Texas blues legend Johnny Winter, known for his lightning-fast blues guitar riffs, his striking long white hair and his collaborations with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and childhood hero Muddy Waters, has died in Switzerland. He was 70.
Winter was a leading light among the white blues guitar players, including Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who followed in the footsteps of the earlier Chicago blues masters. Winter idolized Waters and got a chance to produce some of the blues legend’s more popular albums. Rolling Stone magazine named Winter one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
His representative, Carla Parisi, confirmed Thursday that Winter had died in a hotel room in Zurich a day earlier. The statement said his wife, family and bandmates were all saddened by the loss of one of the world’s finest guitarists.
There was no immediate word on the cause of death.
Winter had been on an extensive tour this year that recently brought him to Europe. His last performance was Saturday at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria.
He was in the midst of a very active 2014. “True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story,” a career-spanning four-disc box set, came out in February on Sony Legacy. The documentary film “Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty,” exploring his music, youth and substance abuse battles, premiered at South by Southwest in March. A new album titled “Step Back,” featuring collaborations with Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, Dr. John and others, is due out Sept. 2 on the Megaforce label.
John Dawson Winter III was born on Feb. 23, 1944, in Mississippi, but he was raised in Beaumont. He was the older brother of Edgar Winter, also an albino, who rose to musical fame with the Edgar Winter Group.
Johnny Winter’s first album, “The Progressive Blues Experiment,” was recorded at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company nightclub in 1968 and got its initial release on Austin label Sonobeat. “The sessions took place during the daytime in the emptied-out club,” author Ricky Stein noted in his recent book “Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the ’60s.” “The musicians performed in a tight circle in the center of the Vulcan’s cavernous hall” with no audience.
Winter’s bassist at the time was Tommy Shannon, who’d moved from Dallas to Houston to begin playing with Winter and later became a fixture in Austin backing Stevie Ray Vaughan in Double Trouble. Shannon recalled Thursday that when Winter’s band opened for Muddy Waters at the Vulcan, they jammed with Waters for hours after the club shut down. That memorable encounter planted the seeds for Winter’s production work with Waters a decade later on a series of albums that won three Grammys.
Shannon also played with Winter at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. “I remember we had to go in helicopters because nobody could get there by automobile,” Shannon said. “I’ll never forget lifting up in the sky — the crowd went on and on and on.”
Shannon said he last saw Winter at an Antone’s memorial show for Uncle John Turner, Winter’s drummer in the late 1960s, after Turner’s death in July 2007. “I’m really going to miss him,” Shannon said. “I love him very much.”
Winter’s career received a big boost early on when Rolling Stone singled him out as one of the best blues guitarists on the Texas scene. This helped secure a substantial recording contract from Columbia Records in 1969 that helped him gain a wide following among college students and young blues fans. His addiction problems with heroin in the 1970s and later battles with alcohol and prescription medication, including methadone, also drew attention.
Crowds were dazzled by the speed — and volume — of his guitar playing, which had its roots in urban blues but incorporated elements of rock ‘n’ roll. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988.
There was no immediate word on funeral services.