In fact, Winter's innovative approach and style expanded the very definition of rock guitar. For Rolling Stone magazine to place Winter at number 63 on an arbitrary list of the 100 greatest guitarists, silly as such lists are, is ludicrous beyond belief!
Originally written in 2012, the fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs of this essay were added after Johnny Winter passed away on July 16, 2014.
© 2012-2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).