Alright kids, it’s time for a flashback. This week we’re flashing back to an interview I did with Johnny Winter’s manager, guitarist, producer, and all-round good guy Paul Nelson. Down And Dirty, the film about Johnny Winter, is debuting this year and Johnny has a new guest-filled album, Step Back, coming out in September. This interview should whet your appetite for more wild Johnny Winter stories and get you ready for Down And Dirty.
At the time of this interview, Paul Nelson had just received a Keeping The Blues Alive award. As it turns out, he has kept Johnny Winter and Johnny’s career alive too, and given us fans more time with the man, the myth, the legend that is Johnny Winter. My utmost thanks go to Paul Nelson who was so generous with his time.
Okay, fire up the Wayback machine and drop us back in 2011…
…The Blues Foundation recently announced the 2011 recipients of the Keeping The Blues Alive award. The KBA recipients are chosen by a panel of blues professionals and awarded to dedicated, hard working individuals actively promoting, supporting and documenting blues music worldwide. In the press release, KBA chairman Art Tipaldi said “The recipients of this year’s awards – as with every year – are people and organizations who are an integral part of not only promoting blues music, but of preserving it as well. Their work applies to the business of recorded music, but also to live events, print media, radio and visual broadcasts, and increasingly, the internet.” This year’s winners are from as far from Memphis as Norway and Poland and as close as Mufreesboro, TN.
The winner of the Keeping The Blues Alive award for Manager this year (2011) is Paul Nelson. Paul has been managing Johnny Winter since 2005 and playing guitar in the Johnny’s band even longer. The two met while Johnny was doing sessions for his “I’m A Bluesman” album at Carriage House Studios in Connecticut. Johnny heard and liked Paul’s playing and asked him to write a few songs, one of which became the title song. Johnny liked Paul’s work enough to ask him to play on the songs he wrote, and then a few others on the album.
Around this time, Paul was asked to join Johnny’s touring band and he was thrown head first into the swirling turmoil that was then Johnny Winter’s career. His first gig as a member of the band was supposed to be at Bishopstock Festival in the UK. It was there that Paul got his first glimpse of the paralysis gripping Johnny’s life and consciousness. Johnny suffered from anxiety and was using alcohol, and anti-depressants. His playing had slowly lost its edge, his voice was weakened and off-stage he was detached and zombie-like. Before the Bishopstock gig, which Johnny was headlining, Paul got a call from then manager Teddy Slatus saying that Johnny had fallen asleep on his arm and pinched a nerve. They had to cancel the show. It was one of many missed opportunities and it took Paul no time at all to realize something needed to be done. Paul had managed other artists and saw that management was largely to blame for the stupor in which Johnny existed. When Paul attempted to speak up he was regularly told not to question authority or speak directly to Johnny about what was going on. However, Teddy Slatus had alcohol dependency problems of his own and in a short time Paul became the last remaining voice of reason. He recently told me “I used to have to pick the guy up in my arms and carry him to clinics. The manager was in worse shape than the artist and the artist was a wreck.”
As Paul’s relationship developed with Johnny they were able to discuss the situation. Johnny grew to respect Paul’s opinion and together they began to reclaim Johnny’s legacy and make him relevant in the 21st Century. Johnny has gone from playing a few weeks a year before 2005 to 100-140 shows a year since. The fire and fury have returned to his playing and his voice is once again strong. They have been releasing archival audio recordings with their Bootleg Series CDs and video recordings in the form of two DVDs – “Live In The 70’s” and “Live In The 80’s.” They continue to tour regularly and plans are underway for a new album in 2011.
Paul Nelson has worn many musical hats over the years and was an accomplished guitarist, producer, arranger, writer and manager before he met Johnny Winter. He went to Berklee School of Music and was one of Steve Vai’s first students. Beyond blues Paul is comfortable with rock, funk, jazz, and pop music. His influences range from Albert King to Tommy Bolin including Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Larry Carlton and Jimi Hendrix. Paul has even written music and played guitar for the WWF’s short-lived XFL Football broadcasts. Thankfully, his many talents and adventures prepared him well to help out his friend and living legend Johnny Winter. Paul Nelson has been integral to Johnny’s reawakening and resurgence. He recently spoke with American Blues News about the sometimes difficult, sometimes funny, often gut-wrenching journey that has brought Johnny and his career back from the abyss.
