Legendary guitarist making big comeback
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 01:01
The guitar tracks are in. Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Joe Perry and all the other guitarists featured on Johnny Winter’s next album have sent in their guitar solos from all over the world to Paul Nelson, Winter’s manager and producer. All Nelson has to do now is put it together.
“It’s my job to make it sound like they’re right there [in the studio],” Nelson said on the phone from Norfolk, Conn., four weeks before Winter’s upcoming show at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly, Mass. this Friday night, Jan. 31.
The second of four installments in a series, “Step Back” was given the green light last summer when Winter’s label, Sonobeat, saw how well his 2011 release, Roots, had sold. The album featured a different guest musician on each track, selling 100,000 copies. Pleased with the results, they told Nelson to make three more with Winter.
The challenge wasn’t getting the guests involved. The albino guitar legend from Beaumont, TX, has wowed audiences and peers alike since he rose to prominence in the late 1960s. His career included an appearance at Woodstock in 1969, sold-out performances at venues as big as Madison Square Garden in New York and an instrumental role in resurrecting the career of blues legend Muddy Waters.
“No one says, ‘No’,” Nelson said.
The difficulty, Nelson said, was pinning down each musician around their busy schedules. Clapton had to put off recording his guitar solo for months before he could get to a studio in Ohio. Winter’s brother, Edgar, recorded his parts in Hollywood. Slide guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks and blues singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi sent theirs from Australia. Getting this many artists together is no easy task.
“It’s all about touring. They all want to do [the record with Winter],” Nelson said.
Some artists reached out on their own to be a part of the project once they found out it was to be a series. Guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson called Nelson about playing on one of the next two installments, as did Winter’s longtime friend Rick Derringer, though both will have to wait for the next two releases to be featured. There is only so much space on one release. Steel guitarist and vocalist Ben Harper was nearly featured on “Step Back”, but Nelson made the tough decision to bump him for Clapton (not really a tough call).
“They came in droves to do this,” Nelson said. “I have been getting calls rather than making calls for a lot of these that want to be a part of it now that they know it’s a series. Everybody’s really happy and really supportive.”
The “Roots” series is seen as a comeback in the studio for Winter, who turns 70 this February 23. For years, he suffered from poor health as a result of heavy alcohol and drug abuse. For 15 years, he performed sitting down. In 2005, he broke his hip for the second time in 10 years. Around that time, he only weighed 90 pounds. Even in his 60s, he still struggled with addiction to methadone.
In 2007, though, Winter walked onto the stage at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival before 28,000 fans, playing slide and singing his trademark cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” The performance was also seen on PBS that year during airings of the festival performances.
“[2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival] was the comeback,” Nelson said.
In 2012, Winter’s further improvement was confirmed nationwide by his appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman.” By then, he had been off any kind of substance for two years. He was 60 pounds heavier, his growl was stronger and his playing was back to the blistering form his fans knew from his records.
“Ever since he did the Letterman show, once the public saw that he was healthy and strong again, his attendance at shows just tripled,” Nelson said.
Winter and Nelson expressed appreciation for the music community’s support. Not only have these world-renowned artists joined Winter on the “Roots” series, but artists such as Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band have invited Winter to sit in with them at their shows. Clapton invited him to play at his 2010 and 2013 Crossroads Festivals as well (Winter was on tour in Europe and could not make it to the 2013 festival in New York).
“It’s real nice,” Winter said.
“When artists start seeing one of their peers getting healthier, they really come up to bat,” Nelson said. “They all love a comeback. I think the fact they knew that Johnny was viable again, he was healthy, his voice was strong, playing was strong, they came along and wanted to help … so they were all honored to play in this.”
Nelson is heavily credited with helping Winter back on his feet. Before Nelson, Winter was managed for over 30 years by Ted Slatus. Slatus had a negative impact on Winter, according to Winter’s biographer Mary Lou Sullivan in her 2010 book “Raisin’Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter.” Slatus lied to Winter frequently, isolated him from everyone including his band mates, and Winter has even claimed that Slatus kept him dependent on drugs. Winter fired Slatus in 2005 when Nelson showed him recordings of Slatus ranting about Winter while drunk. Subsequently, Winter hired Nelson as his manager, who had been playing and writing songs with Winter since the early 2000’s. Nelson, both a colleague and a friend, helped Winter kick drugs and get healthy, resulting in his resurgence in the past few years.