The legendary “Frankenstein” keyboardist and some his famous friends play the best of the Johnny Winter catalog
Edgar Winter, along with his older brother Johnny, were born in Beaumont, Texas in the 1940s, close enough to the Louisiana state line that you can practically smell the gumbo pot bubbling over.
A port city on the Gulf of Mexico, Beaumont’s economy was based on agriculture (rice, notably) and shipbuilding until oil was discovered in the area in 1901. The city rapidly became an oil industry boomtown (ExxonMobil remains one of Beaumont’s largest employers) and one of America’s major petrochemical refining hubs.
Although its population has never really topped 120,000 residents (and it was half that when the Winter brothers came into this world), Beaumont has surprisingly produced an impressive number of great musicians. Gospel-blues giant Blind Willie Johnson once roamed the city’s streets; bassist Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) was born there, as was early rocker J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”), and R&B crooner Barbara Lynn. Country music stars George Jones, Clay Walker, and Tracy Byrd were all born down the road a piece in Vidor, Texas.
Bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown hailed from nearby Orange, and sister city Port Arthur can boast of talents like Janis Joplin and zydeco bandleader C.J. Chenier. In other words, the entire region was steeped in R&B, country, and blues music and that’s the creative environment that Johnny and Edgar Winter grew up in, and were influenced by. Both brothers enjoyed lengthy, moderately-successful, and critically-acclaimed careers and although Johnny passed away in 2014 at 70 years old while touring in support of his then-current album Step Back, Edgar is still rocking to this day at 75 years young.
The Winter brothers often played on each other’s recordings, but only released a single album credited to both of them, 1976’s appropriately-tagged Together, a live set of rock, blues, and soul covers. Whereas Johnny stayed true to the blues over the years, Edgar’s career has careened from blue-eyed soul and rock ‘n’ roll to jazz and New Age music over the course of a couple dozen albums since he began his solo career in 1970. Winter has recently been touring as part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, but took some time to record a fitting tribute to his late brother with the recently-released Brother Johnny.
As Winter explains his extensive liner notes to Brother Johnny, the time was right to honor his brother, writing “now after his passing, many people immediately started trying to convince me to do a Johnny Winter tribute album. Somehow, this just didn’t feel right to me. It seemed like exploitation, using Johnny’s name and memory for other purposes…”
As the years softened the blow of his brother’s death, however, Edgar writes “as time has passed, I have started to reconsider,” and as he spoke with other people he came to the conclusion that “it was Johnny’s true, loyal, and devoted fans who wanted to see this happen as well.”
Brother Johnny is a seventeen-song, 75-minute collection of some of the guitarist’s best-known and best-loved songs, performed by a band that includes Winter on sax and keyboards, bassist Sean Hurley, and drummer Gregg Bissonette, a journeyman timekeeper who has played with everybody, from Steve Vai and Joe Satriani to Andy Summers (The Police) and David Lee Roth. Johnny’s shoes are some big ones to fill on guitar, so Edgar enlisted a veritable “Murderer’s Row” of axe-manglers and fret-burners to bring their six-string skills to the album, from blues-rock giants like Joe Bonamassa and Warren Haynes to unabashed rockers like Joe Walsh and Billy Gibbons, and even a pure bluesman in the form of Keb’ Mo’.
While Winter takes the lead on vocals on several songs, he also brings in some ringers to muddy up the waters somewhat, talents like beloved blues legend Bobby Rush, former Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald, Texas blues-rocker Doyle Bramhall III, and the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Bonamassa, Hayes, Gibbons, and Keb’ Mo’ all handle vocals on their performances.
Noticeably missing from this all-star roster, however, is longtime Winter brothers’ foil Rick Derringer, who played and produced several of the brothers’ early recordings. As for the album’s track list, it’s a walk full of memories through Johnny’s immense musical history. It must have been a daunting chore to pick songs for the album from the guitarist’s immense catalog, which spanned 45 years and includes nineteen studio albums, eight live discs, and over a dozen authorized “bootleg” releases.
Still, Edgar, along with co-producer Ross Hogarth and Quarto Valley Records head honcho Bruce Quarto did a fine job with their selection, which includes five original songs by Johnny (who was never the most prolific of scribes), a pair by brother Edgar, two well-worn songs by the aforementioned Derringer, and obligatory covers of Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. Johnny recorded dozens of blues and soul covers through the years, but Brother Johnny only taps a few of these, notably Mississippi Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson (and not one of the ones you’re thinking of…), T-Bone Walker, Percy Mayfield, Ray Charles, and the great Muddy Waters.