“I was doing lots of session work and touring with tons of artists from The Temptations to Halifax. It was during sessions at the Carriage House that I met Johnny. I was recording for the XFL – that football league the WWF was putting together. I was in there writing and Johnny heard me playing because Johnny was waiting to come in there next. Then he asked me to write songs for the new album and then he asked me to play on the new record, then ‘do you want to tour?’ and things just started developing and that’s how I started out with him.”
Blues and blues rock players were a big part of Paul’s development as a musician. “I used to listen to Johnny’s stuff like crazy. You had to have some blues in your playing, and it was blues rock so you listen to him, Aerosmith, and guys like Jeff Beck and Tommy Bolin.” Paul probably never imagined he’d be in a touring blues band one day, let alone with one of his heroes but he seems to be enjoying it quite a bit especially now that Johnny is healthy; playing and singing his best in years. “Oh, it’s great,” he said. “And now he’s mixing it up. He’s healthier and playing blues and rock. It’s great playing with him. We’re playing stuff from the old days and new ideas. His singing is great. He’s strong. That’s all I wanted to see”
Our conversation turned to the recent revelation that Johnny is finally off methadone and Paul revealed the inspiration behind his involvement in getting Johnny’s life back on track. He saw a fellow musician and human being in need and knew something had to be done. “As a musician I though ‘wow, I could’ve gone that route.’ I thought, if I was in that position, what would I want done for me? If I was in his position with everything that had happened and I wasn’t able to say or do anything to get out of it, how would I want somebody to save me from that? First thing, is as a guitarist, get a manager with knowledge of music, finance and managing. You know, somebody that knows the music. I think that’s why we get along so well, because we’re both musicians. It’s another strange thing that his manager is in his band. That doesn’t mean that while we’re playing I’m taking calls but sometimes it’s been pretty close!”
For many years, from 1994 or so until a few years in to the 21st century, Johnny was off the radar. He seemed to disappear. “That was old management’s fault,” Paul says. “Johnny had the vices but management just wasn’t strong enough. They didn’t say no.”
It was at the dawn of the internet and information on Johnny was hard to find. Paul sees that as a blessing in disguise. “It was a good thing because while he was going through the bad years, the down years, the internet really hadn’t taken root. So, for some reason the timing worked out perfectly. Just when he started getting better Youtube started getting popular.” He adds, “A lot of the way he was wasn’t getting recorded. But I saw the phones starting to come into the shows and I thought ‘uh-oh, we gotta fix this quick or it’s going to be permanent.’” Fan-filmed video could make it hard to rebuild the reputation of the ailing icon, but it could possibly help too and that was not lost on Paul. “Every new step along the way in his career, whether it was musical changes or whatever, it was all being recorded. That was huge thing.”
Prior management under Teddy Slatus was not as concerned for Johnny Winter’s well-being and public perception. They didn’t stand up to or for Johnny and no one in the organization was willing to say what needed to be said. “I’m sure the same thing happened in the Elvis camp, Michael Jackson camp, or the Beach boys with Brian Wilson or the Ozzy camp. I just went in fresh and asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’ He (Johnny) says, ‘what do you mean what’s wrong with me? Nobody asks what’s wrong with me.’ I said, ‘this is bad’”
After a while, Paul’s questioning and caring led to respect between the two musicians. “I would say things before I was manager, actually working under management, and just say ‘how long are you going to do this?’ He ruled the roost. I got him off the alcohol, the anxiety pills he was taking and I was determined to get him off that methadone.” Paul’s quest to get Johnny off the drug finally came to fruition this year. Johnny was on it for almost 40 years as a treatment for his infamous heroin addiction in the early 70’s. It was a tough battle for Paul and an important milestone for both him and Johnny, even if Johnny didn’t know it was coming. “I knew if he knew what was going on it wouldn’t have happened, but I took it upon myself to go against doctors wishes. ‘No, he should stay on this. Certain people just need to be on it forever.’ I’m like, okay, whatever. I’m getting him off this. The doctor thought we were going to diminish it a little but I was lowering and lowering it. But, I had to monitor it so I needed a doctor to monitor him to see what effects there were.”
