By Brian Ives
Blues rock icon Johnny Winter died yesterday (July 16) in a hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland. He was 70.
His official Facebook page posted earlier today, “Texas blues icon Johnny Winter has passed away on July 16, 2014 in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland. His wife, family and bandmates are all saddened by the loss of their loved one and one of the world’s finest guitarists. An official statement with more details shall be issued at the appropriate time.”
Winter was an influential blues rock guitarist who came to prominence in the 1960s, notably after Rolling Stone wrote about him, calling him the hottest musician in Texas “outside of Janis Joplin,” and saying, “If you can imagine a hundred and thirty-pound cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter.”
Winter’s white hair and diminutive size made him instantly recognizable, although he looked very similar to his younger brother, Edgar Winter, who was also a solo artist (although they would collaborate over the years).
Winter was signed to Columbia for a then-unprecendented $600,000 with hopes that he’d be a superstar on the level of a Jimi Hendrix. That didn’t happen — Winter didn’t stray much from a strict blues-rock song format — but he was an extremely influential guitar player. His self-titled album from 1969 is considered a classic of the genre; split between originals and covers, it featured one of his most celebrated songs, his version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” While touring for the album, Winter played a high-profile gig at the Woodstock Festival.
Winter’s second album, 1969’s Second Winter, featured some more of his most beloved songs, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” One of his biggest hits, however, was “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” written and sung by Rick Derringer (who was then a member of Winter’s band) for Winter’s 1970 album Johnny Winter And.
A few weeks ago, Winter announced his next album, Step Back, which is due out Sept. 2, and features collaborations with a number of artists, including Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Leslie West of Mountain, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Dr. John and Ben Harper.
In a recent interview with Radio.com, Harper (who has collaborated and shared stages with artists ranging from Ringo Starr to Pearl Jam) enthused about the collaboration, “Can’t Hold Out (Talk To Me Baby),” saying, “To wake up in the morning, and say you did a duet with Johnny Winter — from a blues musician’s perspective — that gets me through the day. There’s nothing you could say to me that would affect my day adversely once that’s happened!”