He was backstage at a club, getting ready for his own headlining set, when his ear caught a bit of the opening act. The music was good — real good. So, he just had to come out and take a look. Within moments, the blues legend knew he was witnessing something special.
"He's one of the greatest blues players in the business," Waters quickly concluded about the young ax man.
What Waters learned that night was something that millions of others would soon find out about as well, as Winter went on to become a blues-rock sensation in the late '60s and early '70s.
Oh, but how quickly some people forget. These days, it's somewhat rare to hear Winter -- who performs April 7 at Yoshi's in Oakland -- mentioned among such fret kings as Eric Clapton, Albert King, Duane Allman and Buddy Guy.
Fortunately, "Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty" serves as an excellent reminder of this guitarist's greatness.
The insightful documentary, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, recounts the 70-year-old Texan's career with a superb mix of archival clips and new footage.
Winter is incredibly candid and open in the interviews filmed specifically for this documentary, talking at length about his problems with drug addictions and the many ups and downs of his career. He's also very funny, clowning around with bandmates and killing time between tour stops.
The film feels remarkably intimate, as if we're sitting in a backstage dressing room or on the bus with Winter after a gig. Some of the small moments are the ones that truly stick with viewers such as when Winter puts on a copy of Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues" (aka, "Crossroads") on the turntable and simply can't hide his admiration.
"That's so good," Winter said, smiling warmly. "Cream did a version of this, but it wasn't near as good -- not even close.
"You can't not love Robert Johnson. If you like the blues, you're gonna love Robert Johnson."
The same could be said of Winter. "Down and Dirty" is filled with some tremendous concert clips, going back to his breakthrough in the '60s -- which led him to the Woodstock festival -- and continuing to present day. All of them illustrate one thing: Winter is one of the greatest blues players in the business.
That's what Muddy Waters said -- in an archival TV interview shown in this film -- and it's likely to be restated by those who watch "Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty."
My favorite scene in the film comes toward the end, as Winter sings -- of all things -- karaoke, siting among friends at a restaurant. He absolutely pours himself into the song — the standard "Georgia on My Mind" — like it's the single most important thing in the world to him. It's ludicrous, but also strangely uplifting. Mostly, it's awesome.
"Damn, I'm good," Winter says with a smile at the song's conclusion. "I'm really (expletive) good."
Hear, hear. Now, it's time to go hear this legendary blues player when he performs April 7 at Yoshi's in Oakland. Show time is 8 p.m. and tickets are $45, www.yoshis.com.
Also make sure to catch "Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty." Hopefully, it will get a theatrical release — since the big screen would be a great way to experience Winter's fiery fret work. Otherwise, look for it on Blu-ray/DVD, streaming/on-demand. For more information about the film, visit www.johnnywinterdownanddirty.com.
Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.