Paul slowly started to see the positive changes in his friend as they traveled around the globe together taking Johnny’s music to the masses once more. He elaborates “Being able to have a one on one relationship like that you can see the changes and get him off it slowly. It’s not like the clinics that say ‘Okay you’re down to this, goodbye’ and you go through withdrawals and it’s a revolving door. I knew it wouldn’t work that way, so I dwindled it off.” He adds, “Another thing too is that the rest of the world didn’t know what was going on because they’d come back and tell him!”
Things are definitely looking up on the business side too. “Now he’s in great shape and we’ve got a record deal. His whole business was a mess. No DVDs, no CDs. Interviews were non-existent. At a point when everyone was being retrolized, he wasn’t. He’s an icon. Now there’s tons of stuff. I’m finding old archival footage; stuff found in attics; some held by old disgruntled employees.” There is indeed an influx of Johnny Winter products including archival CDs & DVDs and an instructional DVD.
There’s also the book, Raisin’ Cain, by Mary Lou Sullivan. “You know what a pain in the ass that book was?” Paul asked. If the tribulations of the last 15 years were any indication, it was probably quite an exasperating undertaking. He continues, “She was fired by the old management. She started digging a little and got information on them. They kept telling her they wanted to read it and she said no. So he (Teddy Slatus) told Johnny’s wife that Mary Lou had the hots for Johnny. So then it stopped. I knew Mary Lou was trying to put the book out on her own so as soon as I took over I told her ‘We’ve got to get this book going. You spent too much time on it.’”
Even with new management there was still an important issue to resolve. Johnny’s wife still believed that Mary Lou was after Johnny. Paul said “I told her (Mary Lou) ‘you’ve got to get together with his wife and work this out.’ So I took them both to lunch and sat them at the table. The wife didn’t want to do go and I said we’ve got to do this. There’s been too much time spent and now that he’s healthier we can have an ending to the story. They had no ending before. And Mary Lou didn’t even know I was taking him off the stuff (methadone). She only interviewed him until 2003 and he was still alcoholic then. That’s why she’s running around now saying ‘oh yeah, we sat down with a bottle of vodka…’ He hasn’t had a drink in years!”
Paul found himself having to do damage control all over again and he wished Mary Lou Sullivan had taken the time to update the narrative. “I said you’ve got to take it easy. He’s not like that anymore. New stuff was developing. That book is like a sugar-coated tip of the iceberg. Right after Johnny finished her interviews he was still out of it. When she came back in I said ‘I know you have all the notes and stuff but you’ve got to interview some of those people again. There’s other stuff going on here.’ And she never did. The stuff going on behind the scenes while she was wrapping it up was insane – the firing of the manager, Johnny kicking it, the alcoholic stupor.”
Teddy Slatus drank heavily and eventually it led to his accidental death. In a drunken state one night, he fell down the steps at home and died in the ambulance. By the time of Slatus’ death, Paul Nelson was on his way to rebuilding Johnny’s career and reputation. He now had Johnny’s cooperation. “Johnny, by then, was just totally fed up. All the stuff we had found out – the attorneys, the records, all that stuff was just crazy. So much more than what’s in the book. But he’s doing great now and it’s all good. As far as managing goes, it’s a great situation we have. We live close together, we’re in the same band, we travel together.”
When Paul speaks about his accomplishments with Johnny, it all sounds so simple. “I just made sure that every aspect of his home life and life on the road was taken care of – from finances, to drugs, to his relationship at home.”
It’s that kind of attitude and selflessness that led Paul to be this year’s recipient of the Keeping The Blues Alive award for management. Paul comments, “I never thought I would get this award. I wasn’t going for it. I thought, wow, that’s pretty wild. The guy that called me from the Blues Foundation said the guys that get it never expect it and the ones that think they earned it never do. I didn’t even think about it but it’s pretty nice.” It is obvious that Paul cares very much about Johnny personally and professionally. He is thrilled to have Johnny healthy and happy.
