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Johnny Winter: An appreciation

Blues guitar great Johnny Winter was set to begin a U.S. tour next month when he was found dead in his hotel room Wednesday (July 16) near Zurich, Switzerland. He also had a new album in the can, Step Back, featuring fellow guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Billy F Gibbons and Joe Perry, due for release Sept. 2.

Johnny Winter, center,  with drummer Bobby Torello and bassist Jon Paris, in Central Park in New York, 1980.
Steven Pearl

Winter was 70, and much loved throughout a legendary career.

“He had some rough times in the ‘90s and seemed on the mend,” says Jon Paris, his bass player from 1978 to 1989. “I played with him in February at his 70th birthday party at B.B. King’s [in New York] and he seemed in good spirits. God bless him, he lived that long.”

ZZ Top’s Gibbons, a Texan like Winter, recalls the first time he saw Winter perform.

“I was maybe 12 or 13," says Gibbons. "He was known as 'Johnny Cool Daddy Winter'--and we've always thought of him as exactly that: ‘One Cool Daddy.' But he became a dear and passionate friend as well as the accomplished bluesman we have come to admire.”

But Winter remains “underrated,” according to Paris.

“You often hear people raving about Hendrix, Clapton, [Jeff] Beck and [Jimmy] Page--and rightly so,” says Paris. “They all deserve everything that’s been bestowed upon them. But it has always upset me that Johnny isn’t mentioned in the same breath, and yet when you talk to a lot of guitar players—even heavy metal guys—they all say, ‘Johnny was my biggest influence, my first guy and main man.’ I was talking with somebody earlier about just how vast his influence has been and continues to be. He was a tremendous inspiration.”

Another fan of Johnny Winter was John Lennon.

“Back in 1974, John was working on Walls and Bridges and found out that Johnny needed a song,” recalls May Pang. “Everyone was working in [New York studio] the Record Plant and knew each other, and John said to Johnny, ‘Hey! I got a great song for you that I just wrote, ‘Rock & Roll People.’ He thought it would be good for Johnny and gave it to him, and really liked his recording of it.”

Concludes Gibbons: “We've lost another of the gifted guitar greats, and a truly soulful spirit.”

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