Uncle John, or “Unc” as he was affectionately known by his friends, was one of those uncommon characters who occupied a small corner in the heart of just about everyone whose path he crossed. He was beloved for the never-ending collection of colorful stories that his rock ‘n’ roll adventures yielded, and for the sheer joy he possessed for life.
Unc was at once a larger than life folk-hero type, and a firm-footed realist. In fact, one could make the argument that Uncle John never shed a bad vibe for anyone or anything in this world.
Uncle John was a drummer. Not your everyday, journeyman type of drummer, but a boundless legend. He was a member of the original Johnny Winter Band in the late-1960’s, with whom he is credited for laying the groundwork for what we now know as the Texas blues-rock sound. After leaving that band and moving to Austin in 1970, Unc and Tommy Shannon formed Krackerjack, whose lineup included a then-obscure 16-year old guitar prodigy named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Over his 40-plus years behind the kit, Turner kept the beat for just about every blues-based icon in the biz: Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Jerry LaCroix, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (who taught Unc the gentle art of opening a pack of Kool cigarettes from the bottom, so he “wouldn’t get no germs on the filters”).
Though I was no stranger to his history, I didn’t meet Uncle John until the mid-’90s, while I was booking musical acts for the old Billy Blues BBQ. We quickly became well-acquainted, as Unc would show up regularly for gigs, playing with a variety of well-known Austin bands.
The thing that struck me initially about Unc was his appearance. He typically arrived in ornate, custom-made western boots, rock-star hair flowing over his shoulders, a broad bandana headband, and the look was often capped with a colorful Virgin Of Guadalupe T-shirt. This was the uniform of a ready-to-work musician.
And the stories he shared were straight out of the rock ‘n’ roll history books: Playing the Woodstock Festival with Johnny Winter; hanging out with Jimi Hendrix until dawn the first time Jimi performed in San Antonio; observing, with lasting amazement, the huge appetite of Freddie King. Uncle John had apparently never been to a blues club that did not allow smoking, until playing Jalapeno’s Blues Corner in San Antonio. “Blues ain’t just about the music,” he told me. “You gotta be able to smoke a cigarette if you’re gonna call it a real blues club.”
He held a huge fascination for butterflies, too. I remember him telling me, “You’ll never see two of ’em that look alike. They’re like fingerprints, only a whole lot prettier.”
Through the years that I knew him, Unc’s wonderful qualities never changed. He always had another memorable story, and was always elated when approached by fans for an autograph, a
photo, or a handshake.
I last saw him perform just over a year ago in Houston, and as his gigs became less frequent, I learned that he was quite ill. Suffering the effects of Hep C for years had taken its toll on his liver, and he was waiting to qualify for the national transplant list.
I feel so grateful that Unc invited me to visit with him and Morgan, his beautiful wife and soulmate, at their Austin home just a couple of days before he went into the hospital for the final time. He looked so good, and smiled a lot as we talked about his health, music, and future plans.
I had put together a benefit event here in San Antonio to assist Unc and Morgan with their mounting medical bills, and a collective of Austin musicians who knew Uncle John followed suit with benefits in Austin and Houston. Unc wanted so badly to play at these events himself, but his health was simply prohibitive. I suggested that we put a tentative date on the Sam’s calendar for late next year, to hold a big “Uncle John & Friends” show, which made his eyes light up. We were all inspired!
Our visit lasted about an hour, and as I was leaving, I gave Unc a big hug, and he said: “I love you, brother.”
It was quite appropriate that the last words Unc spoke to me were words that summed up all I ever knew about him. •
Jerry Clayworth is music promoter for Sam’s Burger Joint.