Johnny Winter's incredible career yielded great music over four decades. But how much do you really know about the guitarist, who died in 2014? We dug deep to uncover a number of overlooked and unknown facts about one of the most respected guitar players of all time.
As you'll see, Winter lived quite an amazing life and overcame many challenges in order to sustain a long career and earn himself a spot in any serious conversation about the greatest blues-rock guitarists in history. So let's get to know him a little better with 10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Johnny Winter:
Used the same piece of plumbing pipe as a slide for his entire career
Winter is widely recognized as being one of the greatest slide guitar players of all-time. And while many guitarists utilize odd items to run up and down their fretboards – Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band famously used old Coricidin glass pill bottles – Winter’s choice was similarly unique. “I used to play slide before this, but could never find a good slide,” he told Tom Guerra. “I'd use everything from a wristwatch crystal to broken-off test tubes to lipstick cases, bottles ... I tried everything, but nothing would work, until I found this conduit pipe, and I've used the same piece of pipe for 30 years for both acoustic and electric slide. Its just a piece of plumber's pipe that just fits my finger real good.”
Smashed Led Zeppelin’s record for largest advance from a record label
In 1968, Jimmy Page’s blues-rock outfit Led Zeppelin inked a contract with Atlantic Records for a then-record advance of $200,000. As they say, however, records are meant to be broken and just one year later, Winter obliterated the old mark when he inked a deal with Columbia to the tune of $600,000.
Once sued DC Comics for defamation
While his contributions to the world of music cannot be downplayed, Winter also inadvertently made a significant contribution to the world of comic books. In 1996, Johnny and his brother Edgar sued DC Comics for defamation after an issue of Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such featured two worm-like villains named Johnny and Edgar Autumn. The Supreme Court of California ultimately found that “although the fictional characters Johnny and Edgar Autumn are less-than-subtle evocations of Johnny and Edgar Winter, the books do not depict plaintiffs literally,” and that, “the characters and their portrayals do not greatly threaten plaintiffs’ right of publicity.” It was a landmark case that, essentially, gave comics free reign to parody and lampoon figures in the public eye.
On just his second album, Winter had the guts to fire a legendary rock producer
Producer/engineer Eddie Kramer has worked with some of the biggest names in rock from Kiss to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix to the Rolling Stones. One person who wasn’t quite impressed with Kramer’s pedigree was Winter, who was forced to fire the producer midway through recording his solo album, Second Winter. “He wasn’t doing his job,” Johnny said. “He was outside the studio recording rainstorm sound effects. So we fired him midstream leaving me and Edgar to finish the job of producing and recording the album.”
Was one of the few artists to get paid for performing at Woodstock
The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival might be one of the most notorious examples of money mismanagement in the history of rock, with many of the artists never seeing a cent from the promoters for their work. Johnny Winter proved to be an exception and received $3,750 for his time, but lost out on a bigger payday later due to a lack of forethought from his manager. “Steve Paul didn’t want us to be in the movie because he thought we wouldn’t make any money,” he recalled in his biography. “He thought it was gonna be a drag so he didn’t want us to be on it. Of course it helped a lot of people’s careers. I wish I could have been in it. Later on he admitted he fucked up.”
Recorded with Jimi Hendrix
When Winter first arrived in New York City, he became a fixture at a club frequented by the rock elite called the Scene. One of those who would come around the club was Jimi Hendrix, who occasionally invited Winter to come down to the studio to jam a bit. “He’d tape everything and listen to it the next day,” he remembered in his biography. “I usually gave him the reins pretty much—I mostly played rhythm. But on the song we recorded, "The Things that I Used to Do," we traded off -- I played slide guitar and he played regular guitar. It came out real well. I believe that was the only song that was recorded. I played with him about 10 times maybe and thought he was the best guitar player around.”
Jammed with B.B. King at age 17
In 1962, while only 17 years old, Winter was beginning to make a name for himself around the Texas and Louisiana blues scene. One night, he and his brother Edgar went down to a club in Beaumont, Texas to catch B.B. King. After a bit of cajoling, the bluesman allowed Winter to come on stage to show off what he could do. “He didn't know if I could play or not and I showed him,” Winter recalled to Jam Magazine. “I got a standing ovation for it. It was the first time I had ever played the blues in front of a black audience. I, my brother and a couple of our band mates were the only whites in the audience.”
Intense anxiety hounded Winter throughout his life
Winter has been candid about his earlier struggles with anxiety through his life, but the issue really came to a head in 1990 at a tribute show for blues legend John Lee Hooker. “I was feeling horrible for that show,” Winter recalled to Guitar World. “I didn’t think I was going to get through it. I just wanted to die, and I was thinking, Now I have to play? I really wanted to do the show, too, because of my love for John Lee Hooker, but I was feeling really horrible. And I have no idea why. I was just having terrible panic attacks. So that’s when I started taking medication to deal with the anxiety, and it did help, but I took it for way too long.”
Almost single-handedly saved Muddy Waters' career
By the latter half of the ‘70s, not too many people really gave much thought to Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters. But Winters, who offered to produce a record for him in 1977, never forgot him. The ensuing album, Hard Again, was a critical and commercial hit, and Winter would work with Waters on two studio follow-ups and a live album. The pair grew so close that Winters was one of only a few people to appear at Waters' wedding to Marva Jean Brooks. Near the end of his life, Muddy would grow to think of the guitarist as a son.
Discovered the blues because of Hollywood
Around the age of 12 or so, Johnny went to a theater in San Antonio, Texas, to check out the Roaring Twenties mob period piece film. In his biography, Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter, the guitarist recalled it as a defining moment in his life. “I remember that movie making me want to be a musician,” he said. “It was real bluesy music with songs I could relate to, a lot of songs I had grown up singing. I didn’t like Pete Kelly’s part so much; the shootin’ part of the movie didn’t appeal to me. It was the music that got me.”