Johnny Winter February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014
This was originally written and posted on Facebook. I’ve added a little here and there and am including some images from my sketchbooks.
Saddened by the death of Johnny Winter.
I’m from the same hometown of Beaumont, Texas and was incredibly fortunate to get to meet Johnny at his home in New York in the 1990’s.
I was working on my blues book and a friend of my mother said I should talk to Johnny Winter about the book. I didn’t know if she was serious or not. But she immediately called Johnny’s mother and mentioned to her that Johnny and I should get together. I thought that would be the end of that.
However, when I got back to New York there was a message on my answering machine: “Hi, this is Johnny Winter and my mom says I should call you.” I was flabbergasted.
And in the strange way that synchronicity works I was called the next day by the art director for d’Addario Guitar Strings to do a portrait of Johnny for a calendar and poster they were producing. I sent my sketches to them which they routed past Johnny’s agent who did not like them. I called Johnny and asked him if I could just run the sketches by him personally. He agreed and had me come to his home.
He and his wife were so warm, friendly and generous! I talked with Johnny about my book and then showed him the sketches for the d’Addario piece. He picked one out that he liked and I said I’d do a painting of that one. “What if I don’t like the finish?” He asked. I told him I’d do another one until he was satisfied.
While I was there I played Johnny a recording I had made of Jack Owens who was living in Bentonia, Mississippi, where Skip James was from. Before listening to the piece Johnny mentioned that some people claim that the dirt in that town contributed to Skip James great voice and playing, but he felt that it was just Skip James. After listening to Jack play the song Johnny exclaimed, “Man, I’ve got to go to Bentonia and roll around in that dirt!” It was fun, because I had played Jack (93 years old at the time) some of Johnny’s music and he loved it. “He’s a note man, like me!”
I went home and painted the piece. In order to get his approval on the finish, Johnny said I should bring the painting to his rehearsal at Sony Records. I was psyched! I dragged the painting, which was a large oil, on the subway to the recording studio and he ended up loving it, as did his agent who was also there.
Johnny told me to just hang out while they rehearsed. I was walking on air! I got a private 3- to 4-hour concert of Johnny and his band jamming like you wouldn’t believe. In-between songs he would tell stories about all the old bluesmen and their songs. Just incredible. While I listened I filled a sketchbook with drawings. They’re simple sketches, more about the energy rather than me trying to really capture a likeness. But I thought I’d throw some of them out here for you to see.
When Steve Budlong, James McGillion and I finished our blues documentary we entered it into the New York International Independent Film Festival and invited Johnny to the screening. Our minds were blown when he actually came, stepping out of a limo and sitting down to watch our film. We won Best Feature Documentary at that festival.
Johnny’s playing is amazing and so unique. I love the way he belted out his voice, always reaching, never settling. Always giving it his all.
He’ll definitely be missed!
PS: An aside about the painting for d’Addario. The painting was purchased by d’Addario for their collection, but was in the Society of Illustrators show that year and published in their annual. When I went to pick the piece up I left the Society, which is uptown Manhattan and entered the subway. It was rush hour. I was beat. The painting was large. I had to wait awhile for a train, which was pretty usual back then. My route required lots of train changes in order to get to Brooklyn. Anyway, I was so beat I got on the train and was zooming along when I realized that I had left the painting on the platform!!!! Cripes!!! I was freaking out! I had already been paid for the original and was going to be shipping it when I got home. My heart leapt into my throat! I sat there freaking out waiting for the next stop. I bolted from the car and ran full out over to the platform across the way to get on the next train going back the way I’d come. Wait. Wait. Wait. Finally a train! It couldn’t move fast enough for me! I just knew that painting was going to be gone by the time I got there, and it would serve me right.
However, the train pulled in and I ran out scanning up and down the platform. Ahead I could see a group of old ladies crowded around something on the platform. They had my painting and were trying to see if there was a name or an address on it. Sweet relief! I couldn’t believe the piece was still there.
The painting and I got home safely, and it made it to d’Addario just fine. All’s well that ends well.