Published on August 18th, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez1
Johnny Winter Gone for a Year: Remembering the Mad Albino Bluesman
A Tombstone Is My Pillow
“In Johnny’s voice I could hear the manifestation of my essence …” – Leo Sacks, saved by music
CHICAGO: A year and a day after the death of Johnny Winter in Switzerland, I had lunch in Chicago with Dick Shurman, a friend of the Texas bluesman who produced Winter’s 1992 album, Hey, Where’s Your Brother?
Shurman—a self-taught music scholar, documentarian and Class of 2014 inductee into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame—was wearing a straw hat and a Howlin’ Wolf t-shirt.
“Wolf (Chester Burnett, 1910–1976) used to drive me home from his gigs,” remembered Shurman, 65. “His favorite thing was telling people how to live. He once told me that women were wearing their skirts so short they were showing two faces to the world.”
There was so much for us to discuss, but as always (whether talking to Frank Zappa or Pete Townsend), I wanted to talk about Johnny. Shurman was one of the few people invited to private funeral services for Winter last July at Union Cemetery in Easton, Connecticut.
“The family kept it very quiet, [discouraged] people from posting photos of the ceremony,” said Shurman. “They didn’t want a lot of pilgrims coming by.”
Which, as someone who has archived notes left on the graves of Jack Kerouac (Lowell, Massachusetts) and Sherwood Anderson (Marion, Va.), I find disappointing. Vanity, said William Saroyan, is an artist’s courage and fans—be they partisans or pilgrims—give life to that courage. (I have also paid respects to the grave of Saroyan [author of The Human Comedy] in Fresno, California.)
Last December, at Buddy Guy’s Legends nightclub on South Wabash in the city of Augie March, Johnny’s manager (and second guitarist) Paul Nelson and younger brother Edgar staged their last tribute to Johnny. Most of the dates were ones Johnny was already scheduled to play when he was found dead in his Zurich hotel room on
July 16, 2014.
The Johnny guitar parts (as though anyone could fill them—Townsend recoiling in 1997 when I told him Clapton couldn’t buckle Johnny’s guitar strap) fell to fellow Beaumont native Mike Zito.
At Winter’s 70th birthday bash at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City, Zito pitched in on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which Johnny released in 1971 on Live Johnny Winter And.
In that same Gotham City, back about the same time, an adolescent Leo Sacks sent away his allowance money to join the Columbia Record Club, no way of knowing that one day he’d grow up to be a producer for the company that bought Columbia—Sony—and oversee their 1995 compilation, Legacy’s Rhythm and Soul Revue, featuring the Isley Brothers, Aretha, and Cab Calloway.
“One day a record called Different Strokes: 19 Contemporary Artists Perform Music of Our Time, arrived in the mail, remembered Sacks. “The first track was “Rock & Roll, Hootchie Koo” by Johnny Winter And.”
And this baby: “Suddenly the needle drops and a sonic sledgehammer comes at me faster than a slow motion punch out of Raging Bull,” said Sacks. “I’m talking the hardest, meanest, sweatiest, stankiest guitar-driven rock I’ve ever heard.”
“Nothing the rabbis preached in Hebrew School ever spoke to me as purely and passionately and profoundly as ‘Hootchie Koo’ did,” marveled Sacks. “Nothing had ever prepared me for this …”
As nothing—not even my Johnny’s decades of hard living, a million miles on the road, drug addiction, and a hip replacement—prepared me for his death last year as I undertook a road trip to see him outside of Burlington, Vermont.
Fans and loved ones owe a lot to Paul Nelson for shepherding Johnny through the final, drug-free years of his life. Nelson came to Johnny’s aide from the world of metal, a respected “shredder,” in that sphere, said Shurman.
“I suspect Nelson will gravitate back to the kind of music he was playing before he joined Johnny and away from the blues,” said Shurman as we walked from a restaurant in the Loop to Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart around the corner.