A new spring for Johnny Winter

The American guitar legend has had many reasons to sing the blues during his 45-year career; next week in Tel Aviv he’ll play for the fun of it.

May 28, 2013 21:11
Johnny Winter (2nd from left) seen here with Paul Nelson (2nd from right) and the rest of the Blues.

Johnny Winter and Paul Nelson 370 . (photo credit: Courtesy PR)

Johnny Winter has certainly earned his right to sing the blues. But thanks to care and guidance from one of his biggest fans, these days he’s whistling a happier and healthier tune underneath his back-to form scorching guitar solos.

The legendary 69-year-old guitarist has spent much of his adult life fighting ill mental and physical health, exasperated by long-term addiction to everything from heroin and later, methadone, to anti-depressant pills and alcohol.

When Paul Nelson – himself an accomplished Berkelee School of Music-trained guitarist – met Johnny Winter in 2000 by chance in a Connecticut recording studio, the albino, legally blind blues guitarist was in terrible shape. As the two forged a friendship that led Nelson to first co-write and perform on the title song for Winter’s 2004 I’m a Bluesman album, and then join his band, The Blues Rebels, as second guitarist, Nelson became an eyewitness to Winter’s worsening condition.

By 2005, when Nelson took over the role of managing Winter’s career following the death of his longtime manager Teddy Slatus, the terminally skinny singer weighed only 90 pounds. He was hardly able to walk due to a broken hip suffered years earlier and still in a methadone-induced haze. In addition, due to erratic performances, band management, and a neglect of Internet promotion, his public profile and marketability was virtually non-existent. Nelson’s intervention turned the tide of Winter’s career, and his life.

“I kind of helped him get off all the drugs and the stuff that was holding him back.

He’s really doing well now,” said Nelson, from the Winter tour bus on the road in Spain earlier this month.

“He was one of my heroes growing up, and that provided the jumping off point for a friendship to develop. As we got closer, I saw that he had a problem on a personal level and that he needed some help, so I stepped up.”

Today, Winter is back up to a hefty-forhim 150 pounds on his lanky frame, and performing with renewed vigor, free of the chemical crutches of his past. He’s also more mobile, walking on his own, sometimes performing standing up, and as a result of laser surgery on his eyes last year, no longer legally blind.

“He’s stopped drinking and he’s talking to people and is more accessible,” said Nelson.

“He walks out on the stage unattended now – this is huge! He was sitting down for 15 years. The music and touring that put him in a bad condition in the ‘90s is now being used to make him healthier – it’s physical therapy for him and it’s showing in his singing and playing.”

Proof of the pudding came when Winter and band appeared last year on Late Night With David Letterman to promote his first new album in eight years, the Nelson-produced Roots featuring guests like Warren Haynes, John Popper and Derek Trucks.

Winter played and sang like a man half his age and the band, who are half his age, struggled to keep up.

“That performance really helped change things around for him,” said Nelson. “People saw that he was healthy, and at the shows we played since then, it’s doubled the attendance. That clip went everywhere.”

“It was fun to do,” said Winter in a slow Texas drawl, taking the phone from Nelson during a break from watching The Hobbit on the tour bus.

Despite his return to the land of the living, Winter remains a man of few words, apparently preferring to speak through his music.

AFTER RISING out of the juke joints and honky-tonks of Beaumont, Texas, in the late 1950s along with his brother Edgar, a keyboardist, Winter emerged in the late 1960s as the most electrifying blues/rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix.

The brothers used to go see the blues greats who frequented the music clubs in the mostly segregated city, often being the only white people in the audience. Winter described his connection to the blues from the first time he was exposed to it.

“It had a lot of feeling and emotion, more than any music I’d ever heard. I thought, ‘I have to learn how to do this,’” he said.

Not only did Winter learn how to play and sing the blues, he became a standout.

Featured in a 1968 story on the Texas music scene in Rolling Stone magazine, Winter became the object of a bidding war between record companies, eventually signing to Columbia for the then-unheard of amount of $600,000.

