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Farewell to a white blues legend

Michael Stuart doffs his hat to a favourite musician

[The condition of albinism, a congential disorder characterised by the total or partial lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes can occur in any species. In human beings it tends to cause vision problems, pale skin and white hair.]

Johnny Winter, the blues guitarist who died this week in Zurich aged 70, was an albino – as was his younger brother Edgar, another talented multi-instrumentalist.

When I was a teenager, I had latched onto blues music via the 1960s white British blues boom and bands such as Chicken Shack, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

One of the contentious issues of the time was whether it was possible (perhaps that should be ‘believable’?) for young white, often middle class, kids from Slough, Acton or Middlesborough to ‘sing the blues’ – a style of music that had its roots in general defiance of the world by blacks in the face of slavery, racial discrimination, poverty and hard luck (usually women trouble) stories.

I was wholly aware that British blues musicians paid fulsome tribute to – had effectively learned nearly everything they knew about the idiom from –  black American blues greats such as Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Howling Wolf, but somehow I found the sound made by the young British blues players fuller and heavier, and therefore more attractive, than the originals.

Around the time of Woodstock (1969), I first came across the music of the young Johnny Winter, a stick-man-thin, albino, cross-eyed, Texan of dirt-poor origins. He played heavy blues music and, when he talked, sounded like a 70-year-old black man from the South. He was also a heroin addict.

For a young impressionable English kid, anxious to be different, incarcerated away in a (boarding) public school in the depth of the countryside, what was not to like?

For a period of about five years, I bought every Johnny Winter album and saw him at the famous ‘Sound of the Seventies’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970, at which the American CBS record label showcased its current range of artistes. Winter was a mesmerising guitar player and, to his fans, came across as almost as a superior alien being who was on a temporary visit to Earth from another planet.

About five years ago, I noticed that Johnny Winter was playing at a club off the Tottenham Court Road and went along to see him. He was in his sixties and not in a good state, a shadow of his former self. He had to be helped on stage and played his guitar sitting down, just going through the motions, whilst his band members filled in the gaps for him. It was a bit like watching the modern, washed up, guitar legend Peter Green playing with his Splinter Group.

Afterwards, albeit glad to have seen him in the flesh one last time, I formed the view that Winter wasn’t too much longer for this world.

Ah well – thanks for the memories, Johnny – Be Goode!

See here for his obituary in the DAILY TELEGRAPH

See here for a video of Winter playing Be Careful With A Fool in 1970, courtesy of YOUTUBE




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About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts