Johnny Winter headlines night of blues at Penn's Peak
Johnny Winter (second from left) and his band, including (from left) Vito Liuzzi, Paul Nelson and Scott Spray, return to Penn's Peak Saturday night.
Johnny Winter remains one of the best standard bearers for the blues ever to pick up a six-string.
Now 66, the legendary Texas guitar slinger is still alive and well, to borrow the title from one of his songs.
Winter and his band have made several appearances at Penn's Peak over the years, and they return to the Jim Thorpe area venue on Saturday night, headlining an evening of blues music.
Opening the show for Winter will be Mike Zito, who combines New Orleans-style funk with blues and rock, and Scranton native Clarence Spady, who has been named one of the Top 40 under 40 by Living Blues Magazine.
Johnny Winter has had a long and distinguished career, both as a performer as well as aiding blues idols like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
Hailing from Beaumont, Texas, Winter formed his first band, Johnny and the Jammers, in 1959 at the age of 15. The group included his then 12 year-old brother, Edgar, who went on to score hits of his own in the 1970's with the Edgar Winter Group ("Frankenstein," "Free Ride").
"I'm not sure what age, but it was very early," said Johnny during an interview this week, relating when he first picked up a guitar. "I was inspired by Chuck Berry first, then T-bone, Muddy, Robert Johnson and many others."
Johnny attracted notice as an up and coming star on the Texas music scene, and he was featured in 1968 a piece in Rolling Stone magazine, written by Larry Sepulvado and John Burks. Following a bidding war among record labels, Johnny signed with Columbia Records in 1969.
His self-titled Columbia debut included blues covers such as B.B. King's "Be Careful With a Fool" and Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend", as well as originals such as "Dallas" and "I'm Yours and I'm Hers." The album peaked at number 24 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart and was followed by "Second Winter" later that year.
Johnny stayed with Columbia and associated label Blue Sky for over a decade, releasing well-received albums such as "Johnny Winter And" (1970, featuring members of The McCoys), "Still Alive and Well" (1973) and "John Dawson Winter III" (1974).
Winter got the chance to work with one of his idols, Muddy Waters, producing and playing guitar on Waters' Grammy winning "Hard Again" album in 1977 and Grammy nominated "I'm Ready" (1978), as well as two other releases.
Reportedly, Waters took to referring to Johnny as his "adopted son" for orchestrating Waters' successful comeback.
"Muddy was a real class act," recalled Johnny. "We hooked up through my management. It was the highlight of my career."
Winter's music has included elements of the blues and rock and even can be considered a link to Allman Brothers-style Southern rock.
These days, he is sticking closer to straight blues playing. His last studio release, "I'm a Bluesman," recorded on Virgin Records, was released in 2004 and earned him a Grammy nomination.
"I have a lot of favorites," Johnny stated. " I prefer the blues of the past, but i know there are a lot of blue fans out there still."
Winter's current touring band includes guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Liuzzi. "I've been working with them for about eight years," he noted. That trio backed him in the studio during the recording of "I'm a Bluesman."
Previous Winter appearances at Penn's Peak have included ace harmonica player James Montgomery as well as an opening set by brother Edgar, who also joined Johnny onstage.
"We do a lot of shows together now and with Rick Derringer," mentioned Johnny of his on-stage collaboration with Edgar.
In addition to a busy touring schedule, Johnny is planning to record his follow-up to "I'm a Bluesman."
"Yes, I just signed a deal with Megaforce Records and am entering the studio as we speak," he remarked.Like many blues masters, Johnny Winter doesn't slow down with age and is still cranking out his vintage guitar licks.
When asked how he views his career, Johnny said simply, "not too bad," with a laugh.
Johnny Winter, with Mike Zito and Clarence Spady, will perform at Penn's Peak on Saturday, Dec. 11. Doors open at 6 p.m. with showtime at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $24 in advance and $29 the day of the show for general admission seating. Tickets are available online at www.ticketmaster.com, at Ticketmaster outlets, including Boscov's and Gallery of Sound, at the Penn's Peak box office and Roadies Restaurant. Call 1-866-605-PEAK for more information.