With his imposing height and flowing white hair, Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter cut an intimidating figure as he roamed the stage. The guitarist died at age 70 on Wednesday in Zurich, Switzerland, during a European tour, a passing that confirms a musician dedicated to exploring his muse until the end.
The cause of Winter’s death was unclear and authorities have ordered an autopsy, said Zurich police spokeswoman Cornelia Schuoler. She said investigators are mainly looking at “medical causes” and there is no indication that anyone else was involved.
A guitarist who rose out of East Texas in the 1960s to become an ambassador to a generation of young fans digging for American music’s roots, Winter was the most visible Texas blues progenitor of the era, at least until his avowed disciples, brothers Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn, took up the torch.
Winter was best known for his string of albums released on Columbia Records in the years after label-mate (and one-time lover) Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company proved the market ripe for a striking hotshot like Winter.
After signing a multi-album contract that offered him lots of money, freedom and an avenue to fame – and helped land him a slot at Woodstock – the guitarist released a string of successful albums featuring both his own band and luminaries of classic Chicago blues.
Along with his brother Edgar (who, like him, was born with albinism), Johnny became a darling of the music press, and helped drive a germinating boogie rock movement. Their striking appearances served to emphasize a truth that blues knows no color. But, then, one listen to “Mean Town Blues” or Johnny’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” served the same purpose.
A nasty drug habit, though, sidelined Winter’s career, as did his steadfast refusal to abandon blues for a more commercial guitar rock sound as popularized by then-chart toppers such as the Rolling Stones and Peter Frampton.
After Winter got clean, he returned to his chief role, one that consumed his life: celebrating the raw, imposing sound of electrified Texas blues, one more link in a chain of fretmen including Freddie King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Winter went on to produce three Grammy-winning albums for blues icons Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker while continuing to record and tour.
Before he died, he was in the beginning stages of promoting “Step Back,” his forthcoming album of collaborations. The list of guests underscores Winter’s stature. It features recordings with artists who included Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Dr. John and Ben Harper.