Few guitarists’ fingers move faster than Johnny Winter’s. But however blistering his leads, they never sacrifice their deep, bluesy feeling.
Winter retains that balance even as he approaches a daunting birthday. On Feb. 23, he’ll turn 70.
“Better old than dead,” he says with a laugh.
The milestone won’t go unmarked. Leading up to the big day, Winter will begin a residency at B.B. King’s, starting Tuesday and continuing Jan. 21 and Feb. 23, with more dates to come. Then, on Feb. 25, Legacy Records will release the first box set of Winter’s career, a four-CD treasure-trove titled “True to the Blues.”
It’s well-earned recognition for a star who never stopped putting out lively, and emotive, blues recordings. Even so, his commercial peak was confined from late 1960s to the end of the ’70s. His recordings from that time not only sailed high on the charts, they established a blueprint for some of the greatest guitarists to come.
Winter first honed his skills in Beaumont, Tex., where he began recording at 15. The energy Winter brought to his playing proved rare. “I just practiced and practiced,” he says. “I could do it because I loved it so much.”
James Keivom/New York Daily News
Johnny Winter was linked in critical circles with British guitarists Jeff Beck (l.) and Eric Clapton (r.). “I like the way they play,” he says, “but they don’t sound like Mississippi guys.”
Winter’s big break came when Rolling Stone (then just one year old) featured him in a survey of the Texas music scene. His albinism helped him stand out on the page, but his playing attracted more attention. He earned key notice from six-string master Mike Bloomfield, who invited him to appear at a Fillmore East show in late 1968. The performance led to a Columbia Records deal for what was reported to be the highest advance in the label’s history.
Winter’s self-titled Columbia debut in 1969 provided a crucial link between the Southern blues he grew up with and the flashy rock of English players like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. “I like the way [they] play, but they don’t sound like Mississippi guys,” Winter says. “They sound English.”
Winter’s pan-continental amalgam paved the way for later acts that inventively bridged U.K. and U.S. blues, including the Allman Brothers and Derek and the Dominos. The fierce burn of Winter’s work also clearly influenced the attack of late Texas guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Winter’s followup work, “Second Winter,” made history as the only three-sided LP set ever released (the fourth side had no grooves because “We just didn’t have enough material for four sides but more than enough for two,” he says).
The album included a frantic take on “Highway 61 Revisited” that became the most important Dylan cover by a guitarist after Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
At that point, Winter’s manager steered him away from blues, toward harder rock. To elaborate the sound, he formed a group with Rick Derringer’s old band, the McCoys, called Johnny Winter And. They released an invigorating debut, followed by one of the most frenetic concert albums of all time, “Live Johnny Winter And” (1971). The star himself isn’t so smitten. “It was messy,” he says. “We played over each other. It’s my only gold record and I don’t like it.”
Johnny Winter produced the last four albums by his hero Muddy Waters (above).
After a few more hard-rocking albums, Winter went back to purer blues. “I don’t mind being loud, but the music became too much rock,” he says. “I wanted to get back to my roots.”
He didn’t just do that with his own recordings. In the late ’70s, Winter produced the last four albums by his first hero, Muddy Waters. Three of them won Grammys.
More recently, the guitarist has hewed closer to Waters’ mature style — but it hasn’t lessened the intensity of his inflections or the agility of his fingerings. “I found out a long time ago,” Winter says, “I don’t have to play fast to play well.”
Winter plays Tuesday at 8 p.m. at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, 237 W. 42nd St.
Nico Muhly will perform Bach, Philip Glass and more at Poisson Rouge on Jan. 10.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK
Poisson Rouge: Fri., 8 p.m.
What kind of music does Nico Muhly play? His works could be called opera, classical or “new music.” For this show, he’ll take on the music of Bach, Philip Glass and minimalist Arvo Part. Expect twists on them all.
Carnegie Hall: 8 p.m. Mon., Tues ., Thurs., Fri.
In his solo guise, as he’ll perform here, Young focuses his sound while losing none of its impact.