Goodbye Pretty Stranger -- Johnny Winter, RIP

One of the greatest guitarists ever is dead.

Johnny Winter, who only a few weeks back headlined the Mystic Blues Festival, passed away last night on tour in Zurich, Switzerland. He was 70.

Growing up a music fan in Texas meant you pretty much regarded Johnny Winter as royalty – and that was certainly true for me and the folks I hung around with.

A guitar prodigy from Beaumont, Texas, he worked roadhouses in east Texas, Austin and Louisiana -- and word of his authenticity, guttural vocal moan and instantly identifiable, hornet-sting slide guitar explosions soon reached the big shots in New York. In 1968, Winter signed what was at the time a massive six-figure contract with Columbia Records and, basically, became a star.

While his love was absolutely the blues, the flavor of the times and the influence of business sent him in a rock direction for a while. On albums like Still Alive & Well, Saints & Sinners and John Dawson Winter III, he spun out tremendous blues-rock tunes and surrounded himself with top-notch rock musicians such as guitarists Rick Derringer and Floyd Radford, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs and drummers Richard Hughes and Bobby Caldwell.

This was the era when Winter was filling 10,000 seat arenas – and when I saw him several times. Amazing, exhilarating experiences.

Winter beat a long-term heroin addiction and, decades ago, shed the rock trappings and returned where his heart had always been, playing pure blues and working with idols like Muddy Waters. And good for him. I always loved him best for the rock stuff, but he was a Giant in any context and he WAS the blues.

A few brief and simple memories that are essentially trivial but, to me, special.

-- I sneaked backstage at Memorial Auditorium in Dallas – such things were much easier then – and introduced myself. I remember how incredibly shy he seemed. Polite? Yes – but he seemed almost lycanthropic: mild-mannered Lon Chaney by day until, under the full moon luminosity of his guitar, he became a true and vibrant beast.

Later on, I formally interviewed him twice. Possibly because of his shyness, his answers were usually two- or three-words.

Of course, I could also suggest I came up with really stupid questions, or maybe they were things he’d heard a thousand times. It certainly didn’t help that, the first question I ever asked him was about his old bandmates from years ago, back in the rock ‘n’ roll days.

“Do you ever hear from Randy Jo Hobbs or Richard Hughes? Are they still playing?” (Yes, this was before Google.)

There was a long pause before Winter answered and when he answered, he sounded pained. “They’re, ah, both dead.”

Great work, Koster! A boffo wait to start a conversation with a hero you’ve waited years to speak with!

-- The first time I saw him play, which I believe was on the Saints & Sinners tour, I had seats a few rows up and to the side of the stage so that I was looking down at Winter in profile. There was a strip of carpet about three-feet wide that extended back from the lip of the stage – and I finally realized it was the Winter equivalent of a warning track in a baseball outfield. Winter was legally blind and, prancing around onstage in the heat of the musical moment, he’d know he was getting close to the edge of the stage when his feet hit that carpet -- thereby avoiding tumbles into the crowd. I’d never thought about such things.

-- When I was in college, my roommate was a Baylor basketball star named Gary McGuire – still a close friend and, not coincidentally, a huge Winter fan. One time, Baylor traveled to Beaumont to play Lamar University. From his hotel room, Gary looked up WINTER in the phone book. This was well after Johnny was an established star who lived in New York and traveled the world. Nonetheless – because ya never know – Gary called the WINTER number in the phone book and a sweet-voiced woman answered.

“Hi,” Gary said. “Is Johnny home?”

She laughed. “No, dear. This is Johnny's Mom, but Johnny and Edgar don’t live here anymore.” (Edgar being, of course, Johnny’s also-famous-musician little brother.)

“Well, this is Gary from the Baylor basketball team. Tell them I called and said hello,” Gary said.

“I will.”

-- Also in college, my friend Jonna Schwensen was joining a sorority. She screwed up some pledge assignment and was ordered to show up at the next sorority meeting with a suitable expression of apology. As I remember it, I made her a cassette tape of Johnny's 12-minute "My Own Fault" -- which, by the way, is from Johnny Winter And Live, one of the absolute best in-concert records EVER -- and told her to walk into the meeting and play the entire tune. "My own fault, baby / Treat me the way you wanna do." I'll have to call Jonna and ask if she actually did it.

-- I received a speeding ticket once for going 97 in a 70. I was listening to a homemade Johnny Winter compilation tape and his incediary live version of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisted" was at the root of my acceleration.

There are a million songs that trigger all sorts of personal associations with Winter. His music was a true soundtrack to a very wonderful time of my life. 

He’d probably be a little irritated, then, that I’m going to link to a song he wrote called  “Stranger” from John Dawson Winter III. It’s a straight rock ballad – something completely out of character for him. It’s a melancholy, wistful song about loneliness – which is a decided “blues” topic but one that, in this instance, Winter wrapped in a lovely pop melody. The song completely resonated when I first heard it, and not just because it’s pretty and sad. I love it because it hit me that it was Johnny really singing about Johnny.

Well, over the next few weeks, there will be a million eulogies and blogs and retrospectives written, and all sorts of songs posted demonstrating his peerless skills. I’m not sure anyone will post “Stranger,” so I am.

 “Hello pretty stranger

Can I sit here for a while?

You know I'm kinda tired and lonesome

Seems like I been ten thousand miles

Just want to talk to you a while ...”

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