Johnny Winter

Houston, Texas

Records with Sonobeat in 1968
One commercial 45 RPM release on Sonobeat Records and one non-commercial "advance pressing" album release on Sonobeat Records (both 1968)
One Sonobeat-produced commercial 45 RPM release and one Sonobeat-produced commercial album release on Imperial Records (both 1969)
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Basic instrumental tracks for Bad Luck and Trouble and Mean Town Blues
Burton Wilson photo of Johnny Winter on the 1968 Sonobeat single release custom sleeve
The Burton Wilson contact sheet from which Sonobeat co-producer Rim Kelley creates the rare limited edition backside of the Winter single sleeve
Sonobeat's 1968 release of Johnny Winter's single; Rollin' and Tumblin' is the "A" side; Mean Town Blues, a Johnny Winter original, is the "B" side
Sonobeat's "white jacket" advance pressing of Winter's album The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968); Johnny autographs every copy of the approximately 100 individually numbered copies pressed
The Imperial Records (a division of Liberty Records) artwork for its 1969 release of The Progressive Blues Experiment, featuring front and back cover photos by Austin photographer Burton Wilson
Cash Box Magazine gives The Progressive Blues Experiment a warm review in its March 29, 1969, issue

It's mid-summer 1968 in Austin, Texas, and it's already hot as the blazes. And then Johnny Winter crashes the local music scene with his electrifying brand of southern blues. Suddenly Austin is blistering hot. At 24, Johnny already is a seasoned veteran of the southern roadhouse, honky tonk, dance hall, and dive circuit and soon will be on his way to major auditoriums, like the Fillmore East in New York, where he'll perform in January '69. Based out of Houston, Johnny and band tour from an old black hearse, making an indelible impression wherever they perform – three white guys playing traditionally Black music with a vengeance. The band – Johnny on guitars, mouth harp, and vocals; Uncle John "Red" Turner on drums; Tommy Shannon on bass – storms Austin's hottest music venue, Vulcan Gas CompanyThe Vulcan is Austin's first successful hippie music hall, opening in 1967 in an old warehouse at 316 Congress Avenue and closing in 1970. on Congress Avenue, with a series of shows that leave the audience of hippies and hip college students stunned and screaming for more. They've never seen or heard anything quite like Winter before.

Just as Johnny is arriving on Vulcan Gas Company scene, Austin-based Sonobeat Records is finishing up recording sessions with The Conqueroo, the de facto Vulcan house band. On August 2nd, a warm and sticky Friday night, Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. stops by the Vulcan expecting to see The Conqueroo perform, but, instead, an unfamiliar act, Johnny's band, is on stage playing to a packed house. Bill Sr. comes away wowed. The next day, he runs into Johnny at Austin head shop Underground City Hall, where Johnny is purchasing a pair of sandals. The two strike up a conversation about Johnny's Vulcan show the night before, which leads to setting a date for a recording session and, as they say, the rest is history.

Johnny Winter doesn't mess around. He plays a mean, fluid, slicing, scuttling blues guitar fueled by a sense of primal drive that somehow reaches all the way back to the earliest moans and unites them with the hardware of the Seventies in a unified musical entity, diverse in its source but poised to attack.
From Lester Bangs' liner notes for the 1973 United Artists Records reissue of The Progressive Blues Experiment under the title Johnny Winter, Austin, Texas

To capture Johnny's "guttural, edgy" sound (as CREEM Magazine writer Lester Bangs describes it), Sonobeat records the Winter trio at the Vulcan, where they can play at full performance volume. Although the resulting tracks have a distinctive live sound, raw and primal, they're recorded during daylight hours, when no audience is present. On August 18, 1968 (a Sunday), and again the following day, the band sets up in a tight cluster, as if under a single spotlight, on the Vulcan's raised stage. Sonobeat co-founder and producer Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) uses only half a dozen dynamic and two condenser microphones to cover the band. An additional mike, set up at the back of the hall, captures the Vulcan's cavernous acoustics. To set the mood, Vulcan Gas Company artist-in-residence Jim Franklin sets up a pulsating liquid light show. Although the Vulcan sessions aren't recorded before a live audience, they're mixed "live"; that is, the instrumental tracks are mixed at the same time as recorded to a quarter-inch 2-track Ampex 354 tape deck through Sonobeat's custom 10-input portable stereo recording console, and vocals are overdubbed later during the same sessions by mixing the instrumental track playback from the Ampex 354 with Johnny's vocals through the console to an Ampex AG350 quarter-inch 2-track deck. The Vulcan sessions yield eight electrified and electrifying tracks on which Johnny plays a 12-string Gibson, from which he's removed six strings, and a Fender Mustang.

