Johnny Winter – True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (2014)

He rose to fame playing a flame-kissed fusion of blues rock alongside Rick Derringer, scoring huge turn-of-the-1970s hits on the pop charts. But Johnny Winter, as this 56-track, four-CD Legacy set makes utterly clear, couldn’t wait to get back to the blues. The straight blues, the real stuff.

Winter’s self-titled 1969 release, issued before amped up versions of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the like made 1971′s gold-selling Johnny Winter And … Live his biggest-ever hit, found Winter collaborating with Chess great Willie Dixon. And by the late 1970s, he was back in that vein, producing Muddy Waters last sessions before eventually signing with the blues-focused Alligator in time for 1984′s comeback Guitar Slinger.

From that point forward, he never took a single steel-toed step out of the blues again, as is made so abundantly clear on featured late-period triumphs like “Nickel Blues” (from 1978′s White, Hot and Blues), “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” (an ageless moment from Guitar Slinger), “Mojo Boogie” (from 1986′s 3rd Degree), “Illustrated Man” (from 1991′s Let Me In) and a monstrous take on “Highway 61 Revisited” (from 1993′s Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration).

Of course, Winter, who turns 70 today, had by then held sway over a generation of rock players — among them Joe Perry, who joins Eddie Van Halen, Pete Townshend, Billy Gibbons, Carlos Santana and Mark Knopfler in offering tribute over the course of this set’s sumptuous 52-page included booklet. But it’s a deep misunderstanding of who he was — and who he always wanted to be — to think of Johnny Winter as part of that musical arc. He got his initial contract with Columbia, after all, by dissembling John Lee Hooker’s “It’s My Own Fault” over the course of a scalding 11-minute jam, heard here in its entirety alongside Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper from the stage of the old Fillmore East back in 1968.

Ultimately, those moments end up resonating more fully than well-known included pieces from 1970′s Johnny Winter And and 1973′s chart-peaking Still Alive and Well, girder-shaking though they may be. Winter has since distanced himself, both in word and deed, from those days: “That’s the least favorite point in my career,” Winter once told me, matter of factly. “I really wanted to do blues. It was probably the right thing to do at the time, though. I just didn’t enjoy it that much.”

You want to know the Johnny Winter story? It’s in the growling danger of those Alligator sides. It’s in the serrated grime of “Walking Thru the Park” and “I Don’t Got Over It,” both featuring Waters and his late-1970s-era band — as found originally on Nothin’ but the Blues and Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down, respectively. It’s in the tough groove of “Mean Mistreater,” both the studio version (pulled from that 1969 self-titled debut and featuring Walter “Shakey” Horton and Dixon) and a stunning live version form 1970 (previously unavailable on CD). It’s in this world that couldn’t be further away from “Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo.”

You want to know the Johnny Winter story? Listen to the blues stuff, and there’s a heaping helping of it here.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.