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Johnny Winter: Cold Tales Of A Hot Guitarist

It’s some time after midnight on a warm August night, and Johnny Winter is sitting in contemplative silence as the road passes beneath the wheels of his tour bus. Less than an hour ago he was walking off a stage in Delaware, having just completed a shimmering 75-minute set that closed a weekend blues festival in the city of Wilmington, and now is his time to unwind. Music from a 20-gigabyte iPod loaded with more than 4,500 classic blues tunes fills the air, and a pack of Marlboros and Winter’s trusty black lighter sit before him.

If you’d witnessed the scene immediately after the show, you could forgive the 63-year-old Texan for wanting to quietly decompress. One by one, fans waited in line for a chance to meet their hero, many of whom remembered him not as a bluesman but as an early 70s arena rock favourite. But for most of them, simply meeting Winter wasn’t enough; few could resist the urge to bend his ear about the past.

There was the rotund, 50-something man, tanked but still semi-lucid, who leaned through a window and into the bus where Winter sat, and slurred: “Hey, Johnny! I saw you in Philadelphia, dude! 1973! You blew the fucking doors off the place.”

Not more than two minutes later, a smiling woman takes her turn: “Um, Johnny, hi! I doubt you remember me, but one time I met you backstage at a show in New York. It was about 76 or so. DoI look familiar?”

“Johnny! Saw you with Muddy Waters in 77, man! You guys played Hoochie Coochie Man!”

On and on it went. Once Winter’s window was mercifully closed and the curtain drawn, the bus began to roll. The hordes of people disappeared from view, and the sudden stillness was eerie.

“We see this at the autograph signings at the end of every show,” explains Paul Nelson, a guitarist in Winter’s band and the man responsible for guiding his career since late 2005.

“They want to touch him, talk to him, grab his jewellery, whatever. He sees these people get really intense, and hears people talk about how, when and where they saw him, or how his music changed their lives. But he’s like: ‘How can my music do that to somebody?’. He just doesn’t fully get the reasoning behind the enormity of it all.”

The concept of wanting a piece of Johnny Winter isn’t a new thing; it’s always been this way. Dick Shurman, the producer of several of Winter’s albums including his latest, 2004’s Grammy- nominated I’m A Bluesman, remembers hanging out with Winter in Chicago in the mid-80s. “Everybody wanted to mess with him or interact with him somehow if he tried to go anywhere,” Shurman recalls. “We’d have to find him refuge from people. Everybody wanted to fight him, fuck him, give him a tape or get him high. Anything except leave him alone.”

Back on the bus, Winter, now comfortably ensconced, lights a cigarette and begins to sing along softly to an old Son House tune. Music is Johnny’s thing. If he’s awake, he’s listening. Rare is a Johnny Winter response that exceeds a single sentence, but the many famous musicians with whom he has crossed paths often serve as the best catalysts for the kind of tantalising detail that is almost agonisingly absent in his dialogue.

A Freddie King tune comes on. “I jammed with him at a place called the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin in 68,” Winter says. “We had a lot of fun.” During the drive, someone from his entourage asks him about Muddy Waters. “Of all the people I played with, I’d say Muddy impressed me the most,” Johnny says. “I was real proud of the stuff we did together.”

Eventually Jimi Hendrix’s name crops up.

“I never got to know him that well,” Winter says. “Mainly we just jammed a lot.” Then Jim Morrison. (“He was drunk all the time!”) And Woodstock. (“It was really muddy. Crowded, too.”) He is also asked about the scene immediately after his performance earlier that evening: the people; the things they say; the stories they tell. Does he find it overwhelming to be constantly prodded about the past? “Everybody’s got a story, I guess,” he says with a laugh. “But some of those people can get a little crazy sometimes.”

For better or for worse – often for worse – many aspects of Johnny Winter’s life have been about such extremes: his albinism; his prodigious guitar virtuosity; the mammoth six-figure deal he signed with Columbia Records following the publication of a 1968 Rolling Stone story; the critical acclaim given to his seminal albums like Johnny Winter, Second Winter and The Progressive Blues Experiment, and the depths of his noted bouts with heroin, pills and alcohol (move over, Keith Richards).

As a general rule, there’s little about Winter that rests in the middle; things are either magic or tragic, and rarely in-between. But for all of his career ups and downs, perhaps nothing rivals the level of exploitation he endured at the hands of his former manager, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Slatus. Slatus managed Winter for more than two decades before Winter fired him in a letter dated August 25, 2005. (“Faxed over at the stroke of noon, just like in a spaghetti western,” Nelson quips.) Slatus’s handling of Winter’s career and finances is now at the centre of a multi-million dollar claim that the guitarist’s lawyers – barring some kind of settlement – were preparing in late 2006 against his former manager’s estate. (Slatus took a fatal, drunken plunge down a flight of stairs on November 3, 2005.)

The pending legal action accuses Slatus of, among other things, breach of contract and violation of fiduciary duties. But Johnny’s alleged missing millions tell only part of the story. Winter’s ‘lost years’ began way back in the early 1990s. A recovering heroin addict, he acknowledges that he began taking anti-depressants that, when combined with his ongoing methadone (a heroin substitute) treatments (and a penchant for straight vodka), made a bad situation worse. Spiralling out of control, Winter spent most of his waking hours high as a kite. His career – not to mention his health – suffered mightily.

He became increasingly withdrawn, recorded only sporadically, and by the dawn of the 21st century, Johnny Winter, once a seminal figure in the world of blues and rock, a titan of the guitar, seemed to be on a collision course with a sad, tragic ending.

