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Johnny Winter still having a blast playing the blues


This article was published June 20, 2013 at 3:08 a.m.


Johnny Winter (in cowboy hat) will perform with his band — (from left) Scott Spray, Paul Nelson and Tommy Curiale — at Juanita’s Friday.

Legendary blues guitarist and singer Johnny Winter might be considered by some to be on the comeback trail, but Winter sees it differently, as in not having been gone at all.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really slowed down all that much,” Winter says from his Connecticut home, “except maybe the eight-month stretch in ’07 where I had to have surgery for carpal tunnel problems.”

Winter, 69, has been releasing albums since 1968, amassing 18 studio albums, eight live albums and 10 compilations. In addition, he has credits as the producer of four Muddy Waters albums, one Sonny Terry album and one album by Waters with James Cotton. Three of the Winter-produced Waters albums won Grammy Awards.

In 2011, Winter released his latest album, Roots, which includes guest appearances by some of the musicians influenced by Winter on some of the songs that influenced him. Guests include brother Edgar Winter, Derek Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, John Medeski, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper and Jimmy Vivino. The songs include Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” T-Bone Walker’s “T-Bone Shuffle,” Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin’.”

That album was so much fun for Winter that he quickly began work on a sequel, Roots II, with guests that include Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons,Dr. John and Jason Ricci.

“It’s just about ready for release,” Winter says. “It should be out in two or three months. It’s all blues except for one rock ’n’ roll song, ‘Long Tall Sally,’ by Little Richard.”

Johnny and Edgar Winter occasionally work together,although Edgar (three years younger than Johnny) lives on the West Coast and Johnny on the East Coast, so their opportunities are more limited these days.

“But we’re still pretty close,” Johnny says. “We did a show together in France last year. I moved to Connecticut with my family after 30 years in New York City. We wanted to be around more trees and grass, and we’re only an hour and a half away from the city now.”

A documentary film about Winter began production in 2012, with a release date still not set. Filmmaker Greg Olliver is covering Winter’s life from his birth in Leland, Miss., and childhood in Beaumont, Texas, to his appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 and his work with blues legends Waters and John Lee Hooker, plus performing with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. John Lennon wrote a song, “Rock and Roll People,” in honor of Winter.

His other honors include being featured on the cover of the first issue of Guitar World magazine in 1980, induction into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988 and inclusion on Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list at No. 63. He has headlined the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, a Warren Haynes Christmas Jam and the 40th anniversary of The Allman Brothers Band’s debut performance at the Beacon Theater in New York.

In 2007 and 2010, Winter performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, which he reports having enjoyed so much that he’s ready to return.

“If he asks me to, that is,” Winter says with a laugh. “You can’t just show up.”

Winter has recently made guest guitar appearances on albums by Sly Stone and William Shatner, the latter of which was a special treat for science fiction buff Winter.

“I’m a real TV addict when I’m not playing guitar,” Winter says. “I also like horror films and The Simpsons. One of my favorite honors was when the Simpsons had me on an episode, even though they had me standing outside my tour bus, and I got run over. I didn’t care what happened to me, it was just such great fun to be on that show.”

Winter recalls having played at the original Juanita’s in the mid-1980s, but he realizes he has been absent from Arkansas stages ever since. His current band consists of bassist Scott Spray, drummer Tommy Curiale and guitarist Paul Nelson, who is also his manager and producer and the person whom Winter credits with having rescued him from bad management and the perils of alcohol and drug abuse, which plagued Winter for decades.

When on the road, Winter travels light, taking along a pair of electric guitars, using one for “regular” play and another for slide purposes - his legendary Gibson Firebird and another guitar, an Erlewine Lazer, which he explains on the company’s website as “the closest thing I’ve found to sounding like a Strat and feeling like a Gibson.”

“I used to play mandolin, too, but I’m not very good at it,” Winter adds, sheepishly, if not all that convincingly.

Johnny Winter

Opening acts: Steve Hester & Deja VooDoo, Low Society, Joecephus & The George Jonestown Massacre

9:30 p.m. Friday (doors open at 8:30 p.m.), Juanita’s, 614 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock

Admission: $25 advance, $30 day of show

(501) 372-1228

Weekend, Pages 36 on 06/20/2013

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