Johnny Winter: Still Alive & Well
GW Your revitalization is even evident in your set list. You’ve been bringing some of the more rock and roll tunes back into the set.
WINTER Yeah, we added “Bony Maronie,” “Don’t Take Advantage of Me,” and “Good Morning Little School Girl,” and we’re talking about of bunch of other new songs to play. It’s fun to play new stuff.
GW Your connection to the blues is something that has always been extremely important to you.
WINTER Yes, it is. I love blues. I don’t mind a little rock and roll, too, as long as it’s blues-based rock and roll. Like Chuck Berry, who I love. He’s the one that got me started playing the guitar, pretty much. “Johnny B. Goode” is such a great song, maybe the ultimate rock and roll song.
GW Your friendship with Clarence Garlow when you were a teenager was an important step in your development as a blues player. That was when you started to go from Texas to Louisiana to play in clubs for the first time.
WINTER Clarence was the first real blues guy that I ever met. He played, but he also had a radio show in Beaumont on KJET. It was an hour-long show, and he played a lot of really great stuff. I started listening to him and started calling him up, asking him to play certain songs. When I was about 14 or 15, I had a job working in a music store. He came in to buy some strings, and I recognized his voice, so I started playing one of his songs for him on the guitar. He said, “You know who I am, don’t you?” And I said, “Sure I do!” We got a friendship going there, and I’d go out and sit in with him on his gigs.
GW In past interviews, you’ve mentioned getting your fake ID around that time so you could go play with Clarence in the clubs.
WINTER That’s right. I was 15 and my ID said I was 24. We started doing our first club gigs when I was 15. Boy, my parents hated me doing that! It took me a long time to convince them to let me keep doing it. Edgar was only 12. He was playing nightclubs at 12 years old! Our drummer’s father was supposed to be taking care of us, but all he wanted to do was to go out and drink. He didn’t pay any attention to us at all, but it made my folks feel better that he was going to be there watching us.
GW In 1976, you released Together, a live album recorded with Edgar that revisits songs from your club days, such as the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Soul Man” and “Harlem Shuffle.” The inner sleeve shows a picture of you as a teenager standing with B.B. King. Did you play a show with him at the time?
WINTER I was 17 in that picture. I just sat in with him. I wasn’t playing with my band. B.B. was playing at a club called the Raven in Beaumont, and we were the only white people in the place. But nobody bothered us. Everyone was real nice. B.B. didn’t know who I was—I wasn’t anybody! I was just a little kid. He didn’t know if I could play or not.
GW Did you just walk up to him and say, “Hey man, I want to play with you”?
WINTER Yeah! I had a lot of balls when I was a kid. I just wanted him to hear me play. And he kept coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t. He asked me, “Do you have a union card?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a union card.” And he said, “Well, you don’t know my arrangements,” and I said, “I’ve listened to all of your records. I know everything.” Finally, he thought I was from the IRS and I was coming to get him for taxes! [laughs] And then he said that he figured that if he was the only black guy in a white club, they might not want him to play because he was black, and he didn’t want me to think that he didn’t want me to play because I was white. So he let me get up and play with his band, even though he had no idea whether I could play or not! But I got a standing ovation.
GW Do you remember what song you played?
WINTER Yeah, “Going Down Slow.” I’ll never forget that night.
GW One of the unusual things about your playing technique is that you use a thumb pick, even though a large percentage of your playing requires fast alternate picking, for which most players will use a flatpick. How did you settle on the thumb pick?
WINTER My first guitar teacher, Luther Nally, played a lot of Chet Atkins–type of stuff, which is played with a thumb pick. Luther used one, and I liked Chet Atkins a lot, and Merle Travis, too, who also used the thumb pick. With the thumb pick, you can get good definition while picking with your fingers and your thumb, so I just started playing that way. A lot of the blues guys, like Muddy Waters, used thumb picks too. I’ve never even tried using a flatpick.
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