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.
GUITAR WORLD Back in 1992, things seemed to be going very well for you, career-wise. You had just released a fantastic studio album, Hey, Where’s Your Brother, and in October of that year you participated in the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, where you stole the show with your incredible version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” But in reality, things had started to go wrong, culminating in your hospitalization in 1993.
JOHNNY WINTER I had another girlfriend at the time, and I was trying to make up my mind between Susan [Winter’s wife, whom he married in February 1992] and this other girl. I started taking all of these drugs to deal with anxiety and depression, and it turned out the drugs weren’t good for me at all. They helped at first, but I took them for way too long, and, over time, I was taking much too high a dosage.
GW You’ve mentioned your struggles with anxiety in previous interviews. One example was at the John Lee Hooker Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1990, where you experienced severe panic attacks.
WINTER Oh, I was feeling horrible for that show. I didn’t think I was going to get through it. I just wanted to die, and I was thinking, Now I have to play? I really wanted to do the show, too, because of my love for John Lee Hooker, but I was feeling really horrible. And I have no idea why. I was just having terrible panic attacks. So that’s when I started taking medication to deal with the anxiety, and it did help, but I took it for way too long.
GW It wasn’t until 2003 that you started to combat the problems, with the help of Paul Nelson.
WINTER Paul helped me unbelievably. I couldn’t have done it without him. He and James Montgomery found me a doctor, who helped me get off the pills. I was taking five Klonopins a day, and it made me feel like a vegetable. And I was drinking, too. I was a mess, but I eventually stopped everything—no pills and no alcohol. Once my mind was clear, I had so much energy.
GW But you had a legitimate reason to take anxiety medications. What happened when you stopped taking them?
WINTER When I got off the pills, I wasn’t anxious anymore. I felt fine, and those feelings of anxiety have never come back.
GW Another issue at the time was the problems you were having with your manager, Teddy Slatus, who had his own problems with substance abuse.
WINTER Teddy was in horrible shape. He didn’t know what he was doing. Paul began to talk to me about what was going on, and that I should think about getting away from Teddy. Paul was trying to help me see the facts for what they were so I could make the decision for myself.
GW It had to be a very difficult decision, because you had worked with Teddy for a very long time, since you first came to New York in 1969.
WINTER Yeah, Teddy had been the floor manager at the Scene Club [infamous New York nightspot owned by Steve Paul, Johnny’s manager, which hosted jams with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others]. Teddy was pretty good in the very beginning, but I don’t think he was ever completely honest with me. So when I came off of the pills, I could see signs of a lot of mismanagement. He had all kinds of scams, like charging me double for things. If I stayed with him, I would never have come out of it.
GW Once you made the move and changed to working with Paul Nelson, could you see a difference right away?
WINTER It was like night and day. Overnight, things went from horrible to real good. Paul kept me apprised of everything that was going on, so I got straight answers and I knew what was happening with every aspect of my career. Right after I fired Teddy, I’d broken my hip and I was in the hospital, and Paul came byone night to tell me that Teddy had died [Slatus was found dead in his home on November 3, 2005]. By that time I didn’t feel sorry for Teddy at all. I knew about all the bad things he had done to me.
GW Through all of the problems you had during those years, your fans supported you unfailingly.
WINTER Yes, that’s true. I’ve been really lucky. Even when I wasn’t in good shape, they still stuck by me. I think a lot of people would not have been able to come back from being that messed up. It would have killed them. And it was hard for me and it took a little while. But I feel great now.
GW Your revitalization is even evident in your set list. You’ve been bringing some of the more rock and roll tunes back into the set.
WINTER Yeah, we added “Bony Maronie,” “Don’t Take Advantage of Me,” and “Good Morning Little School Girl,” and we’re talking about of bunch of other new songs to play. It’s fun to play new stuff.
GW Your connection to the blues is something that has always been extremely important to you.
WINTER Yes, it is. I love blues. I don’t mind a little rock and roll, too, as long as it’s blues-based rock and roll. Like Chuck Berry, who I love. He’s the one that got me started playing the guitar, pretty much. “Johnny B. Goode” is such a great song, maybe the ultimate rock and roll song.
GW Your friendship with Clarence Garlow when you were a teenager was an important step in your development as a blues player. That was when you started to go from Texas to Louisiana to play in clubs for the first time.
