Thursday, March 16, 2017

Johnny Winter - 1969 - First Winter

Johnny Winter
First Winter

01. Bad News 2:47
02. Leavin' Blues 2:36
03. Take A Chance On My Love 2:23
04. Easy Lovin' Girl 1:28
05. I Had To Cry 1:56
06. Birds Can't Row Boats 2:58
07. Out Of Sight 2:05
08. Coming Up Fast Part I 2:32
09. Coming Up Fast Part II 2:30
10. Parchman Farm 2:26
11. Please Come Home For Christmas 2:39

"The First Generation: Rock/Blues/Early Soul"

On the labels, the artist is listed as "Johnny Winters".

Music labels have always thrived on taking advantage of changing public tastes.   1969's "First Winter" is a perfect example of that concept.

Johnny Winter and his younger brother Edgar had been working and recording since the early 1960s.  Johnny's first album saw daylight in 1968.  Released on the small Austin-based Sonobeat label, "The Progressive Blues Experiment" the album helped Winter generate some national attention.  His big break came in December 1968 when he was invited to perform a song at a Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper concert at New York's Fillmore East.  Impressed by the audience's response to his cover of B.B. King's 'It's My Own Fault', Columbia signed him to a recording contract (reportedly offering him a then stunning $600,000 advance).

Winter's Columbia 1969 debut "Johnny Winter" and the follow-up "Second Winter" sold well and caught the attention of lots of other labels who clearly saw an opportunity to cash-in on his sudden commercial success.   Imperial Records acquired rights to the earlier "The Progressive Blues Experiment" album, re-issuing it nationally.   Art Kass' Buddah label did their part to climb onboard the Johnny Winter bandwagon with the release of 1969's "First Winter".   First a word of warning - anyone attracted to Winter's blues-rock sound was probably going to be appalled by this collection.   And another warning - a couple of these songs aren't really Winter solo efforts.  While it's a great song and Winter wrote and played on it,, 'Coming up Fast' was a tune credited to Roy Head's backing band The Great  Believers.  Similarly, Winter guesting on The Traits' single 'Parchment Farm'.  Those technicalities aside, the majority of these eleven tracks seem to have come from two primary sources; early-'60s material recorded with Home Cooking Records owner/producer Roy Ames and mid-'60s material recorded with famed New Orleans producer Huey P. Meaux.  With the exception of the country-blues number 'Leavin' Blues', this isn't your typical collection of hardcore blues and nobody should buy it expecting to hear that kind of stuff.  Instead it stands as a haphazard compilation of early and highly varied material.  The collection has stabs at '50s ballads ('I Had To Cry'), blue-eyed soul ('Easy Lovin' Girl'), garage ('Comin' Up Fast'), and even folk-rock (the instrumental 'Take a Chance On My Love').  And here's the funny part of the story - this album is actually really good.  Yeah, I can hear the blues purists screaming bloody murder.  But, if you're not a blues purist, this one will come as a major and enjoyable surprise.

I'm guessing it wasn't a collection Winter was particularly proud of, but I found it interesting this album didn't even show up on Winter's website discography:

"First Winter" track listing:
(side 1)
1.) Bad News   (J.D. Loudermilk) - 2:47
I was expecting to hear this J.D. Loudermilk tune done as a standard blues number.  Yeah, that meant plodding and completely forgettable.   Darn, talk about misplaced expectation.  Winter turned it into a joyous tribute to bad behavior, but "bad" in the same way the cookie Monster is a nasty character.  Yeah, this is blues, but blues for folks who don't like the blues with Winter turning in a vocal that is bound to make you smile.  Buddah actually released the tune as a single:
- 1970's 'Bad News' b/w 'Out of Sight' (Buddah catalog number BDA 168)     rating: **** stars
2.) Leavin' Blues   (Johnny Winter) - 2:36
A more conventional slice of country-blues, but the acoustic slide guitar opening was stunning and the tune actually got better as it went along.  The man could play !!!    Only complaint was the song faded out just as Winter started to burn on slide guitar.   The tune was originally the 'B' side on the 1966 single 'Birds Can't Row Boats' rating: **** stars
3.) Take a Chance On My Love (instrumental)   (Johnny Winter) - 2:23
Opening up with Church organ, lysergic bass and Byrds-styled guitar, 'Take a Chance On My Love' was a totally unexpected slice of psychedelic-jangle rock.  Clearly from early in his career and cool as all.  Imagine a James Bond theme song for an audience stoned out of their collective minds.   rating: **** stars
4.) Easy Lovin' Girl   (Johnny Winters) - 1:28
I've always loved Roy Head's pop-soul version of the song and was surprised to hear Winter's version - to my ears the two sound almost identical.   Seriously, after a beer or tow you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference.    Interestingly Johnny and brother Edgar both played with head which may explain the song's background  Another curiosity -  Heads' cover credited the song to "W. Thompson" while it was shown as a Winter original on this album.   Regardless, it was a killer slice of blue-eyed soul with a nice fuzz guitar and xylophone solo.   rating: **** stars
5.) I Had To Cry   (Roy Ames - Scott - Mathis) - 1:55
How many folks would recognize this '50s feeling ballad as a Johnny Winter effort?   Seriously unexpected tune that's obviously from way early in his recording career - supposedly Huey Meaux produced sessions recorded in New Orleans in 1962 or 1963.  The most amazing thing about this ballad was Winter's young voice.  Who would have ever thought he had such a sweet and vulnerable edge?   Extra star just for its historical value.   rating: *** stars6.) Birds Can't Row Boats  (Johnny Winters) - 2:58
Released as a 1966 single by the small Texas-based Pacemaker label, 'Birds Can't Row Boats' is another tune that will likely surprise Johnny Winter the blues man fans.  As if you wouldn't have guessed from the song title, this was an early slice of  psych ...   Personally I love this lysergic jangle-rock tune.
- 1966's 'Birds Can't Row Boats' b/w 'Leavin' blues' (Pacemaker catalog number PM-243   rating: **** stars

