Last night, blues guitar legend Johnny Winter died in a hotel room in Switzerland. He was 70 years old.
A frail albino from Beaumont, Texas, Winter struggled through a life of alienation, addiction, injuries and illnesses to become one of the greatest guitarists of all time. From his humble debut in the early 1950s to his historic performance at the final night of Woodstock in ’69 and beyond, he entertained audiences for over half a century with an incredible legacy of soulful blues and rock music — and was still going, having last performed just a few nights before his death.
Winter’s long career was filled with honors that included gracing the cover of the inaugural issue of Guitar World magazine, being inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Southeast Texas Walk of Fame, as well as winning three Grammy Awards and a HIGH TIMES Doobie Award for Lifetime Achievement, which Johnny called “The best award I’ve ever been given.” My colleague Rick Cusick and I had the honor of presenting it to him on stage at the Fillmore NY, after a performance with his brother, rocker Edgar Winter in 2009. As a former addict and alcoholic, Winter had given up all drugs — except for marijuana, which he smoked almost constantly.
“There never was a time when I didn’t like smoking weed,” he told me over joint during our interview before the show.
On a personal note: the short time I spent with Johnny meant a great deal to me. When I was about 14 years old, my dad brought me to see him for my very first live concert. He was my parents’ all-time favorite musician, and having the opportunity to introduce them to him was one of the great thrills of our lives. Though I’m deeply saddened by his passing, I find comfort in the testimonial given by Rick that fateful night at the Fillmore:
“When I get the blues, there are two things that are absolutely guaranteed to make me feel better,” confessed Cusick, “One: really, really good marijuana, and two: every time without a doubt, the music of Johnny Winter.”
Thanks for the music Johnny — this toke’s for you.
Top Photo Credit: David Ungar