With five decades worth of hard-driving rock and blues under his belt, it’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been a definitive box set of Texas blues-rocker Johnny Winter‘s music before now. Perhaps it was precisely the daunting nature of compiling such a set that prevented it from it being done, but leave it to Columbia/Legacy to offer a remedy – and make it look quite easy in the process, as is the case with the recent 4-CD True to the Blues: the Johnny Winter Story, released in conjunction with Winter’s 70th birthday.
Featuring 56 tracks culled from 27 albums, the set offers a chronological mix of studio and live material spanning from Winter’s 1968 independent recording The Progressive Blues Experiment (released on Capitol Records the following year) to 2011’s Roots, a much anticipated follow-up to which is due out this summer with such guests as Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Dr. John, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, among others. While most of the songs here are ones that die-hard Winter fans will have heard throughout the years – with the exception of just a few tracks that were either previously unreleased or unavailable on CD, all from Winter’s performance at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival – it’s a real treat to now have all of these tracks together in one place.
Of course, with that many tracks, you have to figure that John Dawson Winter III will have a little help along the way, with guests that include former Winter sidemen Rick Derringer and brother Edgar Winter as well as keyboardist Dr. John, bassist Willie Dixon, harmonica ace Walter “Shakey” Horton, and fellow guitarists such as Muddy Waters, Michael Bloomfield, Vince Gill and Derek Trucks.
The “Bad Luck and Trouble” that opens the set off The Progressive Blues Experiment LP is arguably every bit as good as anything Winter’s done since and makes for a stellar start to the collection, with Winter handling harmonica and mandolin in addition to guitar and vocals, followed by a driving Texas shuffle in “Mean Town Blues”, with Winter joined on both songs by Tommy Shannon on bass and “Uncle” John Turner on drums. Michael Bloomfield invites Winter to sit in during a December 1968 Super Session show at the Fillmore East, introducing Winter as “the baddest motherfucker, man…this cat can play” just before Winter tears into a stinging 11-minute cover of John Lee Hooker’s “It’s My Own Fault”, backed by Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ.
Only three songs in, this set is already a doozy, and that’s before we even get to Winter’s self-titled debut album from Columbia, represented here through the scorching “I’m Yours and I’m Hers”, the slow blues of a “Mean Mistreater” featuring blues greats Willie Dixon on bass and Walter “Shakey” Horton on harmonica, the solo acoustic “Dallas”, and a blistering cover of B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool”.
Winter’s rocking performance of “Leland Mississippi Blues” from Woodstock follows – with brother Edgar Winter on keyboards while Johnny dazzles the crowd playing both lead and rhythm guitar – along with a selection of tracks from Winter’s sophomore album on Columbia, the three-sided Second Winter (which also includes, well, a second Winter in the form of Edgar) including “Memory Pain” (“Serves Me Right to Suffer”), Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, a smooth-vocaled, swinging “Miss Ann” (Little Richard) featuring Edgar on alto sax, and the boogeying “Hustled Down in Texas”. Live versions of “Black Cat Bone” and “Johnny B. Goode” recorded at The Royal Albert Hall close out the first disc, with plenty more good stuff to come on the set’s three remaining CDs, including Winter’s often unique take on such blues classics as “Rock Me Baby”, “Good Morning Little School Girl” (off Live at the Fillmore East), Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” featuring Derek Trucks, another live version of “It’s My Own Fault” from the best-selling Johnny Winter And/Live album, J.B. Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie”, and Lonnie Brooks’ “Don’t Take Advantage of Me”.
Disc two starts with a previously unreleased cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind”, as well as live versions of Winter’s “Prodigal Son” (also previously unreleased) and, for the first-time-on-CD, “Mean Mistreater”, all from 1970’s Second Atlanta Internatonal Pop Festival and featuring Rick Derringer on guitar, Edgar on drums, and Randy Hobbs on bass. As good as the rock numbers that follow are (such as the Derringer-penned “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” and “Still Alive and Well”, live versions of “Bony Moronie” and The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, Winter’s own “Rock & Roll”, and southern rock anthems like “Guess I’ll Go Away”, “On the Limb”, and “Rollin’ ‘Cross the Country”), true to its title, it’s this set’s blues tracks that capture Winter at his best, including a handful on which Winter is joined by his childhood hero Muddy Waters and his band (James Cotton on harmonica, Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums, Bob Margolin on guitar and Charles Calmese on bass) that originally appeared on Winter’s Nothin’ but the Blues album: the shuffling, “I Done Got Over It”-sounding “Tired of Tryin'”, a solo “TV Mama” with Winter on both his silver Resonator guitar and drums, and then Winter and Waters trading vocals on “Walkin’ Thru the Park”, as well as the real thing in a live version of Guitar Slim’s “I Done Got Over It” from the subsequent tour.
That album came just after Winter played on and produced Waters’ comeback album Hard Again, one of four Waters projects (along with I’m Ready, King Bee, and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live) that Winter would produce, three of which would go on to receive Grammy Awards. Years later, Winter commented: “At the time, I’d been playing more rock and roll than I really wanted to play. Working with Muddy convinced me that I could make it as a blues player”.
And that’s exactly what we hear at the start of disc four, on songs like “One Step at a Time”, Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do”, and the back-porch blues of “Nickel Blues” from the 1978 White, Hot & Blue album (with Edgar on piano, Pat Ramsey on harp, and Pat Rush on guitar, among others) before moving quickly through Winter’s mid-1980s releases on the Alligator Records label with “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” (Guitar Slinger), “Master Mechanic” (Serious Business), and “Mojo Boogie” (3rd Degree) and early-90s albums on Virgin Records with an “Illustrated Man” (Let Me In) featuring Dr. John on piano, and a cover of T-Bone Walker’s (another of Winter’s earliest influences, in addition to Elmore James, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Johnson, and Chuck Berry) “Hard Way” (Hey, Where’s Your Brother?). The set closes with two tracks from Winter’s 2011 Roots CD – Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” featuring Vince Gill and “Dust My Broom” with Derek Trucks – that prove, despite the toll of 70 years, that Winter still very much has it.
Other highlights of the collection include a sweltering 18-minute reprise of “Mean Town Blues” from Live at the Fillmore East that closes out the second disc, a live “Harlem Shuffle” that includes Edgar lending a hand on both saxophone and vocals, and another take of “Highway 61 Revisited”, this one from the 1992 Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert celebration at Madison Square Garden that saw Winter backed by a house band of G.E. Smith, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Anton Fig, and Jim Keltner, while songs such as “Honest I Do” and 1974’s “Hurtin’ So Bad” (Saints & Sinners) – with Edgar on alto sax, piano and organ, not to mention some fine trumpet and tenor sax from two other horn players – serve as a great reminder of what Winter is capable when he chooses to soften the tone a bit.
Produced by Jerry Rappaport and executive produced by Johnny’s current guitarist and manager Paul Nelson, the set includes testimonials on Johnny from some 20 other guitarists/musicians, ranging from Gregg Allman and Carlos Santana to Billy Gibbons, Angus Young, and Pete Townshend, with whose comments we’ll close: “They’ve put Johnny Winter in a box! Not his first time in a box, but every time – he survived. This music proves a white man with white hair can really play the blues.”