Don Mahoney was a blind singing cowboy/kiddie show host in the Houston area for many years and Jeana Claire was his sidekick. Johnny and Edgar appeared on Mahoney's show when they were about ten years old, playing ukelele and singing.
His recording career began at the age of 15, when their band Johnny and the Jammers released "School Day Blues" on a Houston record label. During this same period, he was able to see performances by classic blues artists such as Muddy Waters, B. B. King and Bobby Bland. In the early days Winter would sometimes sit in with Roy Head and The Traits when they performed in the Beaumont, TX area, and in 1967 Winter recorded with The Traits releasing a vinyl 45 under the group's name, Tramp/Parchman Farm, Universal 30496. In 1968, he released his first album on Austin's legendary Sonobeat Records, The Progressive Blues Experiment.
Winter caught his biggest break in December 1968, when Mike Bloomfield, well-established as one of the best blues guitarists in the United States, who admired his playing, invited him to sing and play a song during a "Super Session" jam concert Bloomfield and Al Kooper were to perform at the Fillmore East in New York. As it happened, representatives of Columbia Records (which had released the Bloomfield-Kooper Super Session jam album to surprising Top Ten chart success) were at the concert. Winter played and sang B.B. King's "It's My Own Fault" to loud applause and, within a few days, was signed to what was then the largest advance in the history of the recording industry---$600,000.
Winter's first Columbia album, Johnny Winter, recorded and released in 1969, featured the same core group---called Winter at the time---with whom he'd cut The Progressive Blues Experiment, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner, plus Edgar Winter on keyboards and saxophone, and (for his cover of "Mean Mistreater") blues legends Willie Dixon on upright bass and Walter Horton on harmonica. The album featured a few selections that would be considered Winter signatures over the coming years, including his own composition "Dallas" (a striking acoustic blues, on which Winter played a steel-bodied, resonator guitar), a cover of John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson's "Good Morning Little School Girl," and B.B. King's little-known "Be Careful With A Fool."
The album's success coincided with Imperial Records picking up The Progressive Blues Experiment for wider release. The same year, the Winter trio toured and performed at several rock festivals, including Woodstock. With brother Edgar added as a full member of the group for the time being, Winter also recorded his second album, Second Winter, this time in Nashville, and unusual for the time in that it was a three-sided album. (The fourth side on the second disc was completely blank.) This album introduced a few more staples of Winter's concerts, including covers of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," two Little Richard covers ("Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Miss Ann"), and original compositions such as "Hustled Down in Texas," "Fast Life Rider," "I Love Everybody," and "I'm Not Sure."
Contrary to urban legend, however, Winter did not perform with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison on the infamous Hendrix bootleg recording "Woke up this Morning and Found Myself Dead" from New York City's Scene Club. In his own words, "...I never even met Jim Morrison! There's a whole album of Jimi and Jim and I'm supposedly on the album but I don't think I am `cause I never met Jim Morrison in my life! I'm sure I never, never played with Jim Morrison at all! I don't know how that [rumour] got started."
With brother Edgar having released his own solo album (Edgar Winter) and now going off to form his own R & B/jazz-rock group, Edgar Winter's White Trash, the original Winter trio disbanded and Winter formed a new band with the remnant of The McCoys---guitarist Rick Derringer, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs, and drummer Randy Z (who was, in fact, Derringer's brother---their real name was Zehringer)---and collaborated on songs picking up the rock and roll direction hinted by the Little Richard and Chuck Berry covers on Second Winter. Calling themselves Johnny Winter And, their album wore the same title and introduced a purely rock and roll direction, highlighted by Derringer's "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" and a nimble cover of Traffic's "No Time to Live." When they toured, however, with Bobby Caldwell replacing Randy Z, they mixed up these new rock numbers with Winter's standard blues, captured on Johnny Winter And Live. This album included a new performance of the song by which Winter had caught Columbia's attention in the first place: "It's My Own Fault."
Winter's momentum was throttled when he sank into heroin addiction during the Johnny Winter And days. After he sought treatment for and recovered from the addiction, manager Steve Paul courageously put Winter in front of the music press to discuss the addiction candidly. By 1973, he returned to the music scene with Still Alive and Well, a basic blend between blues and hard rock, whose title track was written by Rick Derringer as a salute to Winter's overcoming his addiction. The followup album, Saints and Sinners, continued the same direction; this was followed by another concert set, Captured Live, which featured an incendiary extended performance of "Highway 61 Revisited."
In live performances, Winter often tells the story about how, as a child, he dreamed of playing with the blues guitarist Muddy Waters. By 1977 he got his chance. With his manager creating Blue Sky Records to be distributed through Columbia, Winter got the chance to bring Waters into the studio for Hard Again. The album became a best-seller, with Winter producing and playing support guitar on the set that included Waters veteran James Cotton on harmonica. Winter produced two more studio albums for Waters, I'm Ready (this time featuring Walter Horton on harmonica) and King Bee. The partnership produced Grammy Awards, a best-selling live album (Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live), and Winter's own Nothin' But the Blues, on which he was backed by members of Waters's band.
Waters himself told Deep Blues author Robert Palmer that Winter had done remarkable work in reproducing the sound and atmosphere of Waters's vintage Chess Records recordings of the 1950s. The albums gave Waters the highest profile and greatest financial successes of his life.
Winter has since recorded for several labels, including Alligator Records and Point Blank records. He has mostly returned to and stayed with the blues that are his first musical love.
However, from the first time he became a major music star, there appeared several Johnny Winter albums considered "non-official," some of which were cobbled together from the early singles he recorded as a teenager. Most were produced by Roy Ames, owner of Home Cooking Records/Clarity Music Publishing. According to an article from the Houston Press, Winter left town for the express purpose of getting away from him. Ames died on August 14, 2003 of natural causes at age 66. As Ames left no obvious heirs, the ownership rights of the Ames master recordings remains unclear. As Winter stated in an interview when the subject of Roy Ames came up, "This guy has screwed so many people it makes me mad to even talk about him."
In a recent interview, Winter explained his current approach to music:
"Most of the stuff I do is fairly old," he says, which befits the lifelong bluesman. But don't expect to hear "Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Koo", (even though that was one of his signature songs). On this tour, Winter says firmly, "we're not playing any rock and roll at all."
Despite experiencing several health crises in recent years, rendering him incapable of performing without being seated, Winter still tours regularly. Sitting down, he concentrates on blues numbers and eschews his rock hits, unless they're blues-based songs associated with him for most of his career, such as the August 23, 2008 performance in Bowling Green, Kentucky in which he played "Highway 61 Revisited" and a song that provided a hit for the Rolling Stones, "It's All Over Now."
Winter produced two Grammy Award-winning albums by Muddy Waters, Hard Again and I'm Ready. At least three of his own albums were also nominated for Grammy Awards.
He was one of the many acts to perform at the Woodstock Festival, playing a nine song set that featured his brother Edgar on two of the songs.
He was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar World in 1980.
In 1988, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
He is the 'Johnny' in the Smashing Pumpkins b-side "Tribute to Johnny," off the single "Zero."