In 1968, Johnny began playing in a trio with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. Their shows at Austin's Vulcan Gas Company and Houston's Love Street Light Circus, attracted the attention of a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, who had been writing an article about the Texas hippie scene.
The author devoted three paragraphs to Johnny, whom he referred to as "the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin". The article brought nation wide attention to the album "The Progressive Blues Experiment", a collection of songs that Johnny's trio had recorded live at the Vulcan Gas Company, which was quickly picked up for national release by Imperial.
Johnny Winter had grown up in Beaumont, Texas, and recorded many records for local labels in the early '60s, but real success had eluded him. In 1968 he decided to try the blossoming hippie scene in Austin with at a hard-driving blues/rock band called simply "Winter", Tommy Shannon and John Turner supplied the backing and the group played many shows around town.
Bill Josey heard of this terrific band and in checking with Johnny found he was free of contracts. Josey immediately signed him to a short term deal and recorded several tracks at the Vulcan Gas Co.. A single was released, #197 "Mean Town Blues/Rollin' N' Tumblin'", but other people were amazed by this incredible guitar player and the Johnny Winter publicity campaign started rolling.
Rolling Stone did a story on Texas that featured Johnny (Larry Sepulvado of Mother Magazine wrote quite a bit of that Texas issue for R.S.). Steve Paul, of NYC, got interested and put Winter under an exclusive management contract, then the record company bidding began. Meanwhile Sonobeat pressed up a couple hundred demo LPs of "Winter" and passed them around.
Some were sold thr0ugh local stores and the mail, but it was a simple white jacket advance album designed to stir up record company interest. After the dust had settled, Johnny was with Columbia and the Sonobeat LP had been bought by United Artists. It was issued on Imperial as "The Progressive Blues Experiment" and several years later reissued on UA as "Johnny Winter -- Austin, Texas"
Photos from the back cover, click on the thumbnails of Johnny Winter to see the full size high quality photos
Liner notes from CD release
The liner notes of the CD-release of The Progressive Blues Experiment
Give the press a lead on an up-and-coming blues musician who isn't black, and you can be sure that someone, somewhere is going to use the phrase 'Great white hope'. And, to be fair, it's hard to resist it when your up-and-comer is Johnny Winter, whose whiter shade of pale is the first thing you notice about him. Until he starts playing, that is. Then, the only thing that strikes you that has anything to do with colour is how naturally this man turns blue.
The blues was not exactly in the doldrums in the late '60s, but it was hardly a booming business. The time was ripe for new heroes, and during the winter of 1968-69 Rolling Stone devoted at least two articles to placing bets on one such. In a feature on Texas music, Larry Sepulvado and John Burks invited the magazine's readers to 'imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard,' a trailer that hauled the 24-year-old Johnny Winter to prestigious New York gigs and lengthy contractual negotiations as several labels scuffled to sign him.
CBS won and his debut album, simply called Johnny Winter, arrived in the spring of '69, sparking a long fuse of gigs that ended in explosive summer performances at Woodstock and Detroit's Motor City Rock Festival. Over the next five years Johnny Winter's records and appearances would establish him as one of the biggest draws on the blues-rock circuit. After several gear-changes and some stops on the road, not to say crashes, he still commands a substantial fanbase and his career is carefully charted at at least one extensive website.
Just before the 'official' debut album hit the shops, another piece of Johnny Winter's work was exhibited by Imperial Records: an album he had made earlier for a small Texas label, Sonobeat, under the provocative title The Progressive Blues Experiment. Although the CBS release occupied most of the fierce spotlight that was being trained upon Winter, and prompted even hardline critics like Blues Unlimited's Mike Leadbitter to call him 'the best male, white blues guitarist there ever was', some reviewers - among them Rolling Stone's Pete Welding - preferred the rawer production of the Imperial set, and it has continued to find admirers ever since. 'As murky as hell but fresh and powerful in approach,' wrote Charles Shaar Murray recently. And here it is again.
It's Johnny Winter's earliest album as such, but by no means his first recording: he'd been in that game since his mid-teens. Born in 1944, he grew up partly in his father's hometown of Leland, Mississippi, and partly in his mothers, the Texas Gulf Coast city of Beaumont. As a youngster he played clarinet, then ukulele, before taking up guitar. With his three-years-younger brother Edgar he had a preteen group modelled on the Everly Brothers, then in high school in Beaumont they formed Johnny & The Jammers, with Edgar playing keyboards, and recorded a rock 'n' roll single, 'School Day Blues', for the Dart label, which got them some attention. Johnny quit technical college to go into music fulltime, and for most of the next ten years he was in and out of studios in Houston and Beaumont, making singles for local labels under a variety of names, or playing guitar on sessions with other artists - blues, R&B, rockabilly, pop, whatever.