WINTER Clarence was the first real blues guy that I ever met. He played, but he also had a radio show in Beaumont on KJET. It was an hour-long show, and he played a lot of really great stuff. I started listening to him and started calling him up, asking him to play certain songs. When I was about 14 or 15, I had a job working in a music store. He came in to buy some strings, and I recognized his voice, so I started playing one of his songs for him on the guitar. He said, “You know who I am, don’t you?” And I said, “Sure I do!” We got a friendship going there, and I’d go out and sit in with him on his gigs.
GW In past interviews, you’ve mentioned getting your fake ID around that time so you could go play with Clarence in the clubs.
WINTER That’s right. I was 15 and my ID said I was 24. We started doing our first club gigs when I was 15. Boy, my parents hated me doing that! It took me a long time to convince them to let me keep doing it. Edgar was only 12. He was playing nightclubs at 12 years old! Our drummer’s father was supposed to be taking care of us, but all he wanted to do was to go out and drink. He didn’t pay any attention to us at all, but it made my folks feel better that he was going to be there watching us.
GW In 1976, you released Together, a live album recorded with Edgar that revisits songs from your club days, such as the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Soul Man” and “Harlem Shuffle.” The inner sleeve shows a picture of you as a teenager standing with B.B. King. Did you play a show with him at the time?
WINTER I was 17 in that picture. I just sat in with him. I wasn’t playing with my band. B.B. was playing at a club called the Raven in Beaumont, and we were the only white people in the place. But nobody bothered us. Everyone was real nice. B.B. didn’t know who I was—I wasn’t anybody! I was just a little kid. He didn’t know if I could play or not.
GW Did you just walk up to him and say, “Hey man, I want to play with you”?
WINTER Yeah! I had a lot of balls when I was a kid. I just wanted him to hear me play. And he kept coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t. He asked me, “Do you have a union card?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a union card.” And he said, “Well, you don’t know my arrangements,” and I said, “I’ve listened to all of your records. I know everything.” Finally, he thought I was from the IRS and I was coming to get him for taxes! [laughs] And then he said that he figured that if he was the only black guy in a white club, they might not want him to play because he was black, and he didn’t want me to think that he didn’t want me to play because I was white. So he let me get up and play with his band, even though he had no idea whether I could play or not! But I got a standing ovation.
GW Do you remember what song you played?
WINTER Yeah, “Going Down Slow.” I’ll never forget that night.
GW One of the unusual things about your playing technique is that you use a thumb pick, even though a large percentage of your playing requires fast alternate picking, for which most players will use a flatpick. How did you settle on the thumb pick?
WINTER My first guitar teacher, Luther Nally, played a lot of Chet Atkins–type of stuff, which is played with a thumb pick. Luther used one, and I liked Chet Atkins a lot, and Merle Travis, too, who also used the thumb pick. With the thumb pick, you can get good definition while picking with your fingers and your thumb, so I just started playing that way. A lot of the blues guys, like Muddy Waters, used thumb picks too. I’ve never even tried using a flatpick.
GW How did you first get started with slide guitar?
WINTER From listening to The Best of Muddy Waters. I also listened to a lot of Robert Johnson, Son House and Elmore James. I learned a lot from Elmore. I could hear that they were switching back and forth between playing with the slide and fretting with his fingers, but I had no idea how they were doing it. Back when I started, I didn’t know anyone else that played slide. I had to learn it all myself from listening to the records—the tunings and everything.
GW Your preference is to wear a metal slide on your pinkie. Did you always use a metal slide?
WINTER No, I tried test tubes, which were too light, and lipstick holders, but nothing worked good till I went to Denver and a friend of mine got me a piece of pipe to use. I like the metal slide because it sounds nastier. It’s sharper and clearer.
GW And now Dunlop makes a replica of your slide, called the Johnny Winter Texas Slider.
WINTER Yeah, it’s great. Looks just like it and plays just like it.
GW You just signed a new record deal with Megaforce. What do you plan to release next?
WINTER We’re thinking of calling the first record Roots, and on it I’m going to revisit a dozen classic blues songs that have always meant a lot to me, each song written by a different artist. The plan is also to have a variety of great guests. I’m really looking forward to making this record.
GW Your new authorized biography, Raisin’ Cain, is very candid about some very difficult times in your life, such as your past problems with drugs and alcohol, and all of your struggles personal and professional. How do you feel about the book?
WINTER I’m very happy with the book. [Author] Mary Lou [Sullivan] did a real good job. What I like is that it’s very realistic and doesn’t try to cover up the truth. Everything is in there, the good stuff and the bad stuff: how hard it was growing up in Texas being an albino, the early days of my career, signing the big record deal with Columbia, my problems with drugs. And it’s told in exactly the way that it happened. I’ve led a very interesting life! [laughs]