The Essential Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter

When you think of the blues and rock 'n roll in a perfect marriage, it's hard not to picture Johnny Winter at the wedding party. While he's too young to have been part of a blues wave that included BB King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, he's every bit as authentic. Hailing from Beaumont, Texas, Johnny and his brother Edgar were both musically gifted and albino. It was Johnny who mastered the guitar, becoming a major link between traditional blues and rock n' roll — as important to the advent of blues-rock as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Taking five decades of Winter's music, both in the studio and on stage, and fitting the best of the best onto two CDs may not have been as easy as it sounds, but the results spread out over The Essential Johnny Winter are sure to give you a decent overview of what the man is about.

If you know the legend of Johnny Winter, you know after an article about him was published in Rolling Stone, a bidding war ensued and he was signed to a big fat recording contract with Clive Davis and Columbia Records. Winter didn't go on to become as big as Led Zeppelin, but he did play Woodstock and the Fillmore East, blowing audiences away whenever he put on a guitar and stepped on stage. Take a cursory listen to "Rock Me Baby," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "It's My Own Fault," and you immediately get pulled in by Winter's intense feel and touch for the blues. Then you jump into "Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo," "Roll With Me" and "Still Alive And Well" — songs Rick Derringer had a hand in — and you recognize Winter's incalculable instincts as a bad-ass rocker. Not to be outdone, he also tackled John Lennon's "Rock & Roll People," Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

You're hearing superb musicianship from Winter and all the accompanying players, including bassist Tommy Shannon, who played with Winter on The Progressive Blues Experiment and later joined Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughn's backing band. And then there's the growl and the roar of Winter's voice, which like Hendrix, slyly teases the lyrics before they are fully digested and spewed out. But then he sings like an angel, a male counterpart to Aretha Franklin, on "I'll Drown In My Tears," honky-tonk piano and horns as his guide, and you realize there's more to Johnny Winter than just being this incredibly soulful blues guitarist.

Where you'll hear the best of everything about Johnny Winter is in the live performances slotted in throughout the set. The two songs from Woodstock, "Mama, Talk To Your Daughter" and "Mean Town Blues," are initially fairly straight-forward, but with strong builds to fit the mood of the festival. The live take of "Harlem Shuffle" with Edgar is the big production number, while "Rollin' And Tumblin'" features Winter's slide work at its absolute wildest. To fully appreciate the measure of Johnny Winter's talents, you need to search out the best live albums available — Live Johnny Winter And (1971), Captured Live! (1976) and The Woodstock Experience (2009) — and listen to them, front-to-back, inside-out and all over again. If you're looking for Winter's best studio recordings, you can't go wrong with The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968), Johnny Winter (1969), Second Winter (1969), Johnny Winter And (1970), Still Alive And Well (1973), Saints & Sinners (1974) and John Dawson Winter III (1974). But if you want to mix it up, get a little bit of everything and make it easy on yourself, The Essential Johnny Winter is calling your name.

~ Shawn Perry

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