Johnny Winter: Life Inside His Final Tour

Johnny Winter, yelling, topless, wearing a cowboy hat.
Johnny Winter: a rock'n'roll life. (Image credit: Getty)

It’s the early noughties, and session man Paul Nelson has ostensibly just landed the gig of a lifetime. Invited to Connecticut to write songs alongside the great Texas bluesman Johnny Winter, the guitarist can hardly believe his incredible luck. But as Nelson sits opposite the gaunt, sickly, semi-comatose skeleton at Carriage House Studios, he realises that something is terribly wrong.

“Y’know, I’m playing with my idol,” remembers Nelson. “I’ve been asked to play on his records, to write songs for him. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What is wrong with this guy?’ But when I look to the others, everyone else just tells me, ‘Don’t say anything. We don’t discuss it…’”

Over a decade later, Nelson is able to speak candidly without fear of reprisal. Aside from Winter himself, the acclaimed solo artist and producer is the lead voice in Down & Dirty: an unflinching new biopic that charts the Texas legend as he clatters through his life like a platinum-blond wrecking ball. “Johnny throws up on Janis Joplin!” chuckles Nelson of one memorable anecdote. “And to him, it’s just a regular thing!”

As Down & Dirty reminds us, Winter’s tale is one of extremes, with triumphs like Woodstock and his production of Muddy’s 1977 classic Hard Again album offset by desperate and demeaning excess. Among the various highs and lows, perhaps the period that resonates most – and the story that we tell here – is Winter’s terminal decline in the post-millennium, and his heartening last-gasp comeback shortly before his death in July 2014.

Down & Dirty director Greg Olliver was unavailable for interview, and the Texan’s widow Susan Winter couldn’t be reached, but that doesn’t matter: if you want to know about the late-period fall and rise of Winter, then Nelson is your man. He saw it all: the good, bad and ugly.

When it comes to the titanic narcotic ingestion of Johnny Winter, it’s the heroin that gets top billing. In fact, explains Nelson, far more insidious was the methadone prescribed to the bluesman in its place, and the alcohol and anti-depressants that twisted the knife. “He was only on heroin for two years. It was the methadone. He’d been on methadone for 35 years.

“Is methadone as bad as heroin? Yes, especially when people start mixing it with anti-depressants. The Klonopins that he was on… I saw in an interview that Ozzy Osbourne was taking those, and it said he was on two a day. Johnny was on seven, eight, nine, 10 of them. Basically, Johnny Winter made Ozzy Osbourne look like he had training wheels. I’d see the shape that Johnny was in, and I would just laugh at what they thought was bad.”

Brothers in arms: Johnny Winter and Paul Nelson.

Brothers in arms: Johnny Winter and Paul Nelson.

By the 90s, that cocktail of downers had taken its toll on the once-vital bandleader. Winter would sleep 14 hours a day, grunt monosyllabic answers at bewildered interviewers, slide through his life like a shadow. His studio output stopped dead. “It was a bad decade,” considers Nelson. “I mean, he weighed 90 pounds. You see the footage of him at his worst in the film. He would fall asleep in his food, set his hat on fire. It was like an Elvis thing, a Beach Boys thing, a Michael Jackson thing. I’d seen all the horror stories and I went, ‘My God, that’s happening here.’ So I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m honoured to be a part of this – but what am I a part of?’”

On stage, the nightly car-crash was agony to watch. “He was in bad shape,” reflects Nelson. “The singing was the worst. Very nasal. Anybody that recommended seeing him as this iconic guitar god, y’know, it wasn’t a good recommendation. People were like, ‘He’s a wreck.’”

Worse, while Winter floundered, his contemporaries found themselves feted by a new wave of admirers. “It was a time when everyone was riding that retro gravy train,” says Nelson. “BB King, Clapton, they were all joining up with U2 and re-establishing themselves. But Johnny was not there to speak. He was not there to do the interviews. He was written out. He was nowhere. A lot of his fans were like, ‘What’s going on? What’s happened? Why is he like this?’ But there was no answer, because it was such a closed little clique that no one could penetrate.”

At the heart of this shadowy set-up was Winter’s long-standing manager, Teddy Slatus, who kept his charge secluded and sedated (and therefore under his control). Bandmembers were instructed not to rock the boat or ask too many questions, but Nelson didn’t get the memo. “When we first met in the studio,” he remembers, “Johnny played and I played. Then I said to the engineer, ‘Okay, I want to do my parts over again.’ The whole studio gasped. All these people that worked with Johnny were like, ‘No one asks to redo their parts. Why would you want to overshadow Mr Winter?’

“I went, ‘Whoa, that’s not what I want. Now I’ve heard what Johnny’s playing, I want to play less.’ Johnny turns to me and he goes, ‘Nobody’s ever said that to me. Everybody wants to compete with me.’ He goes, ‘I like you – I think we’re gonna be together for a long time.’ Later, the owner of the studio took me aside and said, ‘Paul, I don’t believe in premonitions, but there’s something about you and Johnny. You guys were meant to meet. I don’t know what it is, but I think you two are gonna help each other in the future.’ That was the moment when we laid the groundwork. When Johnny knew that I was there to help, not to hurt.”

