45 Years Ago: Johnny Winter Unveils His New Band on ‘Johnny Winter And’
At the end of 1969, Johnny Winter was two albums into one of the richest record deals in rock history — and feeling stuck in a rut that led him to reinvent himself with his next LP, opening the most commercially successful phase of his career in the bargain.
That album, Johnny Winter And, arrived in September 1970, announcing itself with a cover shot introducing Winter's new band — the "And" in the title — whose faces would have been immediately familiar to fans of the Indiana garage band the McCoys. Five years after topping the charts with their debut single "Hang On Sloopy," the McCoys were at loose ends, seeking an opportunity for reinvention and a way out of the pop image they felt they'd been backed into.
"The McCoys were in a bad situation," guitarist Rick Derringer told Vintage Guitar. "Our music had become characterized as 'bubblegum,' and we didn't want to be seen like that. We wanted a way to gain some credibility since we thought we were pretty good players. Johnny came on the scene with some real respect, so we looked at this as an opportunity to get what we were looking for, some respect ourselves."
Derringer and his bandmates, in turn, offered Winter a way forward after his original band — which featured his brother Edgar — splintered following 1969's Second Winter. Looking back on that period, he later admitted he'd begun to chafe under what he perceived as that band's musical limitations.
"I wanted a band where everybody could be contributing something musically as much as possible, in every way, other people who could write, who could sing," Winter told Rolling Stone. "Something where there could be much more projection of personality and talent on the stage and in our records."
Winter's new group gave him all that in spades — particularly Derringer, who contributed vocals and wrote four songs for Johnny Winter And, including his own future solo hit "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo." Still, given that Winter had made his name on a solidly traditional brand of blues rock anchored by his own formidable guitar prowess, broadening his sound — and shifting the focus even slightly away from his playing — was something of a risk.
Though he admitted fearing "people might hate us" once the new group got out on the road, Winter insisted he had absolutely no qualms about the new direction. "Now we can do songs," he argued. "Those old things weren't songs; they weren't planned out at all, they had no set melody line you could hum along to, no set stops, no set anything ... they were music, but they weren't songs. Mostly blues progressions. I still play the same kind of guitar, but within boundaries. We can create the emotional feeling through the song as a song, not just through the notes we play."
Winter's fans agreed, as did critics: Both Johnny Winter And and its subsequent tour — later captured on the sensibly titled Live Johnny Winter And — were well-received, and seemed to pave the way for the breakout success Columbia Records had in mind when they signed him to his landmark deal. Sadly, that momentum was slowed when Winter's heroin addiction sidelined him following the And tour, but he'd regain his stride with 1973's Still Alive and Well, the next in a string of hit Derringer-assisted records that continued through the late '70s.
Soon, however, Winter found himself feeling dissatisfied again, and starting with 1977's Grammy-winning Nothin' but the Blues, he turned wholly toward the blues music that had always inspired him — and would define the remainder of his prolific recording career. By the late '80s, he'd acquired statesman status in the blues community, reflected in his 1988 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
"We did well commercially with rock," Winter later told Pete Feenstra, "but I wanted to get back to playing the blues. Blues influences a lot of music, so it's always a good place to start out from."
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