A Few Minutes With… Paul Nelson of the Johnny Winter Band

Paul Nelson and Johnny Winter (photo: Greg Olliver)
Paul Nelson and Johnny Winter (photo: Greg Olliver)

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

“He wasn’t just playing it. He was living it.” That’s the way Paul Nelson remembers Johnny Winter. Nelson was Winter’s lead guitarist, band leader, songwriter, album producer and perhaps most importantly, the man who brought the albino blues rocker back from the brink of a lifestyle that threatened to kill him a decade ago. Winter finally succumbed to pneumonia on July 16.

“I made my first records when I was 15,” says Winter in the film documentary, “Down & Dirty: The Johnny Winter Story.” I started playing clubs when I was 15, started drinking and smoking when I was 15, sex when I was 15. Fifteen was a big year for me.”

That documentary will open the Johnny Winter Remembrance Concert on Saturday evening (November 1) at The Egg. This show headlines Johnny’s band under Nelson’s direction with guest guitarists Sonny Landreth, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Debbie Davies, all blues-based artists who, like Winter, know how to put a kick into blues guitar.

Both Brooks and Davies approach blues guitar with a rock attitude. A month ago, Sonny Landreth headlined the opening night of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas with fellow slide master Roy Rogers. Both artists have the same fire in their belly that Winter had. Most rock guitarists who employ a slide tend to be derivative of Delta blues progenitors like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk. Landreth pushes the style in new directions, and if his interplay with Rogers (himself an unsung slide master who recorded two albums with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek of all people) is any indication, his interchange with Paul Nelson in Albany should bring down the house. In earlier appearances during this tour, they have played “Highway 61” and “Dust My Broom” together.

Johnny’s brother, Edgar Winter, (best known for his hit “Frankenstein”) who is not performing at the Albany concert, calls his older brother his all-time musical hero, defining his legacy as follows: “I want to go on record (as saying) I think he is (note use of present tense) the most knowledgeable, authentic, traditional slide player ever! Johnny really studied all of those alternate tunings and all of those styles. He loved Duane Allman, too, but he really understood that as well as anyone on the planet ever has and developed his own style as a result of that. Not only did he incorporate all of those styles as a basis of what he was doing, he just took it to a different level.”

Of course, Johnny Winter was more than a slide player. He was a raw, guttural singer who did as much, or more, than Stevie Ray Vaughan and/or Jimi Hendrix to lure a mass audience into the blues. His last, posthumously released album Step Back has become an unintended bookend to his first release The Progressive Blues Experiment in 1968. It features numerous iconic guests from Eric Clapton to Billy Gibbons and Dr. John, yet it focuses squarely on Winter’s strengths and presents the guest stars in a supporting role. It could easily become Winter’s legacy defining CD and Nelson’s comments about it as producer show the critical role he played in Winter’s finale decade:

Nippertown: “Step Back” seems to be a return to “The Progressive Blues Experiment.”

Paul Nelson: Yeah, The word that’s flying around is bittersweet, and I guess it best describes it absolutely. The album was good – great without all this tragedy. He knew it was a strong record. His playing was on top. His singing was on top. All those vocal lines were done in one take. He knew this was a very important record.

We were slated to do two more, and we were just getting ready to do ’em. Johnny and I were discussing the mortality of the other artists that we wanted to be on. Why don’t we just do ’em both at once? Why wait a year? And we picked out 26 songs. He picked ’em out, and we were ready to go in and just (dust) them all off and then start bringing in the guests because we didn’t know how long some of the others he wanted would live.

Q: That’s the thing that comes across on this album is that he sounds authentic.

A: Yes.

Q: It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing with Joe Perry or Dr. John, Brian Stetzer or doing acoustic on “Death Letter.” I keep thinking back to the John Lee Hooker album “The Healer,” and that didn’t come off as well. John Lee Hooker got taken over by all the guests that were on that album.

A: Well, that was the thing. The thing was to still make Johnny shine. It was the way I presented the song to the guests. I didn’t give them versions with Johnny’s solos on it or with Johnny’s guitar parts. Artists, no matter who they are, start mimicking what they hear. So if all of a sudden I gave them Johnny’s recordings of “Step Back” or “Roots” or whichever one they were on, if they started hearing Johnny’s playing, they would have been influenced by all that.