He pointedly asks me not to use the term ‘manager’, but it’s clear that Nelson’s remit soon went beyond the role of sideman. “Y’know, I established a musical relationship with Johnny, then it turned into a friendship. Then he gave me responsibilities. Then I kinda took it upon myself. I just stepped in. I said, ‘This guy is gonna die.’ I saw the shape Johnny was in, and I knew I had to fix it, just out of friendship and for the sake of a human being.

“It was so bad. I couldn’t believe that it had gone on for that long. But I saw how it had developed, and I knew it had to stop. Everyone went round like the emperor’s new clothes. No one was telling him. So I said something. I told him, y’know, ‘You’re naked.’

“He was no angel. All these things that he put into his system, he asked for. The unfortunate thing was that no one ever said no. Even the methadone clinics want to keep you going there forever. So when I stepped in, I said, ‘If I’m gonna do this and help you out, you’ve gotta listen and we have to work on everything, from top to bottom. The band, the record deals, the home life, the drugs, everything.’ I said, ‘The only way I’m gonna help Johnny is if I’m working with a clean slate.’ That was important.”

Nelson’s first move was to get rid of Slatus: “I was the one who actually fired him. And he passed away, like, a month later. He was a raging alcoholic. It was a really bad scene.”

Yet the sideman’s masterstroke was to reduce Winter’s methadone intake by stealth, giving the unsuspecting star incrementally smaller doses each morning. “I knew he had to get off this stuff. But I had to be so quiet with [reducing] the medication. You’d worry, because you had all these pieces of pills all over the place. If he found out, he’d have went into withdrawals. And the thing was, he had no withdrawals. So he was getting clean, and it was funny, because I knew it was happening, but he didn’t. In the beginning, it was just seeing him get through another day. After a while, y’know, he really rebounded. It was something else. It was heartwarming to see him smile.”

What do you give the guy who’s done everything? You make a movie about him.

Plenty of ugly shit goes down in Down & Dirty, but there’s one genuinely beautiful moment: the grainy cell phone footage of a disbelieving Winter being informed in 2010 that he is now drug-free. “I spoke to Greg about that,” remembers Nelson, “and he said, ‘Boy, it’d be great if you had that footage of him.’ And I’m like, ‘I think it’s on my phone, but I don’t know if I want to use that. Should we?’ Greg goes, ‘We have to. People are gonna want to be a fly on the wall and see that happen.’ And that was the scene. He had finished methadone without knowing the day he performed at the 2010 Crossroads Festival. In the movie, he says that getting clean was the best gift he’d ever been given. When I see that, I still get emotional.”

So began Winter’s late-bloom resurrection. “Once Johnny came around, and he was clear, and all that stuff was out of his system, from the methadone to the drinking to the smoking,” explains Nelson, “he became more alert, his voice was stronger, his playing was better. He gained weight. He was more self-sufficient. Then the humour came out in the interviews. We played the world, over and over. He played more than he ever had. ”

After a seven-year absence from the studio, Winter was once again able to deliver. “I gave him the suggestion to record Roots [2011],” reflects Nelson, “with notables like Sonny Landreth and Warren Haynes and all that. The premise was songs that influenced him, by artists that he grew up on, and the guests tributing him, tributing that. Johnny just loved that idea. So then he asked me to produce it, which was a huge honour. His voice was stronger on Roots, and he went in and he nailed all those tracks in one take. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The playing had improved. Everything had improved.”

Winter also repaid Nelson’s faith by becoming a mentor. “We were like father and son, as close as anybody could be. Johnny really took me under his wing. He was like that. Y’know, he turned me on to Son House, Chuck Berry, Muddy, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, all these hidden tracks. He’d say, ‘Paul, I want you to listen to this.’ It’d be a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland track. And he’d say, ‘Listen to this riff, this is what we all learned. Listen to Okie Dokie Stomp and learn that solo.’ That was his way of paying it forward. Like, ‘I’m gonna teach you what we all learned. I’m gonna give you the inner secrets.’

“And that’s how I became his protégé,” he continues. “Johnny would say to me, ‘I hear you at soundcheck. You can play a lot of stuff that I don’t play. But I’m glad that you play the blues with me. When I played with Rick Derringer, it was always a battle, him playing on top of me. I know you can play like Rick, but I’m glad that you let me shine.’ I was always respectful. Even at his worst, I never took advantage or over-played. We had a really good musical relationship and that’s why the records were coming out good.”

Johnny Winter: the Texan lone star.

Johnny Winter: the Texan lone star.

With Winter’s sobriety, however, came the painful realisation of the ground he had lost. “Johnny knew how good he was,” says Nelson. “He was very upset about that Rolling Stone list [of 100 Greatest Guitarists]. He said, ‘I should have been at least in the top three.’ I mean, he was in it – but he was below Joan Baez and Joan Jett! It was ridiculous. Y’know, Johnny had all three. He had the playing, the singing and the slide. Clapton has the regular playing and the singing. Hendrix had the regular playing, no slide – and Johnny wasn’t particularly fond of his voice. He’d say, ‘I liked Hendrix’s Red House… but he can’t sing it as well as I can!’

