Blues legend Johnny Winter died this week at the age of 70. The Grammy-winning artist was known for his high-energy picking style and a fiery presence on stage, both of which helped make him one of the greatest guitarists of all time, according to Rolling Stone.
In 2013, Winter performed in Fort Wayne, and WBOI's Julia Meek was given the opportunity to interview him.
Because the quality of Winters' phone line was so poor, we decided we couldn't put the interview on air. We knew listeners would have a hard time hearing his answers. To say the least, we were disappointed.
After the announcement of his death, we decided to go back to the tape and transcribe some of our favorite portions of their conversation, which we present to you here.
Julia Meek: I know you love the blues...what about the blues calls out to you?
Johnny Winter: Oh, it’s just the most exceptional feeling, more emotion, than any other music I’ve ever heard.
JM: Have you ever lived any of your own songs?
JW: Oh sure, a lot of them.
JM: Is there a particular song that you would say is you?
JW: Oh, there’s a lot of them! (laughter) I can’t pick just one! There’s a lot of different songs—I guess pretty much all of them are me, haha. I wrote them; they’re me—they’re my songs.
JM: Early on, you got to meet and be a part of Muddy Waters’ musical life. How did that shape your own look at the blues?
JW: Ohhh, I’d loved Muddy since I was like twelve years old!
JM: So that was like a dream come true?
JW: Oh, was it ever—Great Lakes, that was the place, yeah! It was really fantastic times getting those records done. You know I really loved Muddy’s music, and I loved him as a person, too.
JM: He had quite a way of telling a story. Did that have a direct influence on how you started singing your blues?
JW: Oh yeah, he was a big influence on me!
JM: Who else would you say has influenced your life in a great big way, like Muddy?
JW: Oh, a lot of them. I bought every blues record I could find. I learned something from everybody—B.B. King, Charlie Patton, Phil Walker, Lighnin Hopkins, Jimmy Reed—all of those, all those people.
JM: When did you get started in the heavy duty touring?
JW: Oh, about ‘69, when I signed with Columbia. We really started touring a lot, then. I was touring before that; I was touring in the mid ‘60’s; we’d go as far as Atlanta, Georgia. We played all over: Georgia, Louisiana, Florida. We often played New Orleans.
JM: You consider those kind of your own roots stomping grounds?
JW: Oh yeah, I know I learned a lot doing those kind of jobs.
JM: Now things went fast and furious for you, I know, and you rose so, so very high, and you also struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs to the point that you had to stop touring. How did that come about?
JW: About ‘71, when I was playing with Johnny Winter And, I started doing heroin. And soon as I found I was addicted—I thought I could just use it, use it to make me feel better. I really didn’t like what I was doing with Johnny Winter And, and I wasn’t very happy doing it. I was playing rock and roll more than blues, and the whole band, except for Rick, was doing heroin—and as soon as I realized I was getting addicted to it, I put myself in a hospital in New Orleans. I stayed in the hospital for about nine months. That pretty much did it.
JM: What finally made you decide it was that time to get clean?
JW: As soon as I found out I couldn’t function without it I wanted to stop it. It scared the hell out of me.
JM: Was it because you knew it was either that, or music?
JW: Yeah. It didn’t help my music at all. Some people like Dr. John and Ray Charles can do heroin and it doesn’t seem to make them worse, but I was unproductive. It just really scared me, like I say; I just wanted to get off of it.
JM: Did you put that into your songs when you got straight?
JW: No, no I didn’t. I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
JM: Do you miss touring with your brother, Edgar?
JW: Oh yeah!
JM: Do you think it will ever happen again?
JW: Oh, I know it will, yeah! Well, I live on the east coast and he lives on the west coast, so we don’t get to play together as much as I’d like to. I’ve worked with Edgar for years, though. He’s a lot of fun to work with. He knows all my music real well.
JM: There is a special magic when the Winter brothers get together—
JW: Oh yeah, definitely!
JM: And that’s been happening since you were a kid—
JW: Yeah. (laughter) Edgar was twelve and I was sixteen when we first started.
JM: Can you believe it?
JW: No! (laughter) It’s hard to believe, it really is.
JM: Is there something you’d tell a kid starting out at about the tender age you did, into the music scene—especially into the blues scene? What bit of advice would you give them?
JW: Listen to all the older people that came before, and try to put the music into your own style. Listen to as much as you can, and practice and play as much as you can.
JM: And what if an obstacle comes up...especially like an addiction or something that could really be a setback to a kid’s music that’s coming up in the world—what bit of advice could you give, because it did happen to you?
JW: Just stop it! Stop it as soon as you can!