The bittersweet success for the late guitar great Johnny Winter

By MIKE CHAIKEN
EDITIONS EDITOR
It was one of those rock and roll stories with a bittersweet twist.
Rock and blues guitarist Johnny Winter had gone through a good deal of hard times in the decades after he first hit the scene as a musical wunderkind in the early 1970s. He battled all sorts of addictions. He was going blind. And he had been rendered musically irrelevant by changing times and bad management.
But he managed to turn his life and career around, with the help of Stamford, Conn.-guitarist (and his producer) Paul Nelson.
However, just when Johnny started to find his groove again, fate pulled a cruel trick on Johnny and his fans.
While he was touring in Switzerland last summer, Johnny died of heart failure.
But, Johnny’s life and career received a resounding redemption a few weeks ago when the last album he recorded, “Step Back,” won a Grammy for “Best Blues Album.”
Johnny Winter had completed his comeback… even if he didn’t live to see it.
In a phone interview, Paul Nelson said he had been a fan of Johnny’s. Eventually became Johnny’s guitar protégé in the 1990s.
Paul said that was a tough time for Johnny. He was battling addictions. And even though there was a bit of a blues revival in the 1990s, Johnny was overlooked. “He was getting written out of history,” said Paul.
Paul began working behind the scenes to help Johnny kick his demons and knock down the walls that made it difficult for the guitarist to kick said demons.
And once Johnny began to be healthy again, Paul said he told Johnny it was time to record again.
“Let’s do an album of all blues,” Nelson proposed to Johnny.
Although Johnny’s guitar playing used the blues scales, for most of his career, he never really played straight blues, said Nelson. He played rock music and he played pop music.
And this was one reason why Johnny wasn’t fond of his catalogue. His “Live Johnny Winter And” album was popular with fans. But Paul said Johnny had always felt it was his worst album.
So, Paul said, Johnny liked the ideas of an all-blues album.
Paul then told Johnny, the album needed a theme. And he suggested Johnny record an album of songs that influenced him growing up as a young musician.
“You pick the songs,” Paul told Johnny, “I’ll bring in the guest musicians.”
Johnny took all of 15 minutes to pick the tracks, said Paul.
And those 15 tracks became 2011’s “Roots,” which was recorded seven years after Johnny’s previous album.
Paul had been just Johnny’s guitarist, band leader, and friend at that time. But for the new album, Johnny told Paul he’d like his friend to produce the album. Paul balked at first because he had never produced an album before. But Johnny told Paul, “You know me and you know my playing.”
Once musicians knew Johnny was healthy and his voice was in good shape, Paul said they began to flock in to guest on the record. Folks like Vince Gill, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks came in for “Roots.”
When it came time to record the follow-up, “Step Back,” Paul said Johnny was even healthier and stronger. He was off the methadone. And he was ready to do more uptempo material.
And this time, Johnny was able to pull in Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Joe Bonamassa, Dr. John, and more to guest on the record.
“He came in the studio and did all the vocals in two days, one take each,” Paul said of Johnny. And when Johnny sang and it was clear that soulful sound was back, Paul said, “My hair stood up.”
People who heard it were excited about it, said Paul. “This is a good record,” people told Johnny, “like it’s a surprise.”
Paul said Johnny also was excited about recorded the results.
“Paul, if we don’t get a Grammy for this one,” said Paul, “they’re nuts.”
“He really wanted a Grammy,” said Paul.
And he got that Grammy.
After he stepped off the stage with the Grammy award for “Step Back” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Paul said a security guard came up to him.
“Thank you for what you did for Johnny,” the guard told Paul. “It’s a really good record.”
Another woman came up to Paul at the Grammys as well. “I saw Johnny when I was at 14,” she said. And she was glad Johnny had a chance at a comeback before he passed away.
Then a janitor came up to Paul to tell him that Johnny was better than this musician or that musician.
Paul said there was definitely a theme to the post-award comments.
“Their idol finally came back,” said Paul. They were telling Paul, “You validated our hero.”
Asked how he himself felt seeing Johnny win a Grammy, Paul said, ‘There’s a sense of pride and a sense of sorrow at the same time.”
“We were pals,” said Paul. “He was like a father to me.”
When “Step Back” was recorded, Paul said he and Johnny had intended to record another 26 songs. But that never happened.
Paul said he may organize an album where he brings in guests to record the album that Johnny wanted to record before he died..
The recorded legacy of Johnny is not emptied yet. Paul said there are tons of live recordings just waiting to be released.
So he said fans of Johnny Winter just have to keep an ear out.
For more information about Johnny Winter, go to JohnnyWinter.com. For more information about Paul Nelson, go to PaulNelsonGuitar.com

Guitarist Paul Nelson from Connecticut produced the late Johnny Winter’s Grammy Award-winning album, ‘Step Back.’

Guitarist Paul Nelson from Connecticut produced the late Johnny Winter’s Grammy Award-winning album, ‘Step Back.’

Johnny Winter recorded the Grammy Award-winning album ‘Step Back’ with Connecticut producer Paul Nelson. After recording the album, Winter passed away in Switzerland.

Johnny Winter recorded the Grammy Award-winning album ‘Step Back’ with Connecticut producer Paul Nelson. After recording the album, Winter passed away in Switzerland.

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