Johnny Winter is a name that is well known in the music world. Not only has he churned out some of the most blistering rock 'n' roll earlier in his career, but as of 1977 - a time when he helped revive blues great Muddy Waters' own career with a string of Grammy Award winning albums - he's been playing the kind of music that touches his soul, and that's good old-fashioned blues. And even though this 58-year old Texas guitarist / singer has had some recent physical problems, it seems that he's not about to slow down.
Together with a new ferocious blues band, consisting of James Montgomery on harp and vocals, Scott Spray on bass and Wayne June on drums, Winter is back on the road - a place he seems most at home.
Although not a man of many words (at least as far as press interviews are concerned) Johnny, nonetheless, took the time to discuss his new band and forthcoming album, as well as the past, present and future of the blues with Livewire's Tony Bonyata.
Livewire: I checked out your show last night in Madison, and I have to say that your new band absolutely smokes! How long have you been playing with these guys?
Johnny: About a month.
Livewire: That's it?
Johnny: Yeah, we haven't be playin' together too long. We were just looking for a harp player and James was the best one we could come up with.
Livewire: Well, you definitely found the right one.
Johnny: Yeah, I love playin' with James.
Livewire: And your rhythm section (Spray and June) is pretty damn tight as well.
Johnny: Yeah, I've been playin' with them a little longer than I have with James. I've been playin' with them about three months.
Livewire: What inspired you to hit the road again?
Johnny: Oh, I love to play on the road. I really love it.
Livewire: How's the response to your tour going so far?
Johnny: We've only been on the road for a couple of weeks but it's going real well. The whole tour is only three-and-a-half weeks. We're just doing the Midwest and Northeast.
Livewire: Do you get a bigger buzz from performing in front of an audience or recording in the studio?
Johnny: I like both things. I like playin' for an audience the best, though, I think.
Livewire: Last night you waited until your encore on "Mojo Boogie" to pull out your Gibson Firebird and tear into some fantastic slide playing. It seemed like an obvious showstopper. Why don't you play more slide in concert?
Johnny: I think it gets kinda boring just playing slide, but I think I'm gonna put "Highway 61" in the set and play that one too fairly soon. So we'll have two songs on slide.
Livewire: On record we're treated to your beautiful playing on your National Steel guitar. Why don't you pull that out for a couple of numbers when performing live?
Johnny: I can't really hear it above the crowd.
Livewire: So it's more of a sound issue than anything else?
Livewire: It's kind of a shame, because the crowd would go nuts. Now, I understand that you broke your hip about a year ago. Are you still having problems with that?
Johnny: Yeah, I can't walk over about a block without it givin' out on me. So I gotta sit down to play.
Livewire: Is this an ongoing problem, or are you still in the healing process?
Johnny: Yeah, it's still in the healing process and I'm gonna try and do some exercises to make it get better.
Livewire: So that would explain why you're seated through your shows on this tour?
Johnny: Yeah. I'm not really in any pain, though, unless I walk or stand up for too long.
Livewire: I also understand that you had some nerve problems in your wrist as well.
Johnny: Yeah, we went to England to do a show and I got off the plane and I couldn't write my name or hold my hand up.
Livewire: And that ain't good for a guitarist, is it?
Johnny: No, (laughs) it was really bad. It was just from the way I slept on the plane. The doctor told me that if it wasn't better in six months that I'd have to have an operation. But luckily I kept it in a sling for six weeks and it got better.
Livewire: So that hasn't been a reoccurring thing at all?
Johnny: No, it was just one time.
Livewire: Last night in Madison you pulled out a couple of numbers I didn't recognize. Is this new material?
Johnny: Yeah, they're off the new CD that we're working on now. One of them was "Lone Wolf."
Livewire: Yeah, that thing really rocked.
Johnny: Yeah, it's a good song. Tom Hambridge wrote it. He also produced part of the record too.
Livewire: Can you tell me a little about the new record? Is it finished?
Johnny: It's not finished yet. Right now, we've got five tracks done.
Livewire: What's it going to sound like?
Johnny: Well, it's just regular blues and we hope people will like it. There's nothin' real different about it. It's just a good blues record.
Livewire: Will it be all covers or will you have any self-penned numbers on it?
Johnny: Most of its covers, but Tom Hambridge wrote and produced three songs himself, so we're going to do his material as well.
Livewire: Can you reveal any of the other cover songs that you might be doing?
Johnny: "Sugarcoated Love" we're doin'. That's one of the ones I did last night too.
Livewire: Will the album feature James, Scott and Wayne?
Johnny: Yeah, we haven't done any cuts with James yet, but it's gonna have James on it.
Livewire: Did you use another harp player for the tracks that you've already recorded.
Johnny: No, we didn't have a harp player for the rest of the stuff.
Livewire: Is there a tentative release date for it yet?
Johnny: No, nothing for sure, but I think it should be out by next spring.
Livewire: I would assume that you'll be following that up with a tour as well.
Johnny: Oh, definitely.
Livewire: You've got a world of fans, won Grammys, and worked with some of the greatest artists in both rock 'n' roll and the blues. What do you feel is your greatest achievement so far?
Johnny: Well, one of the best things is workin' with Muddy.
Livewire: The Hard Again album and...
Johnny: Yeah, I really enjoyed that. Hard Again was the first thing I did with him.
Livewire: What was Muddy Waters like as a person, and not just as a musician?