Then I would have had all these guys with Johnny’s ideas in their head, not playing like themselves. So I actually gave them the tracks as if the tracks were their own. So then when I went back, I had to edit a lot, take stuff out, and also I talked to their engineers and said, ‘What mikes did they use? What amps did they use? What size rooms?’ so that I had an idea of the sound in our studio. So I used those same mikes, those same amps, those same – you see what I’m saying?

Q: Yeah, yeah…

A: So that it sounded like they were in the room because Johnny liked that live Muddy kind of recording, that Muddy Waters kind of thing where everybody was live, and you did one take and all that kind of thing. So I wanted to feel as comfortable as possible.

First thing that everybody says, ‘It’s obvious that you didn’t have people in the studio recording ’cause of their schedules,’ like it’s a bad thing. But I kept that in mind ’cause I knew people would say, ‘Well, he wasn’t in the room with John.’ At the same time I had to make it contemporary for him, for the audience.

So it was an interplay between the old style and the new and then the fact I went back and studied the songs that he had taught me who to listen to and whatever. So then when I got the band together, we learned the original versions. So when we went to Johnny, it was like we had just learned those songs for the first time, and we had learned to communicate with him better. He said, ‘Oh, I remember when I learned this riff.’ So as a whole the band started getting better live as well. We were like a machine churning this stuff out.

Q: So what was the sequence of events? The guest guitarists would do their parts and then Johnny would listen to what they had done?

A: Yeah. Yeah, that was the series. Johnny would learn the song. I got the band together. We learned the songs, learned the secondary versions, made sure the song forms were the way they were gonna be, then contacted the artists, had Johnny sing over it first, and then had them put their parts in. Then Johnny played over that, and then it was just a question of less is more, making sure that all the parts didn’t conflict.

My job was to make Johnny sound great – and everybody else because there were some heavyweights coming in. Ben Harper loved the versions, but yet still made them hip, and I knew that when Johnny would come in, I called it “Winterizing.” He put his signature sound on it, and then it would be Johnny’s song like with anything else.

I assigned them the songs I wanted them to play on it. That’s the difference between this and other projects. Usually, what they do is they say, ‘Oh, an artist is putting out a record. Here’s the songs that are left for you. So and so is already doing this, and this and that.’ No, I knew Eric Clapton and Bobby Blue Bland (who wrote “Don’t Want No Woman” that Clapton does on Step Back). I knew that Dr. John had to be on “Blue Monday.” Of course, it’s New Orleans. I knew that Billy Gibbons had to have that certain kind of groove.

So when you say who’s on the songs, it’s like, oh, that makes total sense. Yeah, because they were handpicked because of their playing and the knowledge of what they liked to play with Johnny. So when they got the songs, they just shined on ’em.

Musicians have a tendency to pick stuff that doesn’t fit their own playing, so I had to kind of like, ‘This is your song. This is the one.’ ‘Oh, this is great. I love this song.’ And I knew they all did because I did the research, and I knew how musicians think, and that’s why Johnny handed me this responsibility, this honor because I think he knew and had faith in me because he knew I had done other projects, and he knew that I knew him and that I would make it easy for him and comfortable and give him the sound he wanted.

Q: In retrospect, do you think this record will become his defining album?

A: He’s got such a legacy. I can’t take away from The Progressive Blues Experiment. I can’t take away from Captured Live, Let Me In, things like that. But for where he’s at, it was the epitome of all that he and I worked to have him do a comeback, of a healthy person, of a better life, of a guy beating drug addiction and health issues.

WHAT: Johnny Winter Remembrance Concert
WHO: The Johnny Winter Band (featuring original members of Johnny’s band – guitarist Paul Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Tommy Curiale) with vocalist Jay Stollman and guest guitarists Sonny Landreth, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Debbie Davies. The evening begins with the screening of the documentary, “Down & Dirty: The Johnny Winter Story.”
WHEN: 7pm Saturday (November 1)
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
HOW MUCH: $29.50

Johnny Winter (photo: Michael Weintrob)
Johnny Winter (photo: Michael Weintrob)

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