Although Johnny's best known for his high-energy blues-rock fusion, his early years were spent soaking up all manner of musical influences from traditions as diverse as R&B, soul, rock'n'roll, cajun and garage psych. Alongside his beloved blues, many of these styles found their way onto the compilation First Winter, which was released in 1969 on the Buddah label - ostensibly to capitalise on his breakthrough with The Progressive Blues Experiment and the CBS albums Johnny Winter and Second Winter. The provenance of the various tracks is somewhat obscure, needless to say. Having never owned a copy of the original LP, I'm not sure whether the Buddah sleeve contained any further edification, but this is the compilation's first appearance on CD, and Talking Elephant's new liner notes do throw a little light into the corners I guess. It's clear that the various recordings all pre-date Johnny's CBS days, and yet the discographical detail provided here is tantalising rather than illuminating.
Most of the tracks don't sound much, if at all, like the Johnny Winter, bluesman, that we know and love. But that's not such a bad thing after all. Johnny's classic slide sound is premièred on Leavin' Blues, but like many records of the time it suffers from a premature fade. Before that, however, we hear both sides of an early single from probably 1964, which backed a Sir Douglas Quintet-style workover of J.D. Loudermilk's Bad News with a lively horn-soaked number (Out Of Sight) that betrayed a James Brown influence. There's six self-penned numbers in all here, including a cool organ-led instrumental (Take A Chance On My Love) that could've graced a movie soundtrack, a summer-of-love Byrdsy jangle (Birds Can't Row Boats), and some fuzzy garage-pop (Easy Lovin' Girl and both "parts" of Coming Up Fast, a typically hectic 1965 single by The Great Believers). There's also a dubiously-credited but tasty acoustic country-ballad (I Had To Cry), a west-coast-style canter through Mose Allison's Parchment (sic) Farm, and - weirdest of all - Please Come Home For Christmas, a doowop extravaganza that, we learn, also features Johnny's brother Edgar (tho' to my mind it sounds more like a Zappa pastiche from Ruben & The Jets).
The disc's 11 tracks could almost not be more different from each other, and they provide next to no aural clues as to Johnny's future direction - but to my mind they provide a fascinating glimpse into his formative years and leave me wanting to hear more examples of his early recordings. The remastering's pretty good too.
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