INTERVIEW- White in: Johnny Winter on surviving problems

Johnny Winter, seen here at the Woodstock 10th anniversary concert in 1979, will play Gravity Lounge next Thursday, September 13.

Johnny Winter hails from the same musical stew-pot that produced Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" and younger brother Edgar's immortal Jock Jam/SUV commercial anthem "Frankenstein." The elder Winter's calling was blues guitar, though, and enough praise was lavished on him by a fledgling Rolling Stone to set off a label bidding war. He signed a legendary six-figure deal with Columbia– in 1969.

Nearly 40 years later, Winter has been worn by the same record industry, and in particular by suspected abuse at the hands of his former manager. Nobody knows for sure, since the guy is now dead, and Winter was too drugged up all along to make sense of anything.

After weathering a number of health problems– he was reportedly down to 90 pounds at one point– Winter bounced back with the Grammy-nominated I'm A Bluesman, the title track of which is based on the trials and tribulations of his own life. Nevertheless, there's likely plenty left for future recordings. After all, it's hard enough to get by as a white blues musician; making it as an albino is an accomplishment of epic proportions.

The Hook: How important was your relationship with Edgar in shaping your musical direction?

Johnny Winter: He didn't have any effect on it at all. He was younger than I was.

The Hook: Then do you think you influenced him?

Johnny Winter: Yeah, I think I did. He didn't like straight blues as much as I did; he liked more jazz. I tried to get him into the blues thing. It worked a little– he can play some blues. But then, he can play anything.

The Hook: Would you have been a musician without him, or he without you?

Johnny Winter: Yeah, sure I would, and I think he would have. Both of us love music.

The Hook: It's sort of disappointing that you weren't jamming in your bedroom until 3am, though.

Johnny Winter: No, but we did play together.

The Hook: You also played with some cool folks at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival back in July.

Johnny Winter: It was great– I played the first time with the Derek Trucks Band, and the second time I played with Buddy Guy. There were a lot of people there– B.B., Hubert Sumlin, Los Lobos from California... I got to see a lot of people.

The Hook: Have you done similar festivals in the past?

Johnny Winter: No. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done. There were just so many good guitar players in one place.

The Hook: And this is coming from someone who used to play with Jimi.

Johnny Winter: I enjoyed playing with Jimi a lot. I was a real big fan.

The Hook: How did he affect your playing?

Johnny Winter: He had no impact; I just played my own way. I didn't try to play like him.

The Hook: Wow. So would you say you're resistant to influences?

Johnny Winter: No, I wouldn't. People influenced me, but I pretty much had my own style by the time I met Jimi.

The Hook: So is that more important earlier in life, then?

Johnny Winter: Yeah. Muddy Waters definitely influenced me. I listened to him early.

The Hook: How have your health issues affected your guitar playing career?

Johnny Winter: I have Carpal Tunnel, and that really messed me up. I couldn't play for eight months. It was horrible. It's a long time, to come back from that.

The Hook: Did you pass the time working on other musical projects?

Johnny Winter: No, I didn't do anything. I was just completely screwed there for a while. I watched a lot of TV, going crazy.

The Hook: And you had to play seated for a while.

Johnny Winter: I still do. It's choice, though– I think I play better sitting down.

The Hook: Did it affect you artistically? Do you write about it? 

Johnny Winter: Yeah, I do. Having problems makes you try that much harder.

Johnny Winter performs at Gravity Lounge on September 13. $59/$49, 8pm.