By Jon Kleinman
[W]hen guitarist Paul Nelson talks about his old friend, the late Johnny Winter, you can hear the emotion in his voice. “Sometimes when I’m up on stage playing, I’ll hear one of Johnny’s signature licks come out of my guitar,” Nelson said. “It’s a reminder that he’ll always be with me.”
Before he passed away in July, Winter was in the midst of a career revival. “His playing was stronger than it had been in years,” said Nelson, who served as both Winter’s manager and producer. “He was improvising and taking risks again. Offstage, he was talkative and able to give interviews. He was once again enjoying life.”
For loyal fans of this blues-rock icon, Johnny Winter’s recent comeback was nothing short of a miracle. Years of poor health and substance abuse issues had taken a toll on Winter’s music, resulting in disappointing albums and subpar live performances. Even Winter’s most ardent fans felt that his best days were behind him.
While recording 2004’s I’m a Bluesman, Winter met Paul Nelson, who happened to be recording in the same studio. After overhearing Nelson working on a blues track, Winter recruited him as a second guitarist. “We established a great friendship right off the bat,” Nelson recalled. “There was a great level of trust between the two of us.” Unfortunately, poor health, management troubles and substance abuse were then wreaking havoc on Winter’s life and music. He turned to Nelson for help.
“I was honest with Johnny,” Nelson said. “I told him there were a lot of things to fix. We were going to have to work together to address his health and finances and get him sober. Johnny said, ‘Let’s do it!’” With Nelson’s guidance, Winter began the long process of recovery. As he overcame his dependence on pills and alcohol, his guitar chops and voice began to return and fans could see a visible change in his stage presence. “He could play standing again,” Nelson said. “Thanks to eye surgery, his vision improved so he could walk on and off the stage without help. As he continued to make progress, he actually appeared to be getting younger.”
Progress continued through this year with the release of Step Back. However, the album, produced by Nelson and released in September, about six weeks after Winter’s death, is certainly a bittersweet triumph. With an all-star lineup of guests and material that covers the full blues spectrum, Step Back is a return to form that many thought was impossible. One of the album’s finer moments is a solo acoustic rendition of the Son House warhorse “Death Letter,” featuring Winter on steel guitar. In Nelson’s words, “He picked up that guitar and just belted it out. It was done in one take. In the studio, everybody’s jaw dropped!” On high-powered shuffles like “Can’t Hold Out” and “Mojo Hand,” the trademark growl, absent for so many years, can be heard in Winter’s voice. “He went out on a high note,” Nelson said. “He loved every track on the album.”
For Nelson, healing after Winter’s passing is an ongoing process. “As a guitarist, I’m honored to have learned from him. He showed me riffs and had me listening to blues masters like Clifton Chenier, Gatemouth Brown and Bobby Bland. Maybe he was setting me up to carry the torch,” Nelson said.
Currently, Nelson is leading a series of Johnny Winter Remembrance concerts and anticipating a January DVD release of Down and Dirty: The Johnny Winter Story. The documentary, filmed over the course of three years by director Greg Olliver, is a source of great pride for Nelson. The film has been screened at the Johnny Winter Remembrance concerts to overwhelmingly positive reviews from the audience. “Viewers feel like they were with Johnny, watching his recovery. They feel like they were on tour with us.” Winter fans who have experienced their own struggles with substance abuse were particularly moved by the film. “A lot of people have approached me after the screenings to share their own stories of recovery—the film was very inspiring to them.”
When biographer Mary Lou Sullivan asked Winter how he would like to be remembered, he simply replied, “As a great bluesman.” Thanks largely to Paul Nelson’s efforts as a manager, as a producer and as a friend, Winter’s final wish is coming true.
Johnny Winter Remembrance concert dates here, starting with Massachusetts’ Narrows Center for the Arts on November 21 and New York’s Bearsville Theater on November 22 (tickets can be purchased at the preceding links)