A week later, two acoustic tracks – featuring Johnny alone – are recorded in the cozy comfort of the living room at the Josey family home in northwest Austin. Johnny multi-tracks National steel standard guitar, mandolin, mouth harp, and vocals on Sonobeat's brand new half-inch 4-track Scully 280 recorder, which has been delivered to the Joseys too late to set up for Johnny's Vulcan sessions. There's noticeably greater clarity in Johnny's solo acoustic recordings, and, for a more intimate effect, they're mixed with shallow reverb.

I wrote Mean Town Blues in Dallas, but we recorded it when we moved to Austin. Austin was an amazing place at that point. There was a lot of music and psychedelic drugs. It was like San Francisco in Texas. I loved it. And I had big aspirations. I was trying to make it really hard, no question. And there’s no question I learned a lot of what I’d later do in Austin.
Johnny Winter, quoted in Texas Monthly (February 11, 2014)

Initially, in September 1968, Sonobeat releases a Winter 45 RPM single featuring a high energy performance of McKinley Morgenfield's Rollin' and Tumblin' ("A" side) and the guitar tour de force Mean Town Blues ("B" side), written by Johnny. It's wrapped in a black and white picture sleeve designed by producer Rim Kelley and featuring a close-up of Johnny shot by famed Austin photographer Burton Wilson. The Winter sleeve marks the first appearance of Sonobeat's stylized "S" logo. An alternate, two-sided sleeve featuring film strips from Burton Wilson's Winter photo shoot on the backside, makes the odd appearance among collectors, although Rim has no recollection of designing it.

My dad [Bill Josey Sr.], Johnny Winter, and I sat in my dad's white T-bird ... as I passed Johnny numbered white albums to autograph. So the scene I remember is my dad telling Johnny what to write on each of the albums.
Jack Josey, quoted in Ricky Stein's Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the 60s (History Press; 2014)

A month after releasing Winter's single, Sonobeat issues a limited non-commercial "advance" pressing of a 10-track album. Bill Josey Sr. names the album The Progressive Blues Experiment. The album tracks are culled from dozens of alternate takes and false starts; five tracks are original Winter compositions and five are covers. Sonobeat's advance pressings are used to get early radio airplay and reviews and to market its recordings to larger national labels. After recording the album, in October '68 Johnny makes a trip to the U.K. to check out its music scene. There he's introduced to the Vernon brothers who own a young but successful London-based blues specialty label, Blue Horizon Records. Johnny plays the Sonobeat album for the Vernons, and by November, Sonobeat has entered into negotiations to license The Progressive Blues Experiment to Blue Horizon for distribution in the U.K., Europe, and Canada. By the time Johnny returns to the U.S. in early December, a Rolling Stone article by Larry Sepulveda, proclaiming Johnny one of the hottest blues performers out of Texas, changes everything: wooed to New York by Steve Paul, owner of a hot Manhattan nightclub, Johnny signs a multi-million dollar contract with Columbia Records, who rushs him into its Nashville studios to cut an album.