Brother Johnny kicks off with “Smokin’” Joe Bonamassa’s take on Winter’s “Mean Town Blues,” the talented guitarist as close to Winter, stylistically, as we have on the current scene, really. True to form, Joey B. burns up the fretboard with an energetic, frenetic, and manic performance that does J.W. proud. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a contemporary of Bonamassa’s (they both made their bones in the late ‘90s), steps up to the plate with a scorching take on one of Winter’s best songs, the Derringer-penned “Still Alive and Well.” Edgar’s growling vox on the song approximate his brothers’ twang ‘n’ bang delivery while Kenny Wayne plays the Rick D. role with impressive, fiery six-string pyrotechnics.
Keb’ Mo’ plays Edgar’s original “Lone Star Blues” in a faded country-blues style similar to Lightnin’ Hopkins, sharing gritty vocal exchanges with Edgar for a delightful change of pace from the previous two barn-burners. With wildly different guitar styles, you wouldn’t think that ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Derek Trucks (also an Allman Brothers Band veteran) would mesh together, but they fit like a hand in a velvet glove with their reading of Johnny’s underrated, old-school blues tune “I’m Yours and I’m Hers.” But Billy’s down for every guitar party, and the interplay between his Texas-bred blues stomp and Trucks’ greasy Southern slidework is a delight for any fan of blues git.
Although not personally a Michael McDonald fan – he may have taken the Doobie Brothers to new commercial heights, but I always viewed him as a Motown mimic – his vocals on “Stranger” are the definition of blue-eyed soul and, as he’s backed by a top notch band that includes Winter on keyboards, guitarist Joe Walsh and drummer Ringo Starr, it makes for quite a lovely ballad, even if it does wander a step or two onto late ‘70s Doobie’s turf. I absolutely loathe Toto’s collective works, but there’s no denying Steve Lukather’s talents, and who can criticize a six-string maestro who has worked with artists as diverse as Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Larry Carlton, and Earth, Wind and Fire, among many others? Lukather tackles the Derringer-written Winter classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo” – a classic rock radio staple for decades – with no little recklessness. Edgar takes the microphone and Lukather’s stunning solos mimic and build upon Johnny’s original version.
Texas blues songwriter and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II is a vastly overlooked talent; a second generation musician (his dad played with legends like Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins and hung out with the Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray), the junior Bramhall has an impressive C.V. of his own. His near-perfect take on Robert Johnson’s “When You Got A Good Friend” is delightfully Mississippi muddy, with serpentine slide-guitar and drawled vocals. Bon Jovi guitarist Phil X (Richie Sambora’s replacement) acquits himself nicely with a lively, redline reading of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” many a fan’s favorite J.W. tune, with Edgar delivering the song’s spry vocals.
Only 50 years old when he died earlier this year, the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins left us far too soon, and as he shows with “Guess I’ll Go Away,” he was every bit as good a singer as he was a drummer, imbuing the song with a hard rock edge and strident soulfulness while guitarist Doug Rappoport (who played on Edgar’s 2008 album Rebel Road) tears at the strings like a madman. Former and current Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band alumni Warren Haynes brings the funk to the Percy Mayfield classic “Memory Pain,” his Southern-fried vox and incendiary fretwork lighting a musical wildfire. Robben Ford is another skilled, underrated string-bender and his jazzy playing behind Edgar’s silky vocals on the T-Bone Walker classic (and blues standard) “Stormy Monday” is aces.
A hale and hearty 88 years old, Blues Hall of Famer Bobby Rush is still kicking up a storm. Over a career that has spanned seven decades and dozens of albums, Rush has played with fellow legends like Pinetop Perkins and Jimmy Reed and he hung out with folks like Elmore James and Muddy Waters. It’s a delight that Edgar includes him here, tackling Muddy’s “Got My Mojo Workin’” with the energy and joy of a singer half his age, embellishing his vocal performance with scalding harmonica play. Brother Johnny closes with “End of the Line,” written by Edgar especially for the album, and while the incorporation of the David Campbell Strings could have been somewhat syrupy in execution, Edgar bangs it out with tons of heart and soul, singing words that will serve as Johnny’s epitaph, “songs may end or just fade away, but the music never dies.”
VIDEO: Edgar Winter “Johnny B. Goode”
Mary Lou Sullivan, author of the 2010 biography Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter, provided her thoughts on Winter’s legacy to Rock and Roll Globe.
“Johnny Winter’s passion for the blues lives on in his music which, like Johnny, is the real deal,” she said. He fell in love with the blues when he was 11, and practiced for hours when he came home from school. He put a radio under his pillow to listen to late night blues stations, and bought every blues record he could find. When he was 16, Johnny got a fake ID and went to a club on the black side of town to hear B.B. King. He toyed with blues rock and became a rock star, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“When he had a chance to produce his idol Muddy Waters, he turned his back on fame, fortune, and stadium gigs. He even used his own money to finance the tour for Hard Again, the first of four records be made with Waters.”
In one of many interviews with Sullivan during the writing of Raisin’ Cain, Winter told the biographer, “being a musician is part of me; it was something I loved to do all my life. If I hadn’t been a musician, I can’t imagine being anything else.”