Johnny Winter played a couple shows at New York's Fillmore East on the
first weekend of October 1970, he was at a critical juncture in his
career. He'd quickly established himself as a star after signing to
Columbia Records in early 1969, though the Texan had been recording for
about a decade before that breakthrough. He'd only recently formed a
band entirely different from the personnel he'd fronted on his first
two Columbia LPs. This CD presents more than hour of performances
recorded by that group, memorably dubbed Johnny Winter And, at the
Fillmore East on October 3, 1970, sharing the bill with the Buddy Miles
Express and Tin House.
The Fillmore had
been a key venue for Winter as he launched his bid for stardom. He'd
played his first high-profile New York show by joining Mike Bloomfield
and Al Kooper onstage there in mid-December 1968, performing at the
same venue the following month leading his own trio on a bill also
featuring blues great B.B. King. Columbia signed Johnny to a lucrative
deal shortly afterward, and it was with the rhythm section of Tommy
Shannon on bass and "Uncle" John Turner on drums that Winter recorded
1969's Johnny Winter and
1970's Second Winter,
multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter also coming on board for the latter
Before leaving for a European tour in May 1970, however, Winter and his rhythm section decided to part ways upon their return to the US. "We came to the conclusion that we couldn't possibly do anything, couldn't get any further, there was just nowhere we could go except the same way we'd been going, and all of us were tired of that," Winter explained to John Morthland in Rolling Stone a few months later. "I wanted a band where everybody could be contributing something musically as much as possible, in every way, other people who could write, who could sing. Something where there could be much more projection of personality and talent on the stage and in our records."
The new musicians Winter selected came as a surprise to an audience who associated the guitarist with down-home Texas blues. On the recommendation of his manager Steve Paul, Johnny enlisted members of the McCoys, who often played at Paul's Scene club in New York. Backing Winter would be guitarist/singer Rick Derringer, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs, and drummer Randy Zehringer. Though they were (and remain) most known for their 1965 chart-topping hit "Hang on Sloopy," when they moved to Mercury Records in the late 1960s, the group went in a decidedly more psychedelic direction. According to Morthland's Rolling Stone article, they had to give up the rights to the McCoys name when they arranged for a release from their Mercury contract, and while they did play a gig under the name Transition, they weren't up to much until they linked up with Winter.
The Rolling Stone article also reported that the McCoys weren't even too familiar with Winter's work. Nonetheless things clicked when they jammed together, and after just two or three weeks, they were recording in the studio. The resulting album, called (like the band) Johnny Winter And, came out the very month of the Fillmore East performance you hear on this CD.
"Probably a lot of people were surprised to hear that Johnny Winter's new band was the old McCoys," Derringer admitted to Morthland. "Probably a lot still are. But it's not surprising to us, because we've known what we were all along. It points out to us a lot of the just plain out-and-out bullshit there is in this business, because now we get reactions like from people that wouldn't even talk to the McCoys, didn't even want to be in the same room with them. They tell us, 'Oh, wow, we always knew about the McCoys, we tried to turn people on to the McCoys, people just didn't know what the McCoys were; we were always trying to tell them.' The same people, saying that! It's ridiculous, just ridiculous."
Chimed in Winter, "See, we're constantly turning each other on up there on stage working with each other. It's nice to have somebody else up there to work with, instead of everybody following. Somebody else is up there playing and turning me on, they're playing good things, so I gotta play good stuff too! It makes me really happy, and I hope it makes other people happy too." Along the same lines, he declared in Circus, "It helped both of us, because my spontaneity raised the energy level of what they were doing and their order and planning helped out my spontaneity and gave it some kind of continuity. It just worked very nicely."
The Johnny Winter And album saw him moving into less pure blues than his previous Columbia releases had spotlighted, and into more hard rock-oriented and even occasionally pop-oriented material, especially with Derringer doing about as much of the songwriting as Winter. Blues, however, remained integral to Johnny's music, especially live, where concert audiences were still unfamiliar with the Johnny Winter And LP. The seven songs on this CD feature just two from Johnny Winter And, the remainder of the set being drawn from material that had been included on his previous Columbia albums, along with some blues tunes he'd already featured in concert prior to the formation of the new band. By the time of the October Fillmore East shows, however, that band's lineup had shifted slightly, with Bobby Caldwell replacing Randy Zehringer on percussion.
"Guess I'll Go Away" and "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo" were the two songs from Johnny Winter And. The latter, of course, became by far the most famous of the compositions first issued on that LP, though it took Derringer's solo re-recording to make it a Top Thirty single in 1974. "Good Morning Little School Girl" had been on Johnny Winter, while "Highway 61 Revisited," one of the most acclaimed Bob Dylan covers of the era, had found its way onto Second Winter. "It's My Own Fault" (previously most familiar to listeners through the version on B.B. King's classic Live at the Regal album) and the Winter original "Mean Town Blues" had been part of Johnny's set for a while, as their inclusion on the bonus concert disc (recorded at Royal Albert Hall on April 17, 1970) of a CD reissue of Second Winter demonstrated. The blues perennial "Rollin' & Tumblin'" had appeared on a pre-Columbia single by Winter in 1968, backed in fact by an earlier version of "Mean Town Blues."
"If the recent blues revival served only to unearth Johnny Winter and his various associates, it might have been worth it for that alone," wrote Mike Jahn in his review of the Fillmore East concerts in the New York Times. Jahn found the new lineup "a considerable improvement over Winter, the previous band...Winter and [Derringer] played solos back and forth at each other, simultaneously and in alternation. Mr. Winter played his familiar blues-based, hard-rock guitar. Occasionally he used the new band to liberate himself from the old blues format and indulge in various effects and ideas of larger scope. Rick Zehringer [as he was known in his McCoys days, before changing his last name] provided a needed second guitar and fine counterpoints in the several guitar duels that emerged during the evening."
The lineup that played these Fillmore East concerts wouldn't last much longer, Derringer beginning a successful solo career with his hit album All American Boy. Johnny Winter, of course, has performed and recorded often over the last four decades, and remains one of the world's most popular blues guitarists. The music they performed at the Fillmore East on October 3, 1970 captures the time at which Winter's music was drawing in elements of hard rock, without eschewing the blues roots that are still the foundation of his artistry. – Richie Unterberger
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