Even legends sometimes have to do as they’re told.
That’s partly why blues and rock guitar legend Johnny Winter — who appears on most rock critics’ best guitarist lists — spent much of his career not recording old-time blues.
“There was a time when (his record company) just wouldn’t let him play the blues he wanted; they wanted more popular rock stuff,” said Paul Nelson, a guitarist in Winter’s band who produced Winter’s latest album, “Roots.” “Johnny didn’t like that, so when we came up with this idea of just doing songs that he wanted to do, it was something he really liked.”
“Yeah, it was fun doing those songs, songs that had an on influence me,” Winter, 68, said from a tour bus in central Massachusetts last Saturday. “But I still love playing out too. The interaction with the crowds keeps me going.”
At an age when most folks are retiring, Winter is getting to extend his career doing the things he loves. For one, he plays 100 shows a year or so, including a concert this Saturday at Port City Music Hall in Portland.
Second, Winter and Nelson are doing a sequel recording to “Roots,” which came out in 2011 and featured a long list of guest players, including Warren Haynes, John Popper, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, Sonny Landreth and Winter’s brother, Edgar. The 11 tracks were all blues classics by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and others.
The new record will have the same formula: blues classics played by Winter and his friends. Nelson is producing again, and so far, nobody he’s asked to play on it has said no.
“We’re going to have (Eric) Clapton, Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) and a few others,” said Nelson. “Everybody we ask wants to do it.”
Critics called “Roots” one of the best albums of Winter’s career, which has spanned more than 40 years. So expectations for its sequel are high as well.
For Winter’s part, he sounds happy to be able to do what he loves. He said his energy level and health are as good as they’ve been in years, so he sees no reason to slow down on the touring.
“My health is good, no problems lately,” he said. “I feel good.”
Winter didn’t elaborate on his past health problems. In fact, he didn’t elaborate on much during an interview for this story, giving lots of one-sentence answers.
But when Nelson began working as Winter’s guitarist and manager around 2005, Winter had gone through a series of publicized problems with his health, including bouts with substance abuse and wrist surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. He also had a long recovery from a broken hip in 2000, according to published reports. A Guitar World magazine profile in 2007 said Winter weighed just 90 pounds.
Winter now lives in southern Connecticut, and met Nelson in a studio there. Nelson was recording music for the WWE wrestling entertainment company at the time, but Winter heard him fooling around with an original blues tune.
Nelson was a big fan of Winter’s growing up, and says it’s easy for him as a musician to describe what sets Winter apart from his contemporaries.
“A lot of guys emulated their favorite player, and then their own style came out,” said Nelson. “But Johnny has all these classic guys he loved, and he was able to soak up stuff from all of them at the same time. He’s like a sponge. And I don’t think many others have that ability.”
Winter grew up in Texas, where he and his brother were both born with albinism, accounting for their signature white hair. Both were encouraged to pursue music careers as children, and Johnny began recording when he was 15. By the late 1960s, he was playing places like the Fillmore East in New York, and landed a recording contract with Columbia. (Edgar has also enjoyed a successful solo career, most notably in the 1970s with the pop hits “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.”)
Over the years, Winter has filled arenas, and even produced albums for one of his heros, Muddy Waters.
But today, he lives a pretty quiet life outside of touring and recording his favorite blues tunes. He says he watches a lot of TV –“The Simpsons” is one of his favorite shows.
And his major hobby is collecting antique walking sticks and canes. Not for walking — mostly just for the fun of having them.
“I’ve got some with swords in them, some with carved heads,” said Winter. “I’ve just always liked the way they look.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: