Johnny Winter Guitars and Vocals Ken Saydak Keyboards Johnny B. Gayden Bass Casey Jones Drums *with Jon Paris Harmonica
except +Tommy Shannon Bass Uncle John Turner Drums
Produced by Johnny Winter, Bruce Iglauer and Dick Shurman "Third Degree" and "Broke And Lonely" produced by Johnny Winter and Dick Shurman Recorded at Streeterville Studios, Chicago, IL and Red Label Recording, Winnetka, IL Recorded by Justin Niebank and Fred Breitberg Mixed by Justin Niebank at Streeterville Studios, Chicago, IL Remastered for LP by Collin Jordan and Bruce Iglauer at The Boiler Room, Chicago, IL Cover photo by Ebet Roberts Back cover photo by Paul Natkin Packaging design by Kevin Niemiec
The real blues. That’s why Johnny Winter left a label owned by a huge international media conglomerate and signed with tiny, independent Alligator Records—to record the real blues.
In the mid-1980s, Johnny Winter was still a rock star. He had burst on the scene in the late 1960s and by the middle of the 1970s, his fiery, blurringly-fast guitar and raw vocals had made him the #1 arena rock draw in the country. Although the peak of his popularity had passed by the 1980s, he still could have signed with any major record company in New York or Los Angeles for a bundle of money. But Johnny knew what he wanted. He was ready to get back to his blues roots.
I met Johnny in 1977, when he showed up backstage at Son Seals’ New York debut at The Bottom Line. Johnny wasn’t there as a rock star; he was there as a fan. He wanted to meet Son, the hot new young bluesman bursting onto the national scene. As Johnny and I talked, I was surprised that he wasn’t a full-of-himself, ego-tripping star, but instead a fellow blues enthusiast. We talked about old records and his excitement in producing Muddy Waters’ comeback album, Hard Again, which had just been released. We realized we had a lot in common. We stayed in touch, and the next year, when Son returned to The Bottom Line to open for Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Johnny came again, and this time he sat in with Son.
I invited Johnny to come out to Chicago and to hang out in the local blues joints. During one of the snowiest winter weeks the city ever experienced, Johnny stayed at my house and we spent the evenings in some of the city’s funkier clubs. We had a great time. I introduced him to Dick Shurman, the writer and producer who had brought his friend, the legendary guitarist Albert Collins, to Alligator. Dick’s knowledge of obscure blues records equaled Johnny’s, and they bonded immediately, a friendship that lasted until Johnny’s death in 2014.
In 1984, I got a phone call from Johnny’s manager. He wanted to know if Alligator would be interested in signing Johnny. I was shocked. It had never crossed my mind that my famous friend would ever record for a company as small as ours when so many other opportunities were available. But, as I found out later, Johnny was determined, against his manager’s strong advice. He had convinced his manager to reach out to Alligator by literally threatening him with bodily harm. We negotiated a contract over the next few weeks, and began to plan the album. Of course we wanted Dick to co-produce.
Johnny wanted to record with the best of the Windy City bluesmen, and trusted Dick and me to choose them. We wanted musicians who would bring all the raw soulfulness of the city’s musical heritage to the studio, and ones who could play at Johnny’s high energy level. We immediately thought of Johnny B. Gayden on bass and Casey Jones on drums, the team that had been touring and recording with Albert Collins. Johnny B. was (and is) simply a great bassman, one who could lay a super-solid, simple foundation but with enough chops so that he could handle a complex arrangement, and feel the subtle nuances of a perfect rhythmic accent. Casey was all about “keeping it in the pocket,” a less-is-more drummer who prided himself on his ability to back up singers. He knew how to support the vocal, and how to drive a song without becoming over-busy. For keyboards, we recruited Ken Saydak, a veteran of the bands of Mighty Joe Young and Lonnie Brooks, a versatile young player who knew the tradition but, like Johnny B. and Casey, Ken wasn’t locked into playing only old school style blues. Johnny didn’t want a rhythm guitarist; he wanted to handle all the guitar parts himself. Johnny and the band gelled immediately, and the rehearsals were full of laughter.
Johnny had an amazing memory for music. He could remember obscure old songs and be able to sing all the words. For his Alligator debut, we chose mostly songs that had been recorded by his heroes and influences—Bobby “Blue” Bland, Muddy Waters, Clifton Chenier, Earl King, and Johnny’s idol from his teenage years in Beaumont, Texas, Lonnie Brooks. Although he was doing covers, he Winter-ized every one of them with his instantly recognizable vocal and guitar (including his searing slide playing), and his ferocious attack. Even his slow tunes were full of energy.
Working in the studio with Johnny was a little unusual. We’d begin in the early evening, usually with an hour of joking around, tuning up and chatting. Around 8 or 9 p.m., Johnny would get full of nervous energy and was ready to rip. Then we’d record very quickly, cutting tracks with Johnny playing rhythm guitar and giving the band sketchy descriptions of what he wanted to hear, and trusting their experience and instincts. Johnny wanted to let the music flow, so we cut a lot of songs in one or two takes and picked out the best tracks later on. By 11 p.m. or so we’d break for food, and usually cut only one or two more tracks after that. We could see Johnny’s energy level drop a bit, and knew we wouldn’t be getting his best.
Johnny’s Alligator debut, Guitar Slinger, was released in early 1985. It was immediately hailed as one of his best ever, and became the fastest seller in Alligator’s history. We even issued a 12-inch single for radio. Although Johnny was still touring with his hard-rocking road band, he began incorporating Guitar Slinger’s tunes into his set. We got him back in the studio very quickly, reassembling the crack studio band and cutting the Serious Business album. This time we chose songs by Slim Harpo, Sonny Boy Williamson, the mysterious Dr. Clayton, and by another of Johnny’s youthful influences, Clarence Garlow. Plus Johnny wrote a fresh original that fit perfectly.
Johnny and the band and Dick continued to work together harmoniously during the Serious Business sessions. But my friendship with Johnny had begun to fray. Our business roles and personal roles bumped into each other. As a record label head, I wanted an artist who would gladly do lots of interviews, visit record stores, and perform all those other promotional tasks that can be no fun at all. As an artist, he wanted to play his music and live his life, without annoying requests from his label. Beyond that, we battled about the album’s mixes while Dick tried to referee. The record was very good, but we had much less fun making it together.
So, for Johnny’s third Alligator release, 1986’s 3rd Degree, we mutually decided that Dick and Johnny should co-produce and I should step back. Without the extra tension, they created another timeless album. Dick arranged a happy reunion of the original Johnny Winter trio who had recorded the groundbreaking Progressive Blues Experiment album that launched Johnny’s career. Tommy Shannon (of Double Trouble) and Uncle John Turner came up from Texas and the get-together of these old friends created a terrific, positive vibe that you can hear in their rendition of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Broke and Lonely.” Other songs came from J.B. Lenoir, Willie Dixon, Eddie Boyd and Freddie King—real blues written by real bluesmen—just what Johnny wanted.
Over less than three years, Johnny Winter lived out his dream of recording unadulterated blues with some of the most soulful bluesmen in the world. Eight of the finest tracks from those three albums are brought together here, remastered and back on vinyl for the first time in decades.
–Bruce Iglauer President and Founder, Alligator Records