Meanwhile the club work went on and on, sometimes in white joints, sometimes black. Johnny had loved blues since he was a kid, had hung out with Beaumont's Clarence Garlow, of 'Bon Ton Roule( fame, and had spent some time visiting the blues clubs in Chicago, and he took every opportunity of playing both with local black artists and with visiting out-of-towners like Jimmy Reed. Johnny & The Jammers were transformed into other entities: around '65/'66, they were Johnny Winter & The Black Plague, wearing black, playing in black light.
By '67 'Uncle John' Turner was in place as the group's drummer, and soon afterwards Tommy Shannon (later a charter member of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble) joined on bass: this is the rhythm section heard on The Progressive Blues Experiment. The album was recorded at the Vulcan Gas Company, a club in Austin, Texas, in 1967 or '68. Though a version has circulated with crowd-noise on it, implying a live recording, the original tapes, as heard here, indicate that the only audience in the club was the guys doing the recording.
The influence of Muddy Waters (whom Winter would later produce, in a fine series of albums for Blue Sky) hangs over the proceedings like a dark blue cloud, from the opening 'Rollin' and Tumblin" through the tribute track - actually 'Still a Foot, Muddy's take on 'Catfish Blues' -to the acoustic 'Bad Luck and Trouble', which is pretty plainly modelled on Muddy's early sides with Little Walter. On this track Johnny plays the harmonica and mandolin as well as the National steel guitar. The National is also heard on 'Broke Down Engine', where Johnny seems to apply the style of Robert Johnson to a theme by Blind Willie McTell. 'I Got Love If you Want It' came from Slim Harpo, 'Help Me' from Sonny Boy Williamson II, 'It's My Own Fault' from B.B. King and 'Forty-Four' from Howlin' Wolf.' Mean Town Blues' uses the riff from Slim Harpo's 'Shake your Hips' - or Little Junior Parker's 'Feelin' Good', or John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillun', take your pick. Johnny sounds as if he has Hooker in mind: listen to his guitar solo, especially the passage from 1.52 onwards.
But the sources of Johnny Winter's material are much less the point than the skill with which he shifts his technical gears, from the throbbing slide lines of the Muddy tracks, through those Hookeresque chords, to the lissom single-string picking of 'It's My Own Fault'. 'In my own mind, I was the best white blues player around,' he would say later. A lot of white players have corne down the blues highway in the last 30 years. Some of them, no doubt, have had chops to rival his. But how many of them give you live blues action as incandescent as this?
The Progressive Blues Experiment has been released at six times. One of them being Austin Texas
Austin Texas: this album has the same tracks as "The progressive blues experiment. UAR united artists records-produced by Bill Josey & Rim Kelley.
It has the Rollin' Stone famous article in the back.
Tom mentions: Progressive Blues Experiment. That album started out as a promotional only LP on Sonobeat records in 1968. There were about 125 copies pressed, with plain white covers adorning 4 rubber stamps saying The Progressive Blues Experiment, Winter, Sonobeat Stereo, and Advance Copy. On the first 100, a number appeared in hand written felt tip by Advance copy stamp. The remaining 20 or so were not numbered. I don't know if any one out there has had records pressed, but they usually run about 10% more than the number pressed, to allow for pressing mistakes, ie; no label on one side, handling error, pressing flaws (the first couple of copies) etc..
So the customer gets 100 good copies, and they usually ship everything and let the customer decide what is good. This does differ from the amount stated on the Sonobeat site, which says "a couple hundred". Regardless, no numbered copy has ever been found over 100, and the un-numbered copies are far more rare. This rare promo lp was done to try and finally get Johnny discovered. Although it had a few copies distributed around Texas for sale, the single put out was the only thing intended for commercial consumption.
The original single actually had a picture sleeve. In fact 2 different versions, one has a head shot of Johnny on the front and a white back. The other has the same head shot on the front, and film strip like shots on the back. Too small to really see, and I am told Johnny abandoned the rear cover photos because he could not see them at all. One thing is certain, far less of either version of the picture sleeve survived than the album. I was told the film strip rear cover was a prototype, and Johnny canned it.
A 60 second commercial with Johnny Winter for the release of the progressive blues experiment is available on a vinyl single.
Photographer Burton Wilson on the Vulcan Gas Company
Review of PBE, most likely from New Musical Express (Germany) 1979
See also all the lyrics of this album.
Rolling Stone 19-Apr-1969, p.28
NME 17 Feb 1973:
This CD issue of an Imperial album is one of Winter's best, with Tommy Shannon on bass and Red Turner on drums. It includes "Black Cat Bone, " "It's My Own Fault, " "Rollin' and Tumblin', " "Mean Town Blues" and six other tracks. Check this out -- it's a great album. --Roundup Newsletter