There's an urgency and bite to every track... As an electric guitarist, Winter is explosive, fluid, percussive, and driving...
Rolling Stone review of The Progessive Blues Experiment (1969)

Meanwhile, on the heels of the Rolling Stone article, Sonobeat sells The Progressive Blues Experiment to Liberty Records and ceases distribution of the Winter single as well as negotiations with Blue Horizon. The Liberty deal done, the Josey family drives the master tapes to Los Angeles over the 1968 holiday break to hand deliver them to Liberty's execs. The week of March 10, 1969, Liberty releases the Sonobeat-produced album (LP-12431) on its Imperial label, beating Johnny's Columbia debut album to market by two weeks. Thus, the Sonobeat album holds the distinction of being both the first Winter album recorded and the first released. The Progressive Blues Experiment debuts on the Billboard Hot 100 Albums chart at #112 on April 12, 1969, and peaks several weeks later at #40. It performs similarly on the Cash Box Top 100 Albums chart, opening at #60 in the May 3, 1969, issue, and peaking on May 31st at #47. Johnny's reflection in his National steel standard guitar – a Burton Wilson photo – graces the Imperial release's original cover. Rollin' and Tumblin' and Forty-Four become the "A" and "B" sides, respectively, of Johnny's first Imperial single pulled from the album.

Liberty Records merges with United Artists Records in late '69, and, in 1973, The Progressive Blues Experiment is re-mastered and re-issued on the UA label with new artwork under the title Austin, Texas. Several re-issues on CD follow, including a sort-of 30th anniversary edition in 1999 on the Razor & Tie label; that release reinstates the original title and cover design. Capitol Records creates a 24-bit digital master for a spectacular 2005 CD re-release, and now The Progressive Blues Experiment is available from the Apple iTunes Store and other digital download services.

Winter was a genuine phenomenon: a blazing, melodically articulate soloist with a howling, pitted voice that caught the raw urgency of songs like ... Mean Town Blues, from his blistering 1968 independent-label debut, The Progressive Blues Experiment.
Rolling Stone in its August 14, 2014, issue mention of Johnny's death

Album co-producer Bill Josey Sr. summarizes in his original 1969 album liner notes precisely what makes Johnny's The Progressive Blues Experiment a seminal work that will become as legendary as the great albino bluesman himself: "Winter is hard and heavy in his hypnotic blues bag. Before the recording session, there was Johnny Winter and his guitar. During the session, Johnny became the guitar." To this day, The Progressive Blues Experiment is considered by blues aficionados and critics alike as one of Johnny Winter's finest works.

Following his work on The Progressive Blues Experiment and Johnny's first two Columbia albums, drummer Uncle John Turner forms seminal Austin band Krackerjack with former Winter bandmate Tommy Shannon and then-newcomer Stevie Ray Vaughn. Uncle John remains a major force in Austin's blues scene for 40 years, but succumbs on July 26, 2007, to complications relating to hepatitis C.

Seven years later, on July 16, 2014, fans around the world mourn Johnny's death during his European tour. But fans are comforted that Johnny leaves a legacy of great blues recordings spanning an almost 50 year musical career.

Today, Tommy Shannon headlines The Tommy Shannon Blues Band, performing regularly in Austin. The Blues Band features drummer Tommy Taylor, longtime contributor of Austin music history to us here at Sonobeat.com.

Johnny Winter personnel

Tommy Shannon: bass
Uncle John "Red" Turner: drums
Johnny Winter: guitars, mandolin, mouth harp, and vocals

Sonobeat stereo 45 RPM release R-s107 (1968)

"A" side: Rollin' and Tumblin' (McKinley Morgenfield) • 2:25
"B" side: Mean Town Blues (Johnny Winter) • 2:17

Released week of September 2, 1968* • R-s107
Produced and engineered by Rim Kelley
Black and white picture sleeve with photo by Burton Wilson
Recorded at Vulcan Gas Company, Austin, Texas, on August 18, 1968
Recording equipment: ElectroVoice 665 microphones, ElectroVoice Slimair 636 microphones, Sony ECM22 electret condenser microphones, Ampex 350 and 354 tape decks, custom 10-channel suitcase stereo mixer, 3M (Scotch) 202 tape stock
Vinyl collector information for R-s107

Between 1,000 and 1,500 copies pressed
Lacquers mastered and vinyl copies pressed by Sidney J. Wakefield & Company, Phoenix, Arizona
Single-sided black and white picture sleeve
Double-sided black and white picture sleeve (appears on a relatively small number of copies, perhaps no more than 200)
Label blanks and picture sleeves printed by Powell Offset Services, Austin, Texas
In the dead wax:
   Rollin' and Tumblin': SJW-10863
   Mean Town Blues: SJW-10863
   "SJW" in the matrix number identifies Sidney J. Wakefield & Company as the lacquer mastering and record pressing plant

