Johnny Winter and his Gibson Firebird

When Johnny Winter plays live, the hardest part of the night is never the actual gig itself. The real challenge is found in those final minutes just before showtime. That’s when Johnny, his focus intensifying, starts peppering those around him with questions. When are we going on? How much longer? It has become somewhat of a ritual over time, and those who work most closely with him—including Paul Nelson, Winter’s second guitarist and bandleader—are careful not to make promises that they can’t keep. Truth is, sometimes a 10 p.m. start time becomes 10:20 p.m., and when that happens, there’s nothing that Johnny can do other than wait it out on the tour bus.On April 8, 2007, there was intensity in the air. Johnny’s home on wheels was parked on West 75th Street in Manhattan, just outside the stage door of the Beacon Theater, and the mule was kicking: Winter, fresh off a weekend of well-received New Jersey reunion shows with brother Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer, was ready to play, and no one around him could specifically answer the burning questions: When are we going on? How much longer?

Inside, the Allman Brothers Band were playing yet another sold-out show during their annual New York spring residency, and the nearly 3,000 fans in the audience were eating up every second of it. But few could have realized that something so great was about to get even greater: The band’s special guest, a 63-year-old Texan whose career not long ago appeared to be on the verge of complete collapse, was about to seriously up the ante.

As the Allmans’ first set wound down, Johnny was slowly led through the maze of twists and turns that artists must negotiate to reach the Beacon’s stage. The tension of a few minutes earlier, thankfully, had already begun to ease; walking to the stage is indeed a challenge for someone who is legally blind, but in Johnny Winter’s universe, it’s still infinitely preferable to sitting on the bus in suspense. Winter relaxed on the side of the stage as the Allmans finished off “The High Cost of Low Living,” and the audience momentarily entered a brief state of calm when guitarist Warren Haynes stepped to the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Winter.”

The Beacon erupted in approval. Winter, his long blonde mane dangling from beneath his ever-present black hat, ambled to center stage and took his seat, his vintage Gibson Firebird in hand. Occupying the terrain directly between two other Gibson-slinging guitarists, Haynes and Derek Trucks, Winter, with the audience still going ballistic, proceeded to count off a simple one-two-three-four that launched the powerful ensemble into the J.B. Lenoir classic “Mojo Boogie,” the slide on Johnny’s left hand creating classic Chicago-style grit that simply roared atop the Allmans’ driving, pulsating rhythmic foundation. 

Few probably realized it, but history was in the air. Winter hadn’t played with the Allman Brothers Band since 1970, when he appeared at the Atlanta Pop Festival and played on a memorable take of “Mountain Jam.” That incarnation of the Allman Brothers, incidentally, included original members Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley.

On this special night 37 years later, Winter went on to play two more tunes during his all-too-brief guest appearance—a slow-burning reading of the Ray Charles classic “Blackjack” and Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down” (with Haynes taking the vocal lead). He left the stage to an unforgettable standing ovation.

By the time it was over, the pre-performance tension was just a distant memory. And Winter, once back on his tour bus, could hardly comprehend what had just happened. “Man,” he exclaimed, to no one in particular, “I can’t believe how great that sounded!”

Johnny Winter's Gibson Firebird