Johnny Winter: Still Alive & Well
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2010
Johnny Winter nearly killed his career—and himself. Now the blues legend is back in action with a revealing account of his harrowing experience and a new dedication to his craft.
Legendary guitarist Johnny Winter has seen his fair share of trials and tribulations during the course of his 50-year career as a fire-breathing, trailblazing guitarist. But in 1994, he came perilously close to reaching the end of the road, both personally and professionally.
“I was messed up,” he says, hanging out in the comfort of his basement lounge in his expansive Fairfield County, Connecticut, home. “I was not in the best shape for a while there. I was going through some really difficult personal issues, and I started taking prescription drugs to help with the problems on the advice of a doctor. But I ended up taking too many prescription drugs for too long. Combined with drinking, the adverse effects just got worse and worse.”
Winter’s newly released authorized biography, Raisin’ Cane (Backbeat Books), goes into great detail of the events that led up to his prescription drug meltdown and subsequent emergence from dependency and alcohol abuse. Making matters worse during the time of his dependency were the actions of his longtime manager, Teddy Slatus, who, Winter discovered, had made many decisions that Johnny felt were not in his best interest. “No one—not the record companies nor the promoters—wanted to work with Teddy anymore,” Winter says. “He was ruining my career.”
In 1999, Winter met a guitar player that would change his life. Paul Nelson, a top session and touring guitarist who had been instructed by Steve Vai, Steve Khan and Mike Stern, was invited by Johnny to participate as a guitarist and songwriter in the recording of Winter’s Grammy-nominated 2004 album I’m a Bluesman. Slatus was looking to place Nelson in the band as second guitarist and manage him as well. Like many around Winter at the time, Nelson had the feeling Slatus was not doing right by Winter’s career.
In January 2003, Slatus’ own substance abuse problems landed him in one of his many stints in rehab. In his absence, Nelson opened Winter’s shows and doubled as his tour manager. Soon Nelson was able to see the full extent to which Winter’s problems were affecting the guitarist both personally and professionally. With Nelson’s help, Winter began to recover, and his health, as well as his playing, improved.
Performing these days with his band—Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Luizzi, Winter has a new-found enthusiasm and appreciation for playing. “Everything is so much better,” he says with a smile. “Playing is just a joy now.”
Johnny Winter was born February 23, 1944, in Beaumont, Texas, and displayed great musical proficiency from a very young age. Starting on the clarinet at age four, at 11 he moved over to the ukulele. Along with younger brother Edgar, the two appeared as a duet on children’s television shows and talent contests. At 15, Johnny formed his first band, and by the time he was 18 was making records. From 1962 to 1968, Johnny recorded prodigiously for a variety of record labels and in a great variety of musical styles. “At the time, I was cutting as many records as I could, in pursuit of a radio hit,” says Winter. “I didn’t think there was any money in playing blues, so we cut everything we could think of. ”
Eventually, Winter gave in to his true love and became a full-time blues guitarist. In 1968, Rolling Stone published a story about the young blues upstart, describing Winter as “a cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.” And thus Winter’s rapid-fire ascent to super-stardom began. CBS Records gave him a six-figure signing bonus and in early 1969 released his first CBS record, Johnny Winter. At the same time, Imperial Records released The Progressive Blues Experiment, an album of demos he’d recorded earlier in Austin, that was a strong outing as well. Suddenly, Winter had two albums in circulation at the same time. Overnight, a new guitar hero was born. Heroin addiction sidelined his momentum in the early Seventies, but he rebounded in 1973 with Still Alive and Well.
That title is relevant today. At present, things are going very well for Winter. He plays more than 100 dates a year, many of which are as headliner for large blues festivals around the world.
In the following interview, Winter discusses candidly the reasons for his descent into drug and alcohol dependence in the Nineties, his emergence from the depths to his new-found state of good health, his development as a blues musician and his love and dedication to performing live.