Johnny Winter, a Texas-bred guitarist and singer who was a mainstay of the blues-rock world since the 1960s, died Wednesday in his hotel room in Zurich. He was 70 and had been on tour in Europe.
Winter’s family was still awaiting information about the cause, a spokeswoman, Carla Parisi, said Thursday.
A virtuosic, high-energy blues guitarist, Winter was perhaps as well known for his appearance as he was for his playing. Tall and thin, with pinkish eyes and chalk-white skin and hair, he was — like his brother and occasional collaborator, Edgar, a keyboardist and saxophonist — an albino, a fact that commentators rarely failed to mention.
“If you can imagine a 130-pound, cross-eyed albino with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter,” Rolling Stone wrote in a 1968 article that introduced Winter, then 24, to the wider public and the music business.
In less than a year, he would sign a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, perform at Woodstock and be widely hailed and hyped as one of the most talented guitarists of his generation. Performing blues standards like “Good Morning Little School Girl” with a fiery touch, he became a fixture on the rock touring circuit and had solid record sales during his 1970s peak.
John Dawson Winter III was born on Feb. 23, 1944, in Beaumont, Texas, and took to music while still very young, playing clarinet, ukulele and eventually guitar.
When Winter was 11, he and Edgar, who is two years younger, performed Everly Brothers songs at local talent shows, and by 15 he had cut his first record: the Chuck Berryesque “School Day Blues,” credited to Johnny and the Jammers, one of his many teenage bands. Around that time, Winter also discovered the music of blues heroes like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and their sound became his lifelong muse.
“I loved the blues,” Winter was quoted in a July 1969 feature in Look magazine. “You can feel that nobody cares about you, and you sing, and it doesn’t make any difference and you don’t care. It’s not a happy feeling, it’s not sad. You can cry, and it’s good.”
His first album with Columbia, called simply “Johnny Winter,” arrived in mid-1969 on a wave of media attention. (An earlier LP, “The Progressive Blues Experiment,” released by a small Texas label, was hastily reissued to capitalize on the publicity.)
A second Columbia album, “Second Winter,” came out soon after, followed by “Johnny Winter And,” on which he introduced a new backing band featuring guitarist Rick Derringer. That album included a Derringer song, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” that would become a Top 40 hit when rerecorded by Derringer as a solo artist a few years later.
Winter continued to record and tour prolifically in the ’70s, and he was open about the drug problems that he developed along the way. In 1973, after taking a brief break, he released “Still Alive and Well,” one of his best-selling albums. In 1976 he released “Together,” a live album with his brother, Edgar, who survives him, as does Winter’s wife, Susan Warford Winter.
In 1977, Winter began a series of collaborations with Waters, producing his album “Hard Again.” That record, and two that followed in the late ’70s, won acclaim for their raw sound, and each won a Grammy Award. From there Winter’s own albums increasingly focused on the blues. His most recent, “Roots” (2011), features songs by Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Little Walter.
Winter has been ranked the 63rd greatest guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone, and throughout his career he and his musicianship have been particularly admired by other musicians.
“Roots” features guest appearances by guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers, country star Vince Gill and many others, including Edgar Winter.
His next release, “Step Back,” scheduled for September, features guitarists Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.