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Local News

July 17, 2014

Blues legend, King of 'Swamp Pop' Johnny Winter dies at 70

PORT ARTHUR — Southeast Texas blues legend Johnny Winter — known for his signature fast-paced guitar riffs, gritty Gulf Coast sound, flowing white hair and complementary pale skin — was pronounced dead at age 70, Wednesday, in a hotel room in Zurich, but news didn’t reach the Gulf Coast until Thursday morning.

Lamar State College-Port Arthur President and unofficial Port Arthur music guru Sam Monroe said Winter’s passing is a terrible loss — not just for Southeast Texas, but for the world.

“Johnny was such a great performer and had such a great following,” Monroe said. “Of course, he had a following locally, but he had a huge following throughout the country and internationally. He will be missed, not just locally but globally.”

Winter is known as one of the world’s greatest white blues guitar players, held to the same esteem as Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. But what set him apart — even from that limited group of peers — was his sound.

“He could wail the blues,” Monroe said. “He had that voice that was high-pitched and raspy, and he had that talent with a guitar. He could get those sounds and get those notes that I have never heard anybody else get with the blues.

“He was really fast, and he was really sharp. He had a great ear and a talent. We used to call it the Gulf Coast Sound, but today we call it Swamp Pop — it’s danceable, but features a lively horn section. And then Johnny used that talent for a heavy guitar-based blues sound.”

Monroe met Winter before he became a legend — he emceed a few shows that Winter played back when Winter was in high school.

“I interviewed him a number of times on the radio back when he was in high school and shortly after high school. Before that, I was a disc jockey as a teenager, and I emceed some shows with Johnny. I remember one we did at Beaumont High School in an auditorium there.

“Johnny’s mother and father lived in Beaumont, and when he would play, they would come hear him. When he got to be famous, they would have seating backstage at all of his shows to hear him. It was a family thing. The parents showed a lot of interest in Johnny and, of course, his brother Edgar.”

Edgar Winter, born two years after Johnny, is an equally-famous musician, but he has a different sound. Edgar pursued classic rock ’n roll while Johnny cultivated “Swamp Pop” blues. The brothers would often work together, their albino features reflecting a certain “star quality” the two shared.

The Winter brothers share a display in the Museum of the Gulf Coast’s Music Hall of Fame. The display holds one of Johnny Winter’s famous bedazzled jumpsuits.

“I think he had that on when he played Woodstock,” Monroe said. “I’m saddened to hear of his passing, and not just because of his unique talent. He was a really great guy.”

David Beard, Museum of the Gulf Coast director, will have to update Winter’s display in the Music Hall of Fame.

“It’s always a somber moment when we have to pull out the vinyl letters for the end,” he said, Thursday, referring to adding Winter’s year of death behind his birth year. The display will now read, “Johnny Winter, (1944-2014).”

The Music Hall of Fame is on the second floor of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, located at 700 Procter St. in Port Arthur. Winter is honorably placed between equals and friends — his brother, Edgar, and Janis Joplin.

Winter performed often with blues and rock singer Janis Joplin and the two became close during the 1960s.

Among the blues classics that Winter played during that era were “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl.” He also teamed up with his brother Edgar for their 1976 live album “Together.”

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988, and his devotion to the music never wavered.

“To me, the blues has more emotion in it than any other music I’ve ever heard,” Winter told Guitar World. “You can tell that the people that sing and play the blues mean what they are saying.”

Email: chenderson@panews.com

Twitter: @crhenderson90

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