Guitar icon Johnny Winter’s emergence on the national music scene in 1969 created a sensation among rock and blues audiences. The first of his many hit albums for Columbia Records featured the song “Leland, Mississippi Blues,” which paid tribute to his roots here. Winter’s grandfather and father, a former mayor of Leland, operated a cotton business, J. D. Winter & Son, at this site. Winter was born in Texas in 1944 but spent parts of his childhood in Leland.
Johnny Winter and his younger brother Edgar were born into a prominent Leland family that was famed not only for its social, civic, and business leadership but also for its musical talent. Their father, Leland native John Dawson Winter, Jr. (1909-2001), played saxophone and guitar and sang at churches, weddings, Kiwanis and Rotary Club gatherings, and other events, including barbershop singing contests as a member of the Lamppost Quartet and front porch concerts with the Winters’ five-piece family band at the Winter home. His repertoire included pop songs such as “Ain’t She Sweet’ and “Bye Bye Blackbird,” along with comedy routines. Winter, Jr., who worked with his father, John D. Winter, Sr. (1879-1938), as a cotton classer, and later ran the family’s cotton brokerage firm, was elected mayor of Leland in 1936 and served until leaving for military service in 1941. John Dawson “Johnny” Winter III was born on February 23, 1944, while his father was away in the army. Although the family resided in Leland, his mother Edwina chose to go to her home town of Beaumont, Texas, for the birth of Johnny, as well as of Edgar on December 28, 1946. The Winters then permanently moved to Beaumont.
With encouragement from their parents, the Winter brothers, both albinos, began performing as youngsters and were already recording while still in their teens, playing rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and R&B. Despite his early childhood here in the heartland of Delta blues, Johnny only discovered the blues in Texas, listening to the radio in the kitchen with the Winters’ African American maid. Mississippi-born bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, and Robert Johnson became his favorite blues artists, along with Bobby Bland from Tennessee, and Winter developed a fiery electric synthesis of rock and blues that began to attract national attention in the late 1960s.
The self-titled 1969 album Johnny Winter, which featured guest appearances by Mississippi natives Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton, established Winter as a premier figure in high-energy blues-rock circles. He went on to record several more albums for Columbia Records, all of which appeared on the national charts. Multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter played on his brother’s Second Winter LP and began recording with his own groups, scoring 1970s pop hits with the singles “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” In later years Johnny Winter produced albums by his idol, Muddy Waters, and recorded in the company of the Muddy Waters band, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, and other Mississippians. In 1988, after recording three albums for the blues label Alligator Records in Chicago, he became the first white musician elected to the Blues Hall of Fame.
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