Johnny Winter – True to the Blues (box set review)

Johnny Winter – True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (Sony/Legacy Recordings) (Box Set review)

Get ready to melt your speakers with four CD’s of Johnny Winter’s fiery guitar

Most multi-disc collections are put together to compile the best of an artist’s career.   But, every once in awhile, a box set comes along that alters the way you look at a performer.  True to the Blues is a 4-disc anthology that covers Johnny Winter’s 45 years in the music business.  After you hear it, you’ll be a true believer.

No title could be better for a Johnny Winter compilation than True to the Blues, since it’s the style of music that’s always motivated him, even while he was marketed as a rock star in the Seventies.  Winter played Woodstock, but his footage was foolishly omitted by his manager.  He sold tons of albums in the 1970’s, yet Winter rarely gets played on classic rock radio, due in large part because he never had a bona-fide hit single.  None of that matters scrolling through the songs on these discs, hearing countless searing solos and gutteral, yet emotional vocals.

If there’s one track that will sell you on Johnny Winter’s singular talent, it’s “It’s My Own Fault,” recorded live with Mike Bloomfield’s band at the Fillmore East in 1968.  Bloomfield is noticeably awestruck in his introduction, calling Winter the “baddest mutherfucker,” before letting him stand in the spotlight.  Winter begins peeling off a rapid succession of leads with a rare fluidity, that makes the capable Bloomfield seem downright elementary.  As the song ends, Winter seems to go faster and faster, throwing caution to the wind.  The track clocks in at over 10 minutes but feels maybe half that long – it’s just that good.  That performance would secure Winter a contract with Columbia Records.

Winter didn’t just appear out of nowhere – he’d been slogging around the club circuit for over ten years.  He also did his fair share of recording for smaller labels, who all released their material when Winter’s popularity grew.  Although never meant for release, The Progressive Blues Experiment is a fine document of Winter’s early band.  The acoustic “Bad Luck and Trouble,” features just him singing, and playing harmonica, mandolin, and slide guitar, followed by “Mean Town Blues,” a full band rocker recorded at a rehearsal.

Winter’s debut for Columbia is represented by four tracks – the blistering “Be Careful with a Fool” is one of the many highlights, while “Dallas” shows off Winter’s absolute mastery of the acoustic slide guitar.

“Leland Mississippi Blues” is proof that Winter did indeed play Woodstock, but his manager thought the entire concert was an embarrassment and would hurt the guitarist’s career, so he asked that Winter’s performance not be included.  If there ever was a colossal career blunder, this was it.  He certainly would’ve been one of the film’s highlights.

The tracks from his followup, Second Winter, show Winter growing as a vocalist, while the production is meatier, especially on the Percy Mayfield track “Memory Pain.”  His version of “Highway 61 Revisited” so impressed Bob Dylan, that he invited Winter to reprise his performance on Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert.  It also marked Winter’s move toward more rock-based music, especially on “Miss Ann.”

Disc two traces Winter’s work with the McCoys, who had a 1965 hit with “Hang on Sloopy,” but had trouble following up that success.  Several previously unreleased songs from the Atlanta International Pop Festival feature Johnny’s brother Edgar on drums, including a sizzling take on “Eyesight to the Blind,” made famous on the Who’s Tommy.

The band’s live rendition of “Mean Mistreater” rocks harder than the studio version.

The McCoys’ guitarist was Rick Derringer, who first introduced “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” on Johnny Winter And, before revisiting that song for a 1974 smash hit when Derringer went solo.  The other songs from that album move even closer to straight-ahead rock.  A reprise of “It’s My Own Fault” from Johnny With And/Live doesn’t stand up to the earlier version, but “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is phenomenal – turning the Stones’ classic into a driving, yet funky rocker.  “Mean Town Blues,” from a 1970 show at the Fillmore, is 18 minutes of Winter’s sheer jaw-dropping slide work.

Disc three opens with the fitting Derringer original, “Still Alive and Well” – if ever Winter should’ve had a hit single, it was this one.  The cuts here from Saints and Sinners, a collaboration between Johnny and Edgar, feature horns and straight-ahead rock.  “Self Destructive Blues” was a Johnny Winter rocker that hit a little too close to home, while the rootsy “Rock n’ Roll People” was a John Lennon song that never got released during the former Beatles’ lifetime.   The live version of “Harlem Shuffle” features THREE guitars and TWO drummers, while “Bony Maronie” shows that Winter was still bringing it in concert.

Then, Winter had the opportunity to produce his idol, blues legend Muddy Waters.  The resulting album, Hard Again, was a return-to basics, and resurrected the careers of both artists.  Winter’s next album was backed by the same musicians as Hard Again, and is a late-Seventies triumph – especially on “Walkin’ Through the Park,” which is a duet between Winter and Waters.

Surprisingly, disc four is solid too – a 1978 rendition of Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” is great, while Winter really growls on “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”  As the Eighties wore on, the production got more slick, but Winter’s singing and playing still shine through.  as in “Mojo Boogie” from 1986.  “Illustrated Man,” a song championing Winter’s love of tattoos, is a return to form – his guitar work is incredible.

Backed by an all-star backup band, Winter revisits his Dylan cover of “Highway 61 Revisited” during the 30th Anniversary Concert from 1992.  The final two tracks come from Winter’s latest album, Roots, and show him in fine form.  “Dust My Broom,” with the Derek Trucks Band, is especially fine.

The liner notes give a good history, but leave out most of Winter’s personal and managerial problems.  None of that matters anyway when listening to this incredible music.  More impressive are the countless testimonials from legends like Gregg Allman, Steven Tyler, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, and Billy Gibbons, all praising the many talents of the great Johnny Winter.  —Tony Peters