Just in case you haven't noticed, Johnny Winter is more visible these days than he's been in years. Credit a guy named Paul Nelson. Nelson, for those not in the know, is an A-list guitar player who attended Berklee in Boston and studied under Steve Vai, who, while not a bluesman, is undeniably one of the most technically dazzling players the world has ever known. Paul possesses the same kind of genius and fluidity with his axe: He has simply colossal chops and should be fronting his own band, but he's way too busy recording and performing with Johnny -- and keeping him on the upswing. Paul doesn't like the word "manager," so let's just say that he's handling Johnny's affairs and has been since Winter's previous manager, a guy named Teddy Slatus, died in 2005...
Winter's touring schedule these days is substantial, and his ability to stay out on the road is no doubt rooted in a significant change in his health. Not more than two years ago, the already-skinny Winter was wasting away -- literally. He was off the road, had a series of health problems, and he reached a low of 90 pounds. He's now up to 140, largely due to a steady diet of healthy foods, not to mention regular chocolate milk shakes and the occasional stopover at Taco Bell. Oh yeah -- he's off heroin, too. These days, about the worst thing Johnny puts into his body is cigarette smoke.I've seen Winter perform (usually at B.B. King's in New York City) about a half-dozen times over the last two years, and the first time I saw him at B.B.'s, he was in such bad shape that he had to be escorted to the stage with one person on each side of him, holding his arms. Not the case now. True, Johnny isn't going to run the Olympic 100 meters anytime soon, but it's great to see him entering and exiting the stage under his own power. Paul says Johnny has even expressed an interest in performing again without sitting in a chair, which is how he's doing it these days.
I communicate with Paul pretty regularly and have followed Winter's progress closely. There's a huge mess to be undone where Johnny's personal and business affairs are concerned, some of it legal, but Nelson is dutifully getting it all straightened out, one issue at a time. But in the short-term world, Paul's goals are modest and honorable: getting Johnny's financial affairs in order so he can retire comfortably, keeping his health on the upswing, maintaining his active touring schedule and (last but not least) helping Johnny gain induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is something he undeniably deserves as a true blues-rock trailblazer.
Paul graciously took me out on the road with Winter for a weekend in August, and it was a thrill. Johnny played a gig at Stephen's Talkhouse in Amagansett, New York (that's way out on Long Island, for those of you who don't know the area) the first night before heading down to Wilmington, Delaware to headline a festival, where the local police treated him like he was the Pope or something. I'll never forget the site of Johnny being brought to the stage in a golf cart: He had cops on both sides of him, trotting along as though they were Secret Service agents. All that was missing were the suits, dark sunglasses and those little earpieces that they wear. Johnny's eyesight is poor -- he's legally blind -- so I'm not even sure he noticed. But if he did see those guys, I'm sure he got a big kick out of it.
Life on the bus with Johnny is fascinating. He's not a big talker, but he'll open up after a while. But one thing about Winter: this guy knows the blues like you wouldn't believe. He doesn't merely play in the style; he lives it. Paul has loaded up Johnny's iPod with more than 3,000 songs, and they're all strictly blues tunes. Not a single rock song on there. And I swear that Johnny knows the lyrics to every single one of them, many of them tunes I'd never even heard before. He'd just sit there as the road passed underneath the wheels of the bus, singing along, occasionally injecting a short anecdote about how, as a youngster in Texas, he heard this song or that song on the radio, and how it moved him. Like a lot of young white kids back in the 1950s and 1960s, Johnny was a quick study, discovering the forbidden fruit of black radio.
Another thing I couldn't help but notice about Johnny: His fans are simply rabid. And when I say rabid, I mean that they're wildly zealous folks, on a par with the Grateful Dead in terms of their sheer dedication. Johnny's time out of the public eye has done little to diminish their enthusiasm. After the Wilmington show, a long, long line formed outside of Winter's tour bus; people took their turns shoving things through the window for Johnny to sign, and not a single one of them were able to do so without saying something like, "Hey Johnny! I remember seeing you back in 1971. The gig was at..." For his part, Winter just signed, smiled and said thank you.
I will be reporting in full on Johnny's comeback for a future issue of Guitar World/Guitar One (not sure which magazine, or what issue just yet), so stay tuned for details. I've also got some cool photos from the weekend that I'll share on this site. Much more to say about Johnny Winter down the road. Stay tuned.