I was watching a recently released DVD titled Johnny Winter Live Through The 70s, which contains some amazing early footage of one of rock’s best and most underrated guitarists. The footage varies in quality, but from acoustic blues runs to television performances to stage madness, Winter’s blazing fretwork is astonishing. I was very pleased to see Randy Jo Hobbs accompany him in a duo setting as well as on two clips from Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert (with Richard Hughes manning the double-bass drumkit). But I was surprised and disappointed that there was no footage that included Rick Derringer, because that’s when and how I jumped on the Johnny Winter bandwagon.
Johnny Winter And was the name originally used when Winter picked up The McCoys as his backup band. The McCoys had a massive pop hit with “Hang On Sloopy” and featured brothers Rick and Randy Zehringer (Rick would later change his name to Derringer) and bassist Randy Jo Hobbs. By the time this album was recorded, Randy had been replaced by powerhouse drummer Bobby Caldwell (Captain Beyond). I was familiar with The McCoys and had a few singles (I still like “Don’t Worry Mother”!) but knew little of Winter; in fact when I was on vacation with the family in Florida and a group of kids at the hotel asked me to go with them to Pirate World, I thought we were planning to see Jonathan Winters! What I saw that night blew my mind, rearranged my brain and changed my life. To this day I’m not certain what parts of the album were from Florida and what was from the Fillmore, but it’s among the five best live rock records ever made. Seeing that show live was like opening the door to a blast furnace and getting every hair singed off your body in a nanosecond…and loving it.
If I could boil down the appeal of this album to a couple of words I would say passion and tone. From the moment that Caldwell’s drums launch “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” into orbit until the last note of “Johnny B Goode” bleeds out, this band is on fire. And tone? Winter’s slide guitar work in “Mean Town Blues” is a master class, and Derringer’s rhythm and second leads define the word chunky. Whether blazing through Chuck Berry songs like two runaway trains or delicately dancing a slow blues, this was Guitar Hero material long before the game was invented. Beside and behind them, Hobbs and Caldwell are like a volcano belching molten lava (in perfect time, of course). This was four guys plugged in and gone, no commercial intent, no posing – just foot-to-the-floor rock’n'roll.
Johnny Winter plays Rolling Stones songs better than they do (“Silver Train”, anyone?) and his version of “Jumping Jack Flash” is amazing, but when he lets out that otherworldly howl before ripping into “Johnny B Goode” you know that he’d also gone after Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis that night. It’s almost forty years later and the hair on the back of my neck still stands up at that moment, just like when the smoldering cauldron of “It’s My Own Fault” starts to bubble over during the second solo. I don’t think Winter or Derringer were ever better than on this album.
My God, folks – this album retails for $6.99 on Amazon. Seven dollars for a life-changing experience is a pretty sweet deal, and I suggest you get a ticket on this ride ASAP. I’ve got this masterpiece on vinyl, on CD, and living in my memory forever, singed hairs and all.