Blues Guitar Hero Johnny Winter Dies

Rose Prouser/Reuters

Electric blues wizard Johnny Winter died in a Zurich hotel room on Wednesday at the age of 70. The Texas-bred guitarist, who collaborated with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters, was known for his nimble finger work and breakneck speed. The cause of death was not disclosed.

His publicist, Carla Parisi, confirmed Winter’s death in a statement, saying, “His wife, family and bandmates are all saddened by the loss of one of the world’s finest guitarists.”

Winter stands at No. 63 on Rolling Stone’s All-Time Greatest Guitarists list, and No. 67 in a Guitar World reader poll. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1988.

The guitarist had just kicked off a four-month tour of Europe, South America, Canada and the U.S., leading up to a new album he planned to release this fall. His last performance was at the Lovely Days Festival in Wiesen, Austria, last Saturday.

Winter was born in Mississippi on February 23, 1944, and was raised in Beaumont, Texas. He was an albino, as was his younger brother Edgar, of the acclaimed Edgar Winter Group. The two formed their first band when Johnny was 15.

Winter released his first album in 1968, a mixture of standards and originals titled The Progressive Blues Experiment. He rose to fame early on after a 1968 Rolling Stone piece pinned him as one of the best blues guitarists in Texas. The following year Columbia Records signed him.

Winter’s big break was a pivotal performance at the Woodstock Festival. He was among the first musicians of his generation to marry urban blues stylings with lickety-split rock and roll and became a popular act in the 1970s. His thumb-picked electric slide skills were singular—and unbelievably fast. Winter’s ax hero, Muddy Waters, once said of him: “That guy up there onstage—I got to see him up close. He plays eight notes to my one!”

Winter later produced and played guitar with Waters on his 1977 album Hard Again, in addition to three other Grammy-winning Waters records. Winter also recorded with John Lee Hooker in 1970s.

A documentary about Winter’s life, Down & Dirty, recently premiered at the 2014 South by Southwest Music Festival. The film follows Winter for two years, detailing his early career and longtime struggle with substance abuse.

Funeral service announcements have not been announced yet.

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