Guitar Great Johnny Winter: On the Road, Sober, and Still in Demand
Johnny Winter is on his tour bus, fumbling with a cell phone and trying to find a place to sit with good reception. In a few minutes he'll be onstage again, playing with the same passion and fury he displayed when he was a young man. Meanwhile, he's fielding calls to help promote a couple of current projects, including two instructional DVDs, a soon to be released album, Step Back, and a documentary by filmmaker Greg Oliver. When he settles down, he confesses he's not that big on interviews. "If the questions are new and I like 'em and they make me think, it's great," he says. "If they're questions I've answered a hundred times, I get bored."
Johnny Winter, second from left, with his band.
These days Winter plays most of his show sitting down. "I still use a '70s Music Man amp, like Muddy [Waters] and Bob Margolin had. I've liked it ever since I first tried it out. I have one chorus pedal, everything else I do by hand, and I don't mind sitting down, although I'm strong enough these days to stand up for a couple of songs. I'm not moving around like I did when I was 20 or 30. I just stand still."
A few years ago, at the end of a long downward spiral, Winter broke both his hips and had an operation on his left hand to correct a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome. At that point he met Paul Nelson, his current rhythm guitar player and manager. Nelson helped Winter sober up and get back on the road. "These days I don't use nothing at all," Winter says. "I never thought I'd quit smoking, but I did. I still miss it but I don't do it. It's very boring to be sober. I know I'm gonna live longer this way, but I still miss not doing all that stuff."
Winter's current set list leans heavily on the blues songs that first inspired him to pick up the guitar, things like Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Workin'," Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City." "I do songs I love," he says. "A couple of rock songs, maybe two songs using slide guitar, drawn from all time periods of my career." Many of the tunes were featured on Roots, his studio album from 2011. Winter's manager, Paul Nelson, produced the set.
"When I started managing Johnny about five years ago, we were talking about his career," Nelson says. "He told me when he was in his rock phase, the label wanted him to do pop songs and he got away from his roots, so I suggested doing an album of songs he always wanted to do, things by Elmore James, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker. Since he's such a big influence on so many musicians, I thought having him collaborate with people like Warren Haynes, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, and his brother Edgar would be a good idea."
Nelson lined up an A-list of collaborators, and Winter turned in some of the best playing he's done on a record in years. "We didn't get one bad review," Winter says proudly. He cut the album with his regular touring band, and worked quickly. "We play together all the time, so we don't need to practice," Winter explains. The sessions went quick. We were in the studio about 10 hours, just me and the band, playing live in the studio. I've played most of 'em live over the years and if I hadn't, I knew 'em all very well. We did our parts first, and then Paul recorded everyone else. I know them all, but we didn't play together on this record."
Roots came out so well, Winter went back in to the studio this year to record a follow up, called Step Back, this time concentrating on the early rock songs that influenced Winter's playing. "We cut the band parts a few months back," Winter says. "Same process as last time, live in the studio with the band." This time, Nelson's lined up some heavy hitters to support his boss. Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, and Dr. John have already contributed their parts to the album. Nelson is arranging dates for Ben Harper and other guests.
Winter's also been busy helping out other artists with their projects. He added guitar and vocals to Sly Stone's updated version of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" on his I'm Back! Family and Friends album, and slide guitar to William Shatner's take on Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" on his new record, Seeking Major Tom.
"The Sly Stone thing wasn't much fun, I don't know why he had me on the album," Winter says. "When I got the mix back you couldn't hear me. I like Sly and was honored when he asked me to do it, but I didn't meet him, or even talk to him. They sent the track to me and I put my part on it, but on the final version [it's] like I wasn't even there. [The Shatner thing] turned out a lot better. I did that track the same day I did the Sly track. He sent me a letter thanking me for doing it and said he really liked my part. It made me feel good."
Director Greg Oliver (Lemmy) is also completing a documentary on Winter's life. "He's been following me around for seven months now," Winter says, "but I don't know how long it's gonna take." Nelson says Oliver is aiming for a late 2013 release, and that the film will include Winter telling his life story on camera as well as selected performances, including his recent guest shot on the Late Show with David Letterman.
And when he's not on the road or making records? "I stay home with my wife, watch a lot of TV," Winter says. "It's very boring, but I like it."
Johnny Winter performs Wednesday, July 24, at Yoshi's Oakland. 8 p.m., advance tickets sold out.