Johnny: Oh, he was a sweetheart. He really knew exactly what he wanted to do and he liked workin' with me. I was trying to get the record sounding like they used to. I didn't think that the records that he had been making were as good as he had been doin' in the past. So I tried to get the record to sound like they used to sound.
Livewire: You're referring to his Chess Records material from the '50s?
Livewire: You definitely succeeded in bringing his classic sound back. And you're right about some of later material from the late '60s like Electric Mudd.
Johnny: Yeah, that wasn't much.
Livewire: Outside of the work with Muddy, which of your own recordings are you most proud of?
Johnny: The Progressive Blues Experiment, Johnny Winter... and Still Alive and Well is my favorite rock record.
Livewire: Do you think your more rock-inspired albums from the '70s, such as Still Alive And Well and Saints and Sinners
Johnny: I don't like 'em as much as I do the blues. I just like the blues better than rock 'n' roll.
Livewire: Who were some of your early blues influences?
Johnny: Little Walter, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles. I really bought every blues record I could find. So I didn't try and copy after just one person. I bought every record I could get ahold of.
Livewire: Who in the rock field inspired you to move in that direction?
Johnny: The blues was so big in the late '60s that it kinda wore itself out, and people weren't diggin' the blues as much. Everybody was tellin' me that I had to do something different, and I kind of agreed that I did need to vary it a little bit. I still love some rock 'n' roll too. It was fun doin' it, but when I was doin' it I missed playin' the straight blues.
Livewire: So when was it that you turned back to straight blues?
Johnny: When I started workin' with Muddy. That convinced me that I could get away with doin' the blues.
Livewire: Didn't you release your return-to-form blues album Nothin' But The Blues, that same year as your first record with Muddy?
Johnny: Yeah, I was just tryin' to get to back to playin' the blues.
Livewire: And since then you've really never looked back, have you?
Johnny: Nope (laughs).
Livewire: The first time I ever saw you was back in '77 in Minneapolis and you were playing with your brother Edgar. Do you still see him?
Johnny: Yeah, but not as often as I'd like to. He's on the West coast and I'm on the East coast. Just once in awhile we'll cross paths and do a show together.
Livewire: So you still perform together?
Livewire: What type of material do perform? Do you trade off your own material - where you play your blues and then perform what Edgar likes?
Johnny: He does pretty much what I want him to do (laughs). I really like to get together with Edgar. He's a lot of fun to play with.
Livewire: Big brother still rules then?
Johnny: Yeah (laughs).
Livewire: I've read that you're planning on an autobiography. Have you started on this yet?
Johnny: Not really, but we hope we can do it. We're just looking for somebody who can put it all together and edit it.
Livewire: What kinds of things will it reveal that we don't already know about you?
Johnny: I don't know, really. It's one of the reasons I haven't done a book so far. I've always been pretty outgoing about what I'm into. I don't know if we've gotta come up with something new for it to be worth putting out.
Livewire: You've been known for your bouts with hard drugs and booze in the past. Are you clean and sober now?
Johnny: Yeah, I've been off heroin for 20 years now. I have a drink before I play and after I get through playin' though.
Livewire: So you were still into 'horse' when you recording with Muddy?
Johnny: No, I wasn't doin' any heroin when I was with Muddy.
Livewire: If you could do it all over again, would you do anything different?
Johnny: Yeah, I wouldn't do heroin (laughs). That's about the only thing I'd change.
Livewire: Who do you feel is the most talented bluesman alive today?
Johnny: Probably B.B. King.
Livewire: We've lost so many of the big ones in recent years.
Johnny: No kiddin'. The best artists are gone now.
Livewire: You've played with just about ever major bluesman in the last 30 years or so. Is there anybody that you haven't played with that you would've like to?
Johnny: Little Walter I would've liked to have played with. T-Bone Walker also. T-Bone Walker was a big influence on just about every guitar player around.
Livewire: Wasn't he a big influence on B.B.?
Johnny: Yeah, he was.
Livewire: In the rock field you've also played with so many greats. Didn't you play with Jimi Hendrix in the '60s?
Johnny: Yeah, I sure did.
Livewire: What was that like? Was it an actual studio session or was it a live show?
Johnny: Well, we did one song in the studio, "Things I Used To Do." I would've liked to have recorded more with him. But that was a good cut.
Livewire: Was it ever commercially released?
Johnny: Yeah, it was released, although I'm not sure of the name of the record it was on. There was a record called "Woke Up This Morning and Found Myself Dead," [a bootleg recording featuring Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison playing together in a small club] and it was rumored that I was supposed to be on that, but I never was. Jim Morrison was on it, and I never met him in my life.
Livewire: I've actually heard that recording myself and it sounds as if Morrison is absolutely shit-faced on it.
Johnny: Yeah, it sure does. It's no good.
Livewire: So you never played with Morrison?
Johnny: No I never did, but I don't think I missed much, because it seemed like he stayed pretty drunk.
Livewire: Do you feel that there's a long-term future for the blues?
Johnny: Yeah, I think it'll be around forever. There's a lot of people that are comin' up now. Derek Trucks is a real good new artist. He's a young guy. I think the blues will always be around. People need it (laughs). New artists will always come along and get the kids interested in it.
Livewire: What you think of the wave of young blues artists that emerged on the scene not too long ago, like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang?
Johnny: Those guys are good.
Livewire: And I guess that as long as rock bands keep revisiting old blues material, like The Stones and The Yardbirds did in the early '60s and now with bands like The White Stripes covering Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson, then it will always help raise the awareness of the blues.
Johnny: Yeah, it definitely will.