Did Slatus, Winter’s then-manager, wilfully supply the anti-depressants in an attempt to keep Johnny – and his earnings – under his thumb? In all likelihood, no one will ever know for certain: Slatus is dead, and Winter, even if he wanted to talk, probably couldn’t remember the specifics. But Paul Nelson, who quickly forged a friendship with Winter after meeting him in 2000 at Carriage House Recording Studios in Stamford, Connecticut (where Nelson was recording at the time), thinks the answer is yes.

“Nobody can say for sure that was the original intent,” Nelson says, “but I think it grew into something like that. It wasn’t until Johnny was just about off the anti-depressants [in 2004] that Teddy called Johnny’s doctor, once Johnny had started to wake up, and said: ‘There’s something wrong with Johnny! He’s asking a lot of questions!’. The doctor, meanwhile, was weaning Johnny off the anti-depressants. Teddy told the doctor: ‘I want him back on that stuff!’. That’s when I knew.”

By that time, Slatus – an alcoholic who had been in and out of rehab – was battling his own demons, and Nelson, a top-flight guitarist and established session man (and one who eschews the word ‘manager’), was putting aside his own musical ambitions in order to fill Winter’s managerial void.

“I was working with the doctor then, screening Johnny every week as he got off the pills to see if it was affecting him or hurting him,” Nelson recalls. “But for his manager to say that he’s got to go back on the stuff, then something’s wrong.”

Nelson likens the relationship Johnny had with Teddy Slatus to the one Elvis Presley had with his manager, Col. Tom Parker: the artist was a cash register, and the drawer was always open. It’s difficult to deny the stacks of receipts and contracts Nelson has assembled that suggest gross financial exploitation on behalf of Slatus’s management company. Alleged examples include the unauthorised release of DVDs, and thousands of dollars’ worth of receipts that Slatus reputedly submitted to Johnny’s wife, for air fares that had already been purchased by a tour promoter.

“Teddy left a paper trail that was almost child-like,” Nelson says. “There was no digging required. It was all right there. And no one could believe that one person could have had such a hold on all of this. We all knew something was up, and it always pointed to the manager.”

Nelson officially took control of Johnny’s affairs upon Slatus’s termination in 2005, and he was determined to help him re-establish his fading career. But first Nelson had to worry about the guitarist’s health. At one point in 2003 Johnny, who has always had a skinny physique, had withered away to nearly six-and-a-half stone. He endured an eight-month layoff in 2005 after undergoing surgery on his left wrist for carpal tunnel, and for a time it appeared that the man they call Johnny Guitar would never play again. On top of it all, he was battling hip problems, which to this day require him to perform seated. (In 2000 he fell at his home and broke his hip, resulting in the cancellation of a tour).

Between the substance abuse and the myriad physical problems – as well as a messy lawsuit stemming from a series of German shows that were cancelled in bizarre, abrupt fashion in the summer of 2003 – Johnny Winter had earned a reputation among club owners and booking agents as being less than reliable. He’d simply missed too many dates, and the ones that he did manage to perform weren’t exactly memorable. His skills, including the fiery guitar chops that had once dazzled none other than the great Jimi Hendrix, had been eroded. The scariest part was that Johnny was genuinely oblivious to the fact that he had a problem.

“We were driving together in upstate New York in the middle of 2004, just when he was starting to snap out of this funk,” Nelson recalls. “And out of the blue Johnny said to me: ‘Paul, was I that bad?’. I said: ‘You mean you don’t remember?’. And he said no, he didn’t remember. I said: ‘You’re kidding me, right? Johnny, you were bad – beyond bad’.”

The outlook for Winter has changed – and for the better. “He’s aware of everything now,” Nelson says. “He knows he’s getting better. He can feel it, hear it and sense it. Now that the Teddy regime is over, people aren’t afraid to speak their minds and tell him the truth about things. When Teddy was still around it was considered a big risk to talk straight with Johnny. It would mean instant termination.”

Now, it’s Nelson’s job to rebuild the organisation and achieve two things that just three years ago seemed to be wildly daunting tasks: to secure Johnny Winter’s financial future, and his musical legacy. The former should be a legitimate possibility, pending a successful resolution with Slatus’s estate and Johnny’s continued ability to tour. The latter, with a little luck, should eventually culminate with an induction ceremony at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Nelson’s mind, when Johnny achieves that honour the legendary guitarist’s career journey, which began in the south-eastern Texas town of Beaumont, will finally be complete.

Thanks to a steady, healthy diet and physical regimen – and a few tacos and milk shakes along the way – Winter is now up to 140 pounds and looking better than he has in years. In 2006 he played roughly 120 shows, and Nelson expects his touring schedule to grow increasingly ambitious through 2007 and beyond.

“He lives for the road,” Nelson says, “and he lives the life of the ultimate night person. It’s not an albino thing; it has nothing to do with the light, although a lot of people think that. He just really enjoys his sleep. He sleeps longer than anybody I know.” Nelson also notices other, more subtle changes: Johnny is increasingly talkative and generally more aware and involved these days – the emergence from his long, confusing haze continues. And he tells Nelson that he’s tired of performing in a chair and would like to stand again, something he hasn’t done in years. His musical skills are rebounding as well. He can again summon the magic from his vintage Gibson Firebird that transformed Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited into a slide-guitar tour de force, and the throaty growl that punctuated many of his classic 1970s recordings has resurfaced.

“The guitar riffs were always there,” Nelson says. “They just were slowed down a bit because of the condition he was in. Now they’re in synch, and he’s improvising. He’s returning to his old way of playing, where the songs were a format for his soloing and improvisation. Ideas are flowing out of him, his phrasing is in place, the singing, everything.”

But be advised: “It’s not a comeback,” Winter says with a hint of defiance. “I never went anywhere.”

This was published in Classic Rock issue 103.

"Remember me as a good blues player..." The real Johnny Winter.