Q&A: Johnny Winter headlines the Riverhead Blues Festival
There will be much more at this year’s Riverhead Blues Festival than good barbecue and awesome tunes. A true musical legend who performed at Woodstock is topping the bill.
That’s none other than Johnny Winter, named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 greatest guitar players of all time, and he’ll perform on Father’s Day, June 17.
To lead up to this interview with Mr. Winter, we spoke with Paul Nelson, bandmate, manager and producer of Mr. Winter’s latest album, “Roots.”
“We came up with the concept of what type of record it was going to be a couple years ago,” Mr. Nelson said. “I knew when Johnny was doing his other records, he could only do one or two traditional songs and there were some shouting matches, so with this one I said, ‘Let’s just do the whole album of everything you wanted to do, all the traditional hits, but let’s pick one song by each artist that influenced you starting out.’ ”
Mr. Nelson said that once Mr. Winter had chosen the artists, including such musicians as Robert Johnson, Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker, he picked out the tracks for the album in 15 minutes.
“Once we had that done, I had a hit list of musicians that I wanted to contact based on who would fit each track best, and nobody said no,” Mr. Nelson said. Of Mr. Winter’s upcoming Riverhead performance, Mr. Nelson said, “You never know who’s going to show up to play with Johnny.”
Q: Mr. Winter, It’s been said that you were born with a guitar in your hands. Is that how you see it?
A: I was about 12 when I started playing.
Q: Did you expect you would reach the level you have as a musician?
A: I always thought I would be successful. I was making records when I was 15. I’ve been up there trying to make it since I was teenager.
Q: What’s been your most valued achievement?
A: Doing the Muddy Waters records. I think that was the coolest thing I ever did. We won three Grammys for four records so I think that’s pretty good.
Q: Talk about slide-guitar music from your point of view.
A: Well, in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s, guys were using pocket knives and cow bones and pieces of metal, all kinds of stuff as slides, guys like Robert Johnson.
Q: When did you first use a slide?
A: I was about 22 when I first used one.
Q: What was it like playing Woodstock?
A: It was a mess. I’m glad I did it, but it was a mess. It was rainy and muddy and nobody knew what was going on.
Q: People say you really commanded attention during your performance. The Grateful Dead say they weren’t happy with their performance. Were you happy with yours?
A: Yeah, I was really happy with it.
Q: You and your brother, Edgar, have a rich history of playing together. What was it like always being with your brother?
A: It was great. We played together for a long time, until the ’70s, when he wanted to do his own thing.
Q: You started leaning into rock and roll at that time with Rick Derringer, his brother and Randy Joe Hobbs. As a bluesman, what was that like for you?
A: I didn’t like it. It was my least favorite time of my life. I’m a bluesman through and through.
Q: Please respond to this quote: “In heaven, there will be many bands. Every band will be asking for Johnny as lead guitarist. Hendrix and Vaughan will need some one to clown around with and have few laughs with. THEN, they will strap up, ask Muddy to sing and burn a brand-new form of hell for all us fans of loud, burning, blistering whip-it-like-you-mean-it rock and roll that all eternity has never seen.”
A: Who wrote that?
Q: Somebody on YouTube.
A: Oh, heh-heh. That’s really cool!
Q: Do you hope that if there’s a heaven you’ll be rockin’ out with Hendrix, Vaughan and Muddy?
A: I sure hope so!
Q: If you hadn’t been a musician, what would you have liked to do?
A: I never wanted to be anything else. This is the only thing I ever wanted to do.
Q: What question do you wish people would ask you that they never seem to?
A: There’s no question I haven’t been asked. I get asked every question imaginable, but it doesn’t matter because if I have something to say, I’ll come right out and say it, whether there’s a question or not.
Q: Do you have a message for your North Fork fans?
A: Come out and enjoy yourselves and have a good time.