(side 2)
1.) Out of Sight  (T. Right) - 2:05
Another tune that will come as a shock to the man's blues fan base ...   Winter channeling  James Brown !!!   For a 20 year old white guy (LOL), Winter sounded surprisingly impressive.  Always loved the punchy horns on this one.   rating: **** stars
2.) Coming Up Fast (Part I)   (Johnny Winter) - 2:32
3.) Coming Up Fast (Part II)   (Johnny Winter) - 2:30
Driven by a killer fuzz guitar and one of the most amazing solos you'll ever hear, these two blue-eyed soul side were my favorite performances. Technically they weren't even Winter solo efforts, rather reflected a 1965 outing by Roy Head and hit backing band The Great Believers (which happened to feature Johnny and Edgar).  Note that the liner notes didn't even get the song titles right -looking at the original single, there was no 'g' at the end of 'Comin''. Awesome performance and five decades later parents are still complaining about the subject.  The two sides were released as a 1965 single on Huey P. Meaux’s Cascade Records:
- 1965's 'Coming Up Fast (Part I)' b/w 'Coming Up Fast (Part I)' (Cascade catalog number 365)    The song gets an extra star just for Johnny's fuzz guitar solo.   rating: ***** stars
4.) Parchment Farm   (M.J. Allison) - 2:26
'Parchment Farm' was another tune with a tentative link to Winter.  The song was actually by The Traits who'd backed Roy Head on a bunch of his recordings.  Released as a hyper rare 1967 single on the Houston-based Universal label (reportedly only 300 copies were pressed), this was their only stab at a recording without Head.  As for the Winter link; well he provided the killer lead guitar solo (not sure if he was responsible for the nifty little nod to The Beatles 'I Feel Fine').
- 1967's 'Parchment Farm' b/w 'Tramp' (Universal catalog number U-30496)  rating: ***** stars
5.) Please Come Home for Christmas  (Brown - Red) - 2:39
Johnny and Edgar - amazingly sweet version of this classic tune ...  Would give The Neville Brothers    a run for their money.   rating: **** stars

A huge surprise. For the most part, my introduction to Johnny Winter follows the order of his major releases starting with The Progressive Blues Experiment. Due to the relative obscurity of First Winter, it took awhile for me to finally grab a copy. If you have not heard this album, but have heard plenty of early Winter, this album will be a bit of a shock. You will be able to pick out both Winter's voice and guitar playing throughout the album, but do not expect near as much blues and blues rock as his subsequent albums. First Winter is a bizarre collection of blues songs, psychedelic rock songs, pre-soul songs (yes, soul is present here), and slower, sixties style rock and roll (the cover certainly hints at the psychedelic nature of the album). The odd thing is that the songs fall into these categories with little to no overlap between genres. As a result, the transitions between tracks is rough and the album as a whole is somewhat disconnected. Poor transitions aside, Winter completely rocks. Sure, the tracks are all extremely short and the entire album is under thirty minutes, but the content is loaded with catchy rhythms and melodies I like to think of as musical tapas. There are a few bluesy tracks here to entertain the Winter faithful, but also expect to enjoy at least a few of his other psychedelic or sixties rock tracks.

Unlike Winter's other early albums, he takes on the majority of the songwriting here. The A side is incredibly solid and highlighted by Winter's two psychedelic creations "Birds Can't Row Boats" and "Take a Chance on My Love." The first of these two features acid inspired lyrics and Bob Dylan sounding delivery. The second is the albums only instrumental track. "Leavin' Blues" is the bluesiest track on First Winter and most similar to his later creations. The B side, although not as solid, has a few gems as well. The early soul classic "Out of Sight" is wonderful as Winter's two other covers on this side, "Parchment Farm" and "Please Come Home For Christmas." The last of these is probably my favorite track on this album and one of the only Christmas themed songs I can still listen to and not throw up. The albums only flop is Winter's one-two combination "Coming Up Fast Part I-II." I cannot stand the vocal delivery or the lyrics during this (thankfully) short set of songs. Some of the tracks do seem one or two verses too short, which is my only other complaint - "Easy Lovin' Girl" at 1:28???

I was surprised that there were not a great deal of blues rock tracks on First Winter, but I was also surprised at the effectiveness of the non blues tracks. Winter certainly does not unleash the fury of his guitar playing as he does starting on The Progressive Blues Experiment, but his vocals are mostly spot on and filled with both talent and emotion. This album is a nice departure for Johnny Winter fans and does offer plenty for casual listeners of multiple genres (blues, rock, early soul, psychedelic rock). Many of the tracks found here can also be found on later compilation releases such as the 1988 release Birds Can't Row Boats. Indeed, Buddah Records for the win.



  2. Thanks, wasn't expecting this.