As of January 7, 2017, a copy in its original single-sided picture sleeve is available on eBay at just under $150

Sonobeat advance pressing album release R-s1002 (1968)

The Progressive Blues Experiment
First half:
   Rollin' and Tumblin' (Morgenfield) • 3:09
   Tribute to Muddy (Winter) • 6:20
   Got Love If You Want It (Moore) • 3:52
   Bad Luck and Trouble (Winter) • 3:43
   Help Me (Williamson & Bass) • 3:46
Second half:
   Mean Town Blues (Winter) • 4:26
   Broke Down Engine (McTell) • 3:25
   Black Cat Bone (Winter) • 3:46
   It's My Own Fault (King & Josea) • 7:20
   Forty-Four (Sykes) • 3:28

Issued week of September 23, 1968* • R-s1002
Not commercially released; used only for promotional purposes
Produced by Bill Josey and Rim Kelley
Engineered by Rim Kelley
Recorded at Vulcan Gas Company, Austin, Texas, August 18-19, 1968
Bad Luck and Trouble and Broke Down Engine recorded at Sonobeat's Western Hills Drive studio in Northwest Austin, September 1, 1968
Recording equipment: ElectroVoice 665 microphones, ElectroVoice Slimair 636 microphones, Sony ECM22 electret condenser microphones, Scully 280 half-inch 4-track tape deck, Ampex AG350 and 354 quarter-inch 2-track tape decks, custom 10-channel suitcase stereo mixer, 3M (Scotch) 202 tape stock
Vinyl collector information for R-s1002

Approximately 105-110 copies pressed
Lacquers mastered and vinyl copies pressed by Sidney J. Wakefield & Company, Phoenix, Arizona
Plain white jacket rubber stamped (clockwise, from top left, in each corner) with The Progressive Blues Experiment, Winter, Advance Copy, and Sonobeat Stereo
Copies individually numbered and signed by Johnny Winter
Label blanks printed by Powell Offset Services, Austin, Texas
In the dead wax:
   First half: SJW-10893 and R-s1002 A
   Second half: SJW-10893 and R-s1002 B
   "SJW" in the matrix number identifies Sidney J. Wakefield & Company as the lacquer mastering and pressing plant

In April 2015, gripsweat.com reports that a rare remaining copy of The Progressive Blues Experiment advance pressing sells in auction for $505.

Imperial Records album release LP-12431 (1969)

The Progressive Blues Experiment
First half:
   Rollin' and Tumblin' (McKinley Morgenfield) • 3:09
   tribute to Muddy (Johnny Winter) • 6:30
   Got Love If You Want It (J. Moore) • (3:52)
   Bad Luck and Trouble (Johnny Winter) • 3:42
   Help Me (R. Williamson-R. Bass) • 3:46
Second half:
   Mean Town Blues (Johnny Winter) • 4:26
   Broke Down Engine (Arranged and adapted by Johnny Winter) • 3:25
   Black Cat Bone (Johnny Winter) • 3:46
   It's My Own Fault (King & Taub) • 7:20
   Forty-Four (C Burnett) • 3:28

Released week of March 24, 1969* • LP-12431
Producers: Bill Josey and Rim Kelley
A Sonobeat Production for Liberty Records, Inc.
Engineer: Rim Kelley
Art Direction: Woody Woodward
Design: Ron Wolin
Photography: Burton Wilson
Recorded at Vulcan Gas Company, Austin, Texas
Vinyl, CD, and digital reissues

Liberty Records, parent of Imperial Records, merges with United Artists Records in 1969; in 1973, United Artists reissues The Progressive Blues Experiment with new cover art under the title Austin, Texas. There have been multiple re-issues on CD, including a sort-of 30th anniversary edition released in 1999 on the Razor & Tie label; that release reinstates the original title and cover design. In 1979, EMI acquires United Artists Records (including its Liberty and Imperial labels), and EMI's Capitol Records subsidiary creates a 24-bit digital master for a spectacular 2005 CD reissue. The Progressive Blues Experiment is available on iTunes.

