Not many teenagers would ever think of asking blues legend B.B. King if they could play his guitar in the middle of his show. But Johnny Winter figured it couldn’t hurt.
So he asked King’s people to let him play – and kept asking throughout the performance.
More than 50 years later, Winter, 69, has joined the ranks of his musical heroes. The Texan was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists in 2011, hailed as one of the fastest.
Winter will bring his lightning-speed licks and fusion of blues and rock to C2G Music Hall today.
I don’t know if I can say I’ve learned much, Winter says by phone from just outside Buffalo, N.Y., en route to his next show. I still play the same way I did when I was 15.
Winter, whose persistence paid off when B.B. King let the 17-year-old play his guitar in front of Winter’s hometown crowd in Beaumont, would become a good friend of iconic blues artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Mississippi Waters; Waters even took to calling Winter his adopted son.
They all were people that I really looked up to, Winter says. These were people that I listened to. So to actually work with them was a big thrill.
As rock ’n’ roll appeared on the radio in the 1950s, Winter says that he was hooked to the feel of it at an early age. By 15, Winter and his 12-year-old brother, Edgar, started their own band, Johnny and the Jammers.
I was playing the ukulele when I was 9, and that’s when rock ’n’ roll was taking off, Winter says. I couldn’t play it (the music) on the ukulele, so I started playing the guitar.
Developing as a musician, Winter was influenced by the rural blues and Cajun music performed by the African-American community in Beaumont. When Winter was featured in a 1968 Rolling Stone piece about the Texas music scene, the national attention garnered him a record deal with Columbia Records in 1969.
That year would mark his self-titled debut album, peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard charts, and his performance at the historic Woodstock festival.
By the 1970s, he introduced a new generation to classic blues performers by producing and playing guitar on Waters’ 1977 Grammy Award-winning album Hard Again.
He went on to work on three more projects with Waters, including the Grammy-nominated I’m Ready. Winter’s 1984 album release of Guitar Slinger earned him a Grammy nomination of his own.
Winter, with nearly 40 albums recorded and several Grammy nominations throughout his career, released his most recent album, Roots, in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus. The album is a collection of blues favorites that were first performed by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed.
It was a lot of fun. It’s all songs that I was influenced by when I first got into music, so I didn’t have to learn anything to do the songs – it was an easy record to make, he says.
Although Winter now performs seated in a chair, his shows surge with energy. His current tour schedule continues until May, with dates taking him overseas to Spain, Italy and France.
He has headlined some of the best events for his genre such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Chicago Blues Festival and Swedish Rock Fest.
Spending a majority of his life on the road is still fun for him, he said, especially when he has the opportunity to pick out a group of talented musicians to back him on stage.
It’s not fun playing with guys that aren’t any good, he says, laughing. I’ve always worked with good musicians.
Winter is currently working on a follow-up to his 2011 album titled Roots 2, and a documentary based on his life and career filmed in 2012 should be released this year.
Winter says that despite his extensive catalog and commercial success, he still enjoys performing to a live crowd. This time around, he doesn’t ask for permission.
I want the audience to enjoy it and have fun. That’s why we’re doing it, he says. If they don’t have a good time, then I don’t have a good time.