“It was a gigantic moment for me, really huge,” said Winter, who released his selftitled debut the next year. Combining electrifying originals with blues classics covers like B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl,” Winter unified the electric blues coming out of England via the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page with southern-fried dynamics that presaged bands like The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was described by one critic as “blues-rock music for the angels.”

Between a performance at Woodstock and the success of his next album, 1970’s live double Johnny Winter And, Winter became a full-fledged rock & roll star. However, he also became a heroin addict and began suffering from suicidal depression. His career was grounded for two years until he was able to return in 1973 with Still Alive and Well, the title song written for him by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

But neither Winter’s career momentum – nor his health – ever fully recovered. He spent the latter part of the 1970s reintroducing Muddy Waters to a new generation of listeners by producing and playing on four Waters albums, including the 1977 Grammy-winning Hard Again.

“Yeah, I was definitely proud of being able to bring those blues greats like Muddy Waters to a wider audience,” said Winter.

WINTER’S OWN audience, however, dwindled during the 1980s and 1990s, although he continued to regularly release records and tour all the while becoming more dependent on self-medication. Around this time, Paul Nelson was attending the Berkelee School of Music in Boston, where he was learning at the hands of masters like Steve Vai and Larry Carleton.

“I asked Steve if he gave guitar lessons and he said his fee was a carton of cigarettes a week,” said Nelson, with a laugh. “We went over scales and ear training, and the funny thing was that he was teaching me stuff that he had learned himself from Joe Satriani. It was pretty cool.”

By the time he met Winter in 2000, Nelson was an in-demand session player and composer, working on projects as diverse as recording with Portugal singer Fernando Pereira and writing the theme song to the WWF’s XFL football broadcasts.

“Johnny heard me play in that Connecticut studio and asked me to write some songs with him, and that’s how it all started,” he said.

After their collaboration on I’m A Bluesman, Winter later asked Nelson to join his band and when manager Slatus’s death revealed years of malfeasance and mismanagement that resulted in damage to both Winter’s career and health, Nelson stepped up to the plate.

The burgeoning partnership blossomed with 2001’s Roots, Winter’s first new album in seven years, and one that capped his current resurgence. Called one of the finest of his career, Winter covered 11 classic blues tracks by his teachers – Waters, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and others.

“I picked all the songs and it was very easy,” said Winter. “When I first started getting into music in the ‘50s, these were the songs I wanted to play. I loved doing it.”

Winter and Nelson enjoyed making Roots so much that they decided to return to the studio this year to record a sequel focusing on Winter’s rock & roll roots called Step Back, and featuring fellow axeman like Lesley West, Joe Bonamassa, Mark Knopfler and Brian Setzer.

“Johnny picked the songs and then I picked up the phone and called the players,” said Nelson. “I just talked to [Aerosmith’s] Joe Perry two weeks ago and he’s on board. We’ve also got [ZZ Top’s] Billy Gibbons and Greg Allman and I’ll find out soon if we have Eric Clapton. There have been some great phone calls!” For Nelson, the effort is part of completing the circle that Winter began when he worked with Waters in the 1970s.

“Because Johnny produced all that stuff with Muddy, for him to say to me ‘help me on this’ is such an honor. I know Johnny’s playing and I know how to make him comfortable in the studio and get the best out of him. It works for all of us.”

For his part, Winter seems to be reenergized by the attention of his peers and accolades of the critics and fans, as well as by his own physical and mental condition that are enabling him to perform some 140 shows a year. One of the next stops will be in Israel where Winter and the Blues Rebels will perform for the first time on June 5 at the Barbie Club in Tel Aviv.

Winter said that there are no plans to slow down the pace.

“Yeah, sure, I’m going to keep playing and touring until I can’t do it anymore,” he said, adding that he was inspired by the continued musical activity of longtime pals like The Rolling Stones. “I like them a lot. It’s pretty amazing they’re still playing together.”

And should The Stones invite Johnny Winter to make a guest appearance at one of their shows, like they’ve done in the past for everyone from Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera to Jack White and Katy Perry? “Yeah, that would be nice,” said Winter.

But in case that doesn’t happen, Winter has The Hobbit, the Blues Rebels and a revitalized career to keep him plenty busy.

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