“So Johnny was having a comeback and no one had done anything on him. He’d read the books on everyone. The BB King book. The Les Paul book. He knew that he was as important as those other artists, and something of this calibre had to be done for him.” [Winter did, however, collaborate with author Mary Lou Sulluvan on her 2010 biography of the guitarist, Raisin’ Cain. – Ed]

With impeccable timing, enter film-maker Greg Olliver, then breaking through on the back of his warts-and-all Lemmy documentary. “I sent a feeler out,” remembers Nelson of Down & Dirty’s genesis in 2011, “and I found Greg. I was handed the Lemmy DVD, and I’m like, ‘Hmmm, I wonder how this is gonna work.’ But then I saw the editing, the look, the closeness and I’m like, ‘Just put Johnny in that same situation.’ And I told Greg, ‘You have to come on the road with us.’ We took him in as part of the team, part of the crew. He followed us everywhere. Once I saw how this was coming together, I just couldn’t believe it. It’s perfect.”

How did Winter feel about being the subject of a documentary?

“He loved it, because he was that kind of guy. He said, ‘I’m at a stage of my life where I want awards.’ He was having one hell of a comeback and playing an amazing game of catch-up. So I knew it was time. Y’know, what do you give the guy who’s done everything? You make a movie about him.

“Plus,” continues Nelson, “he was clear enough of mind to enjoy what was going on. So he loved the fact something was being done on him, and that he was able to be a part of it. He wanted the cameras on for everything. And that’s why Down & Dirty is so candid. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of rock docs. But this one, Johnny is so open. It’s beyond open. You’re there. You’re sitting next to him. You’re closer than close. It’s über-close.”

True enough, Down & Dirty is sometimes so intimate that it makes you squirm: note the episode when Winter revisits his childhood home in Beaumont, Texas, but is too traumatised to leave the car. When the focus shifts to his final tour in support of 2014’s Grammy-winning Step Back album, though, it’s pretty hilarious. Take the moment when the Texan turns stand-up comedian at a karaoke session in Japan. “He was making all these noises into the mic,” says Nelson, “but then he got serious and everyone was just stunned. The people from the restaurant outside stopped eating and came over, like, ‘Who’s singing this?’ He knocked it out of the park.”

Then there’s the scene in New Orleans where an apparently shit-faced Winter has to be carted back to the bus after a heavy session on the Smirnoff. Nelson grins conspiratorially: “That scene really showed how rowdy Johnny could get. People are like, ‘How could you let Johnny get drunk?’ But what no one really knows – and we couldn’t think how to describe this in the film, but I’ll tell you – the alcohol that was served Johnny for that scene was water.

“Johnny’s OCD was masked by his medication, so when he got off the medication, the OCD started going up. And the OCD is about what the mind thinks that it has, so it can make you think that you’re drunk. I made sure that whenever there was alcohol around, I’d tell the waiter to put water in it.”

Given that he wasn’t technically pissed, Winter was never hungover either, and the Step Back tour captures him at something approaching full-throttle. “Oh, those shows were unbelievable,” nods Nelson. “The last shows before he passed, we were playing with Chicago and John Fogerty, for thousands and thousands of people. He felt it. And he knew. He was getting that same kind of admiration that BB King was getting, where he’d just come out and raise a glass of water and people would give him a standing ovation.

“When he walked out, on his own, and played standing up, and sang his ass off, they could finally recommend him to their kids that this was the guy – and actually he would perform and make them proud. As we progressed, the band got better, and that’s what you saw at the end. It was like a freight train. He caught up to where he should have been.”

No wonder that Winter gave his endorsement when Down & Dirty premiered at SXSW in 2014. “I sat with him in the movie theatre,” says Nelson. “We sat in the back and I got us both a popcorn. It came up and he was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing myself on the screen.’ He approved it. He never saw Step Back go through to the Grammys. But he actually said to me in the studio when I played him the mixes, ‘If we don’t get a Grammy for this, they’re nuts!’”

With those two acclaimed projects completed, perhaps Winter finally had a sense of closure. Certainly, within a few short months of that SXSW screening, he was gone. “The last time I saw Johnny was the night he passed in Zurich,” remembers Nelson. “I was in our transport. He went up to the room. I was downstairs and I got a call in the lobby. Y’know, ‘Someone that’s with you needs help.’ We ran upstairs and that was it. It was rough. It was the emphysema that got him. Everything else was healthy, physically, mentally. He’d stopped smoking as well. But it was the smoking that got him.”

Nelson has talked for almost an hour. It’s clear that he wants Down & Dirty to enjoy the profile of BB King: Life Of Riley, and to consolidate Winter’s position on the podium of all-time greats. “The film does Johnny justice,” he says. “It’s like three stories in one. It’s about the history of the blues and the history of rock. It’s about an elderly icon. It’s about starting again, about recovery, about friendship.”

The Paul Nelson Band’s Badass Generation is out now on Friday Music/Sony. Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty is out now on Megaforce.

The other blues brothers: When Joe Perry Met Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.