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Blues Legend Johnny Winters Found Dead on Tour

The cause of death is not clear

Johnny Winter, a legendary blues guitarist, was found dead in his hotel in Zurich, Switzerland on Wednesday. He was 70.

“His wife, family and bandmates are all saddened by the loss of their loved one and one of the world’s finest guitarists,” a brief statement on his Facebook read. “An official statement with more details shall be issued at the appropriate time.”

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According a police spokeswoman Reuters spoke to, a prosecutor has ordered an autopsy because the cause of death is not clear, but there was no indication of third-party involvement. Evidence suggests his death was medically related.

Winter, ranked by Rolling Stone as the 63rd greatest guitarist of all time, was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944. He played clarinet as a child — but after a dentist told him the instrument was giving him a bad overbite, he shifted to ukulele and then guitar.

He formed his first band at the age of 11, made his first record at 15 and became the protégé of a Zydeco bluesman named Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow.

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By the time he was 24 Winter had become a legend in Texas music circles, and his national profile was boosted immeasurably by a Rolling Stone article about the music scene in the state that called him “the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin.” It went on to describe Winter this way: “If you can imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues guitar you have ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter.”

A bidding war ensued, with Columbia Records signing Winter. His second album for the label, “Second Winter,” produced another colorful rave in Rolling Stone, with Lester Bangs calling it “an unrelenting floodtide of throbbing, burning sound, a work of folk art which captures the tradition of blues and rock from the prehistoric Delta bottleneck sundown moans to the white-hot metal pyrotechnics of today and tomorrow.”

While his brother Edgar Winter enjoyed more success on the charts with songs like the instrumental “Frankenstein,” Johnny Winter’s 1970 album “Johnny Winter And” produced a hit in the Rick Derringer song “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” On the whole, though, he was less interested in pop hits than in playing the blues, and his career was sidelined by a heroin addiction in the early ’70s.

He later produced three Grammy Award-winning albums for his blues idol, Muddy Waters, while releasing a number of his own albums, including “Still Alive and Well,” “Saints & Sinners” and “John Dawson Winter III.”

He continued to tour, and made a string of blues-focused albums for smaller labels through the ’80s, ’90s and later.

His latest album, “Step Back,” is set to be released on Sept. 2. Eric Clapton, Ben Harper and Joe Perry of Aerosmith are among the famed musicians who collaborated with Winter for it.

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Winter’s last performance was at the Cahors Blues Festival in France on Monday.

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