Unreleased Sonobeat recordings

There are no unreleased songs by Johnny Winter in the Sonobeat archives, although there are many alternate and incomplete takes of released songs

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Reviews of The Progressive Blues Experiment

5-star customer ratings at the Apple iTunes Store: "The sound on this remastering is superb, the performance unrivaled." "One of the greatest blues albums of its time." "This is THE Johnny Winter album for me!"

"This album was recorded for a small Texas label (Sonobeat) some time before anyone thought about [Winter's] pop potential. Exploitation albums such as this are generally poor quality (as in Capitol's early Jimi Hendrix product or Mainstream's Big Brother records), but this is a happy exception. It is recorded well and captures some exciting performances of largely traditional material."
Pete Johnson's review in The Los Angeles Times (April 13, 1969)

"Blues guitarist/singer Johnny Winter lends his own exciting, personal talents to ten blues outings. His rough, mournful voice is highly appropriate to his material, and his guitar work is scintillating."
Cash Box Magazine's album review (March 29, 1969, issue)

"There's an urgency and bite to every track... As an electric guitarist, Winter is explosive, fluid, percussive, and driving..."
Rolling Stone (1969)

"The Progressive Blues Experiment is a dense, rocking, concentrated barrage of kamikaze exercises in rocking blues and bluesy rock. The Progressive Blues Experiment was actually a better album than Johnny Winter [Johnny's first Columbia album]."
New Music Express (1974)

"A true classic, this is one dirty, dangerous, and visionary album."
All Music Guide

"This is killer white boy blues beyond compare."
Music Dish (2005)

"The all-time classic Black Cat Bone is one of the very best versions I have ever heard. [Johnny] does it with all the heart and soul one person could possibly muster."
Morrice Blackwell reviewing Capitol's 2005 reissue in JazzReview (May 2, 2005)

"More than three decades after its release, The Progressive Blues Experiment remains one of Johnny Winter's most innovative albums. Although he has achieved great success throughout his career, The Progressive Blues Experiment will continue to be remembered as one of Winter's most memorable accomplishments."
The Western Courier (2006)

"The funny thing is, The Progressive Blues Experiment is about ten thousand times better than Johnny’s major-label debut, exhibiting a raw vitality almost completely missing from the CBS album. From the get go, the excitement never lets up. On the opening cut, a screaming high-octane version of blues standard Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Johnny and the boys are white hot, and Johnny’s licks have to be heard to be believed. You’ve barely had time to catch your breath when along comes Tribute to Muddy, a rootsy salutation to Johnny’s muse Muddy Waters... For maniacs like us, reveling in our fandom, The Progressive Blues Experiment, every raw, electric, compelling second of it, is a guilty pleasure we’ll know we’ll never outgrow."
Julian Cope Presents Head Heritages (2007)

Take your pick of a dozen blues aficionados' reviews at RateYourMusic.

"Winter was a genuine phenomenon: a blazing, melodically articulate soloist with a howling, pitted voice that caught the raw urgency of songs like ... Mean Town Blues, from his blistering 1968 independent-label debut, The Progressive Blues Experiment."
Rolling Stone (in its August 14, 2014, issue, noting Johnny Winter's death)

A studio set-up by Austin photographer Burton Wilson that appears on the back cover of the Imperial Records release of The Progressive Blues Experiment
Johnny Winter's August 19, 1968, master recordings of four songs that will be included on The Progressive Blues Experiment album
One of three protection dubs of The Progressive Blues Experiment that Sonobeat keeps in case an accident befalls the original master tapes while enroute to Liberty Records in Los Angeles
Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr., left) and Bill Josey Sr. review the Liberty Records contract for The Progressive Blues Experiment
Johnny Winter (left) meets Vince Mariani, who records with Sonobeat in 1969 and '70; photo taken at Sonobeat's Western Hills Drive studio in Austin, Texas