I got a laugh out of the "Simpsons" episode where Homer sees Johnny and his brother Edgar - of "Frankenstein" fame, more recently reduced to gigging at a local blues dive near YOU - by the side of the road, imagines they're zombies, and runs them over, a killer blues guitarist (long before fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan brought both lead guitar AND the blues back into vogue, Johnny was the original blues guitar machine, a balls-out, aggressive, in-your-face player with a strident tone and an encyclopedic knowledge of styles and riffs, and a more distinctive stylist to boot, for my money), a quite honestly frightening singer (without the dignified repose of B.B. King, the gruff intensity of Otis Rush, or the raw falsetto emotionalism of Buddy Guy, Johnny didn't possess much of a voice and didn't seem to care; he howled the blues like a banshee, which could be either annoying or cathartic, depending on your point of view).
The first Winter I actually heard was "Still Alive and Well," the album that marked his return from rehab following the hell-bent Johnny Winter And period, when he and his backup band - formerly the McCoys of "Hang On Sloopy" fame - reputedly used to compete to see who could ingest the most substances prior to taking the stage. This being the era following the deaths of Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Alan Wilson, Johnny (under the guidance of his hustling manager Steve Paul, former impresario of the Scene club in Manhattan, where the greats like Hendrix, B.B., Morrison et. al. used to get together to jam afterhours) was staking his claim as a Survivor (see the Rick Derringer-penned title tune). From the opening notes of "Rock Me Baby" - a signature riff - I was hooked: a totally individuated approach, basic, gutty, and hard-edged, about as far from B.B. King's original as you could imagine. It was a varied set, including a rock ballad ("Cheap Tequila") and a faux-country song ("Ain't Nothing to Me") in the manner of the post-"Beggars Banquet" Stones, whose "Silver Train" and "Let It Bleed" Johnny covered here, shredding the originators' versions in all ways. I still have a special fondness for the slide guitar feature "Rock and Roll," which I used to essay with my college band Dirty Pool, earning my first bit of notoriety as the only slide player in Albany, New York. (Later on, I'd try my hand at Johnny's "Mean Town Blues" from the "Progressive Blues Experiment" and "Johnny Winter And Live" albums, which former Radio Birdman honcho Deniz Tek more recently covered on his mailorder-only "Got Live!" album. Johnny remains a signifier for lovers of big guitars; the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs' Frank Meyer recently told me that he's considering working up a version of "All Tore Down" from "Still Alive and Well"). "Still Alive and Well" continues to resonate for blues-rock aficionados, and it was a better representation of Johnny's signature strengths than the slick, tricked-up attempts at Rockstarismo that followed ("Saints and Sinners," "John Dawson Winter III") before Johnny returned to blues purism, produced Muddy Waters, and wound up leaving his big major label (Columbia) for the relative obscurity of Alligator and Pointblank. But it wasn't his best record.
That honor has to be reserved for "Second Winter," an ATMOSPHERIC guitar players' record on a par with "Truth" and "Ladyland." Originally released as a three-sided double album (did I hear somebody say "Gimmick?" - but then remember, this was COLUMBIA, the label that relased five Moby Grape singles at once, and continues as Sony to release double CDs of around 40 minutes' duration), "Second Winter" clocks in at about 47 minutes long - a puzzlement, considering that some of Miles Davis' sixties offerings on the label ("Filles de Kilimanjaro," for example) ran close to an hour on a single LP.
The closest sound you'll hear to Johnny himself is Jay Hooks, a great local guitarist who admits being a big Winter fan.
The Guppies From Outer Space will be opening for Johnny Winter next month May 30 in Austin.