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Slimantics: Losing an old friend


Slim Smith



On of my Facebook friends died Wednesday. Maybe you've heard of him. His name was John Dawson Winter III. He was 70 and died while on a business trip in Zurich, Switzerland. 


I had known "Johnny" since I was 10 years old and one of my older brothers, Freddy, brought him home. Johnny stuck around for quite some time after that, admittedly over the objections of my parents, who considered Johnny far too loud, for one thing. Clearly, they did not appreciate Johnny's talents. 


In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I didn't know Johnny personally. Never met the man.  


If you are under age 50 or so and not a particular fan of the blues, you may never have heard of Johnny Winter, although you may recall his younger brother, Edgar, who rocked the pop charts in the early 1970s with his album "They Only Come Out At Night," which featured the chart-topping single, "Frankenstein." 


The brothers were from Leland, Mississippi, and were as distinctive by appearance (they were albinos) as their music. There was never any mistaking either of the brothers for any other artists. Their styles were their own. 


While Edgar Winter is probably better known, I always consider Johnny as the greater talent. 


One of the benefits of having older siblings is you are exposed to things at an early age that you might otherwise not discover until much later, if at all. 


That was certainly true for me, especially when it came to music. 


Freddy, 10 years my senior, and Mick, four years older than me, spent most of their money on albums. Their tastes became my tastes. While other 10-year-olds were debating the merits of Bobby Sherman or The Monkees or whatever it was that Casey Kasem's was plugging on WTUP-AM in Tupelo, I was mesmerized by the raw energy of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and captivated by the harmonies Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. 


I put Johnny Winter on that list, too. 


Forty-five years later, I can still recall putting his self-titled album onto our home stereo, cranking the volume to 10 and listening to Winter's "Good Morning Little School Girl" over and over and over as kids are prone to do when they find something they really like. 


Winter's guitar playing was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was Winter who introduced me to sounds of the slide guitar and the resonator.  


Although he is considered as a blues performer, I always put him the category of rock-n-roll. Rolling Stone put him No. 63 on the list of the Top 100 guitarists of all time, which seems like a low ranking to me. Even as a 10-year-old, I recognized that he was a guitar genius in the vein of Hendrix. In fact, I preferred Winter. 


As my brothers' musical tastes evolved and I began to explore for myself new music, I drifted from blues to rock to country. (I am proud to say that I was not infected by disco, which was the dominant music of my late teens and early 20s). 


Today, I rarely ever listen to anything other than bluegrass. 


It's a pretty long journey from Johnny Winter to Blue Highway, I realize. 


But my admiration for Winter is just as strong today as it was 45 years ago, when I stood in the mirror and played by first air guitar session. Naturally, I played "Good Morning Little School Girl," and when I broke into the guitar solos, my imaginary audience lost their minds. 


So I feel like I lost a friend when Johnny Winter died and Mississippi, a state disproportionately blessed with great blues-men, lost one of its very finest. 


Thanks, old friend.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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