When Johnny Winter hit the scene back in the '60s, he looked and sounded like nothing else on the planet.
A ferocious blues guitar player with a snarling voice to match, Winter, who died Wednesday in a hotel room near Zurich, Switzerland, also cut a striking figure on stage with his thin, pale frame and long, white hair.
A 1968 Rolling Stone article described him as "a cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues you've ever heard."
If, as its mythology suggests, the blues comes from the crossroads, Winter found himself at a heavily trafficked intersection. Hailing from Beaumont, Texas, he's part of a line of Lone Star blues guitarists that stretches from Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson and beyond. Winter also arrived at a time when British rock guitarists were hearing the blues, then feeding it back to American audiences in new forms. Winter found himself right in the middle of all that, earning the admiration, even the awe, of those who heard him.
Winter released his self-titled major-label debut on Columbia Records, a deal he got after executives heard him sitting in with guitarist Michael Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper at New York's Fillmore East. Bloomfield had introduced him as "the baddest (expletive), man," saying, "this cat can play."
Johnny Winter, released in 1969, featured appearances by blues greats Willie Dixon and Walter Horton. Later that year, Winter appeared at the Woodstock festival, though he wasn't included in the movie.
In the early '70s, Winter formed a band with members of the McCoys, known for their 1965 hit Hang On Sloopy. That group featured a guitarist named Rick Derringer, who wrote Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. That song, recorded by Winter in 1970 and Derringer in 1973, became a staple of album-rock radio and a must-cover song for any high-school band worth its salt throughout the '70s.
Winter packed arenas during the early and mid-'70s, as he released albums like Still Alive and Well, Saints & Sinners and John Dawson Winter III.
Even at the height of his rock stardom, his music never strayed far from the blues. As he got older, he returned to those roots more and more frequently. He produced four albums for pioneering bluesman Muddy Waters, beginning with 1977's Hard Again. That year also saw the release of his own album Nothin' but the Blues, which lived up to its name. Winter continued to focus on blues-oriented material on subsequent albums released on Alligator, Pointblank and Virgin.
Winter was the subject of a four-disc retrospective from Sony's Legacy Recordings earlier this year. Released to coincide with his 70th birthday on Feb. 23, True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story featured recordings spanning from 1968 to 2011 and praise from a slew of prominent guitarists, including Joe Satriani, AC/DC's Angus Young, former Kiss member Ace Frehley and Eddie Van Halen.
"Simple no one has ever played slide guitar with the pure, lusty abandon of Winter," Guitar World editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski wrote in the liner notes for True to the Blues. "His bottleneck sound is so loose and free you can'nt even compare it to a rollercoaster ride, because tracks and rails restrain rollercoasters."
Winter had recently recorded an album called Step Back, containing traditional blues and early rock and roll songs and featuring collaborations with Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Dr. John, Leslie West, Brian Setzer and Joe Bonnamassa. The album is due for a Sept. 2 release on Megaforce Records.
An active performer right up until his death, Winter was on an extensive tour that had taken him to Europe. He died in his hotel four days after performing at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria.