Johnny Winter is an American music legend. Since his first appearance on the pages of Rolling Stone in 1968, Johnny has epitomized the fiery and flamboyant rock and roll guitar hero. Yet Johnny has continually returned to the blues roots from which his music sprang. Between 1968 and 1980, he cut fifteen albums that define the blues-rock form, ranging from the raw power of Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo to the subtlety of acoustic Delta blues. In 1984 Johnny signed with Alligator Records, where his guitar, vocal and interpretive abilities were given a thriving environment. His three critically acclaimed Alligator releases, two of which received Grammy nominations, solidified Johnny's presence as one of the top blues artists in the world.
Johnny's storied career began when he was fourteen years old. He and keyboard-wizard brother Edgar formed Johnny and the Jammers in their home town of Beaumont, Texas. With their supercharged blues-rock, Johnny and the Jammers became a local phenomenon, winning talent shows and eventually landing a recording contract with the Dart label. Their first single, “Schoolboy Blues,” was released when Johnny was only fifteen. With the exception of a brief stint in Chicago in the early '60s, Johnny was a regular in the Houston and Beaumont recording studios, cutting dozens of tunes as both a leader and sideman. When he wasn't in the studio, he was playing club gigs or sitting in with touring blues artists like B. B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland and earning a word-of-mouth reputation on the "chitlin' circuit."
In early 1968, Johnny formed a trio with Tommy Shannon on bass (later with Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble) and Uncle John Turner on drums. In their quest for gigs, the trio was turned down by dozens of clubs, most of which were simply unwilling to hire a hard blues band. Finally, they won a berth at Austin's Vulcan Gas Company. They were drawing good crowds, but the only recording break they could muster was with Bill Josey, a local entrepreneur who cut them on some portable equipment (these tapes later appeared on Imperial Records as The Progressive Blues Experiment). Discouraged, Johnny packed it up and went to England. "We had just cut the sides that Imperial Records would later release on album," he recalls. "I had gone over to England and I had the idea of moving the whole band there. When I came back, an article had come out about me in Rolling Stone, and every major label was phoning."
Johnny soon signed to Columbia in the much publicized "million dollar" deal. (Though the exact figures were never disclosed, Johnny's contract was reputed to be the most lucrative record deal cut up to that time). He was hailed in the national press as America's contender to win back the crown of "guitar king" from Britain's Clapton, Page and Beck.
Johnny cut four classic albums with Columbia, including the essential hard rock landmark, Johnny Winter And Live, his best-selling album ever. In 1974 he began a relationship with Blue Sky, a CBS-distributed label founded by manager Steve Paul. Not only did Johnny release four solo albums for Blue Sky, but he was also afforded the opportunity to produce several Muddy Waters albums. Two of those albums, Hard Again and the following Muddy LP, I'm Ready, won Grammy Awards. "Working with Muddy made me feel people were finally realizing that I'm not faking, and can really play blues," Johnny says. ''I felt I'd established myself."
After a four-year recording hiatus, Johnny joined the Alligator Records family in 1984. His desire to record nothing but authentic blues made for a perfect fit. When Johnny released Guitar Slinger later that year, it was widely hailed as his best (and bluesiest) album ever; it charted in both Billboard and Cashbox as well as earning a Grammy nomination. The next year, Johnny followed up Guitar Slinger with Serious Business. The powerhouse album won Johnny his second Grammy nomination with Alligator Records. Third Degree, his final Alligator release, came out in 1986. The album featured several special guests and an array of blues styles. Original blues cohorts, Tommy Shannon and Uncle John "Red" Turner, as well as Mac "Dr. John'' Rebennack, all made guest appearances. Johnny also played two solo acoustic cuts on the National Steel guitar (the first time he'd played the National in the studio since 1977).
Johnny was living his artistic dream, recording nothing but pure blues. Surprisingly, his Alligator albums earned their way onto rock radio and a video for the song “Don't Take Advantage of Me” played on the fledgling MTV network for over six months. But no matter how much commercial success Johnny's Alligator albums received, they never compromised his commitment to his roots. Johnny had returned to the blues.