Johnny Winter, the Texas blues guitarist who added his own unique current of electricity to songs like “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, died Wednesday in his hotel room in Zurich, according to his publicist. He had been on tour in Europe and most recently had played in Wiesen, Austria. Winter was 70.
“His wife, family and bandmates are all saddened by the loss of one of the world’s finest guitarists,” a representative for Winter said in a statement. “An official statement with more details shall be issued at the appropriate time.”
Winter, along with his younger brother Edgar, rose to prominence in their early 20s and turned heads both for their musicianship and stark-white hair, a result of the musicians’ albinism.
The guitarist was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944 and rose to prominence in his early 20s after a Rolling Stone cover story on Texas music in December 1968. “If you can imagine a 130-pound, cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter,” wrote Larry Sepulvado and John Burks in the issue. “At 16, [Mike] Bloomfield called him the best white blues guitarist he ever heard…. No doubt about it, the first name that comes to mind when you ask emigrant Texans about the good musicians that stayed back home is Winter’s.” The guitarist, who had previously played in a band with his younger brother Edgar (who scored a Seventies hit with “Frankenstein”), was playing in a trio at the time. After the article came out, Winter was offered several deals and eventually signed a reported $600,000 contract with Columbia.
Although Winter had put out a debut LP in 1968, The Progressive Blues Experiment, which would reach Number 40 on the Top 200, his first release for Columbia in June of the following year, Johnny Winter, rose to Number 24 and featured Edgar on keyboards. He quickly released a follow-up in October, Second Winter. Both records featured a mix of originals and covers of songs by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson and more. Between those two albums’ release, Winter played an hour-long noon set on the last day of Woodstock.
In his lifetime, the bluesman issued nearly 20 studio LPs. His most recent album, Roots, came out in 2011 and featured guests ranging from Warren Haynes to Edgar on songs by the likes of Elmore James and Jimmy Reed. A four-disc retrospective box set, True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story, was released in February 2014. Winter’s final album, Step Back, which features appearances by Eric Clapton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, among others, is scheduled to come out on September 2nd.
Outside of his own work, Winter produced three LPs for Muddy Waters in the late Seventies, earning three Grammys for his work with the blues legend.
“It’s a living music,” Winter once said of his chosen genre. “For me, blues is a necessity.”