Johnny Winter: A Blues Legend's Texas 'Roots'

Sep 30, 2011
Originally published on October 5, 2011 2:41 pm

In the late 1960s, Columbia Records won a bidding war to sign a young blues-rocker. More than 40 years and countless recording sessions later, Johnny Winter is still playing the blues.

Winter's latest album, just out, pays homage to the origins of that musical form: It's called Roots. Winter tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that he fell in love with the blues early on, when he and his brother — rocker Edgar Winter — were growing up in Beaumont, Texas.

"Not many white people in Beaumont cared about the blues," he says. "I just liked the emotion and the feeling in the music. It was the most emotional music I'd ever heard."

Winter caught a break at age 17, when he went to see his idol B.B. King at a Beaumont club called The Raven.

"I went with my band, and I really wanted B.B. to hear me play, because I loved B.B.'s music and I wanted to show him what I could do. So I sent some of my friends over to ask him if it'd be OK," Winter says. "He was having tax problems at the time, and he thought — us being the only white people in there — that we'd come from the IRS to bust him for his taxes."

After some prodding, though, King relented and invited Winter onstage to perform.

"He didn't know whether I could play or not," Winter says, chuckling. "I think he was just so glad that we didn't come to mess with him about his taxes, he didn't care."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

In the late 1960's, Columbia Records won a bidding war to sign a young blues-rocker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL")

JOHNNY WINTER: (Singing) Good morning little schoolgirl, good morning little schoolgirl. Can I go home with, can I go home with you?

SIMON: More than 40 years and countless recording sessions later, Johnny Winter is still playing the blues. His latest album just out pays homage to the origins of that musical form on Megaforce Records. It's called "Roots."

WINTER: (Singing) I'm getting up in the mornin', believe I'll dust my broom. I'm getting up in the mornin', believe I'll dust my broom. The first girl I'm lovin', and my friends can get my room.

SIMON: And Johnny Winter joins us now from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Thanks so much for being with us.

WINTER: Oh, it's nice to be here.

SIMON: Let me talk to you a little bit about your roots, if we could. You and your younger brother Edgar, Beaumont, Texas in the late '50s, so what was it like for you guys to be interested in the blues then?

WINTER: Oh, there weren't too many other people that were. Not many white people in Beaumont cared about blues.

SIMON: And what spoke to you?

WINTER: I just liked the emotion and the feeling in the music. It was the most emotional music I'd ever heard.

SIMON: You know, for people who think that there's something new about "American Idol" or "X-Factor," could I get you to tell us about you and your brother auditioning for "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour?"

WINTER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINTER: Yeah, we drove all the way to New York and auditioned and didn't make it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINTER: I think I was about 12.

SIMON: Yeah. I wonder who won that week and if we've ever heard of them.

WINTER: No, I don't have any idea who got on.

SIMON: So can you tell us about Johnny & The Jammers?

WINTER: Yeah, that was my first band when I was 15 years old with my brother Edgar playing piano. And we made our first record in 1959 with Johnny & The Jammers called "School Day Blues" and "You Know I Love You."

SIMON: I've heard there's a funny story about you around that time at the Raven Club in Beaumont.

WINTER: That's where I met B.B. the first time when I was 17.

SIMON: Well, could you tell us that story?

WINTER: Sure. Yeah. I went - I love B.B. King and I had a fake I.D. so I could?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINTER: ?you know, I wasn't but 17. And I went with my band, and I really wanted B.B. to hear me play, because I loved B.B.'s music?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

WINTER: ...and I wanted to show him what I could do. And so I sent some of my friends over to ask him if it'd be OK and he was having tax problems at the time, and he thought with us being the only white people in there that we'd come to, we were from the IRS and come to bust him for his taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINTER: And he asked, yeah, but can he play? And they said, yeah, he can play. He didn't know whether could play or not. I think he was just so glad that we didn't come to mess with him about his taxes he didn't care.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You've been playing with you brother Edgar for 50-plus years?

WINTER: Yeah, over 50 years now.

SIMON: What's that like?

WINTER: No, I love Edgar's playing. We just don't like the same kind of music. He's not a big blues fan. I mean he can play blues but he just chooses not to. He'd rather play rock.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the two of you. We put on "Honky Tonk."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK")

SIMON: Is there something in the way brothers can play, something special?

WINTER: Oh, we grew up listening to the same kind of music. It was very easy for us to play together.

SIMON: You know, this album "Roots" is the kind of blues history lesson.

WINTER: Yeah, it is. It's songs that I grew up being influenced by and loving.

SIMON: Robert Johnson and Elmore James, Jimmy Reed.

WINTER: Some of my favorite people. I just loved it as soon as I first heard it. I think I was about 12 when I first heard blues on the radio. I said this is great music. I got to learn how to play this stuff.

SIMON: One of your great collaborators obviously of all time was Muddy Waters.

WINTER: Yes it was.

SIMON: And in fact, you produced four of his albums, didn't you?

WINTER: Yeah. We did four records together. Three of them won Grammys.

SIMON: Well, you know, as a matter of fact, we're going to listen, I think we're going to take a listen to "Deep Down In Florida," which is off "Hard Again."

WINTER: Yeah.

SIMON: And that won a Grammy, didn't it?

WINTER: Yes it did. That's the first song we did together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEP DOWN IN FLORIDA")

MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Yes, I'm goin' down in Florida, where the sun shines damn near every day. Well, well, I'm goin' down in Florida, where the sun shines damn near every day. Yeah, I'll take my woman out on the beach fellas and sit down on the sand and play.

WINTER: I loved Muddy. I loved working with him and I loved him as a person.

SIMON: You really pay homage to him on this album too with well, let's listen to your "Got My Mojo Working."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT MY MOJO WORKING")

WINTER: (Singing) Got my mojo working, but it just don't work on you. Got my mojo working, but it just don't work on you. I want to love you so bad, till I just don't know what to do.

SIMON: When you do "Got My Mojo Working" do you kind of think of Muddy being with you in that moment?

WINTER: Always. Always. Every time I do it I think about Muddy. I really miss him.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Winter, thanks so much for being with us.

WINTER: I really enjoyed it.

SIMON: Johnny Winter, his new album on Megaforce Records is called "Roots."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT MY MOJO WORKING")

WINTER: (Singing) Got my mojo working. Got my mojo working. Got my mojo working...

SIMON: Hey, wake up. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT MY MOJO WORKING")

WINTER: (Singing) Got my mojo working, but it... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.