As USA Today reports, blues-rock guitar legend Johnny Winter died yesterday in a Zurich hotel room, where he and his band were touring. No cause of death has been revealed. Winter was 70.
Winter had quite a life. Both he and his younger brother Edgar were born with albinism, and when both Winter brothers became stars, they may have been the world’s two most famous albinos. Both came from Beaumont, Texas, and both were musical wunderkinds, playing Everly Brothers songs on local kids’ TV. At 15, Johnny formed Johnny And The Jammers, his first band. In 1968, he released his first solo album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, and later that year, he signed with Columbia. The label gave him a $600,000 advance, which was reportedly, at the time, the biggest advance in music-business history.
Edgar played in Johnny’s band on his early records, before he went solo and became an even bigger star than his older brother. But Johnny stayed busy. He had an affair with Janis Joplin and played Madison Square Garden with her. He helped establish classic-rock lifer Rick Derringer, recording Derringer’s signature hit “Rock And Roll, Hootchie Koo” with him. He produced three late-’70s comeback albums for blues hero Muddy Waters, and all three of those albums won Grammys and proved to be the most commercially successful of Waters’s career. He battled, and survived, a hellacious heroin addiction. And he kept working for his entire life. Winter played his last show this past Saturday at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria, and his last album isn’t even out yet; Step Back is scheduled to come out 9/2 on Megaforce.
Winter wasn’t a pioneer, exactly, but he did the ferocious and pyrotechnic blues-rock guitar style better than just about anyone else in his day, and his solos are still a thing to behold. He and his brother also deserve hero status for dealing with albinism by showing that it wasn’t that big a deal, standing proudly out in public and playing guitar like an absolute badass. Below, watch Winter’s 1974 appearance on the TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.