No one can ever accuse Johnny Winter of being dull. Since the late sixties, Johnny’s been blowing away rock and blues audiences with his growling voice and flamboyant guitar playing. An albino with an impressive mane of shoulder length white hair, Johnny Winter brings new meaning to the term “White Blues.” In addition to his considerable musical gifts, Johnny Winter has always had a distinctive sense of style.
Back in the seventies he was fond of capes and outrageous bell-bottoms. In the eighties and nineties, he began favoring black sleeveless shirts that showed off his extensive tattoo collection; some publicity shots showed him shirtless, revealing the huge multicolored dragon’s head tattooed on his chest. Guitar slingers come and go, but Johnny Winter has established himself as an unforgettable persona in the annals of blues and rock music.
Like his music and stage persona, Johnny Winter’s career has also been anything but nondescript. Believing they had discovered rock and roll’s next guitar-god, Columbia Records offered Johnny a record-breaking advance back in 1969. Johnny and his band went from sleeping on floors to living in mansions virtually over night. Unfortunately, the rock and roll lifestyle took its toll on Johnny Winter; in the early seventies he was hospitalized due to a combination of substance abuse and clinical depression.
After cleaning up his act, Johnny released the aptly titled “Still Alive and Well” and continued to play rock and roll throughout the mid seventies. In the late seventies, Johnny returned to his blues roots by teaming up with his idol Muddy Waters. Winter produced and played on such landmark Muddy Waters albums as “Hard Again” and “I’m Ready.”
In the early eighties, Johnny found himself recording for the prestigious blues label Alligator Records. Johnny recorded three albums for Alligator – “Guitar Slinger”, “Serious Business” and “Third Degree” – before ultimately moving on to Pointblank Records in the nineties. Although all of Johnny’s Alligator recordings are well regarded, “Third Degree” is arguably the best of the lot.
The first two albums that Johnny recorded for Alligator were both produced by Bruce Iglauer, the label’s founder. Word has it that there was a great deal of tension in the studio between Johnny Winter and Mr. Iglauer, who has always had a reputation for stubbornness and perfectionism.
For “Third Degree” production chores were taken over by Dick Shurman, and the result is an album that greatly surpasses Winter’s first two Alligator efforts. “Third Degree” is the first Johnny Winter album to feature Dr. John on piano, and was the first album in years to showcase Johnny’s steel guitar playing by including two acoustic tracks. In addition, Johnny’s original bandmates Tommy Shannon and “Uncle John” Turner make a guest appearance on the Elmore James tune “Shake Your Moneymaker.” “Shake Your Moneymaker” and “Mojo Boogie” are both wonderful showcases for Johnny’s electric slide playing; he makes his Gibson Firebird scream and howl during his solos on these tunes.
Another highpoint is the moody ballad “Tin Pan Alley” which features Dr. John on piano in addition to gut wrenching guitar and vocals from Johnny. “Evil on my Mind” and “Bad Girl Blues” are the two acoustic numbers, and Johnny’s prowess with a National steel guitar does not disappoint. With its heartfelt performances and wide variety of blues styles, this recording is clearly one of the high points of Winter’s career. “Third Degree” is essential listening not only for Johnny Winter fans, but for anyone with an interest in blues guitar.