Many of us have probably been wondering if Johnny still has it. For several years, the audio and video making the rounds did not pain a pretty picture of Johnny’s withered abilities. Music fans everywhere were skeptical about going to a Johnny Winter show. Paul has gone above and beyond on many occasions to make sure Johnny is healthy, playing well and giving people exactly what they came to see and hear. He shared one such story with American Blues News. He looked back with amusement at what had to be immensely frustrating and daunting at the time. “The confidence had to be built back up with all the promoters. One time, when I had first taken over and I fired Teddy Slatus, Johnny had a gig in Texas that was three weeks away. It was a run of shows for concerts that had been cancelled due to health and the old management. Here I come along, fire the management, fire accountants, fire all these other people, handle lawsuits against him for all this other crap, handling all that and his wife calls me up ‘Johnny fell and broke his hip.’ I go over there, pick him up, put him in the car, drive him to the hospital. He weighed about 90 pounds – now he’s around 150 something – but he’s about 90 pounds, sitting there in the hospital. ‘I’m sorry’ he says ‘here you just took over, I broke my hip, these shows are so important.’ I said ‘This is it.’ So, I talked to the doctors and said ‘look, he sits down while he plays.’ The doctor says ‘when are these shows?’ I say three weeks. He says ‘well, don’t cancel anything yet.’ I said ‘What?’ The doctor says “how does he get to these shows?’ I said ‘He goes in a wheel chair to the bus, from the bus to the airport and on to the flight. He sits in his seat.’”
“The doctor says ‘Is there a wheel chair all along?’ I said ‘yeah, we wheel him to his seat. He gets off the plane, we put him in a wheel chair and he goes to the show.’ (ed. note – Johnny had broken his hip previously forcing him to be seated on stage) The doctor says, ‘Well, he can do those shows. He’s just going to be sitting down. He’ll spend 3 days in the hospital, then we’ll send him for rehab and he’ll be walking in 12 days.’ I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ I go to Johnny’s room and he’s saying ‘I’m so sorry, you take over, I’m happy with the way things are going, I see progress, it’s great and I know these shows are important. You know I feel so bad you had to cancel the shows.’ I’m just looking at him. He says ‘you did cancel the shows right?’ ‘No.’ He says ‘What!? What do you mean? I can’t go. Are you insane?’ I said to him, ‘Think about it. You’ll be sitting down all day. The doctor tells me you’ll be here for 12 days. That’s perfect.”
Johnny would be able to play the shows, but nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. Paul continues, “So this is huge. His mother didn’t know he broke the hip, his brother didn’t know. He said ‘Can I tell anybody?’ I said ‘You don’t tell a soul that you broke your hip.’ This news can’t get out. We had just signed with Piedmont Talent, the booking agent. They didn’t know it was broken. They got a series of gigs and I’m gonna call them up and tell them Johnny Winter is broken in half? We’re going. We go down there. We get there and the second plane doesn’t have a wheel chair. So I’ve got to pick him up and carry him to his seat on the plane. Imagine all the Johnny Winter fans – ‘honey, you’re never going to believe this. There’s some guy carrying Johnny Winter in his arms down the aisle of the plane’ I carried him to Texas.”
Paul laughs but he wasn’t too happy at the time, and, he continues “It gets worse! I roll him in to the back of the club. I didn’t want any pictures of him in the wheel chair. I covered up the wheel chair with some black cloth, he’s sitting at a table and it looks like a regular lounge chair. Even his brother walks in and doesn’t know he’s in a wheel chair with a broken hip. So now I’m wondering how in the hell am I going to get him on stage? It’s the first show, old manager’s gone, Johnny’s healthy – he was already playing and singing great, he was off all this stuff – so I knew all I had to do was get him out there, but he had to look healthy. I had a guy working with us sit in the front row. This is at soundcheck, so I said, I’m going to sit in Johnny’s chair. I screamed to the houselight guy ‘When I say GO shut off all the lights in the house.’ He says ‘Okay, I gotta we gotta notify somebody…’ I said ‘just for a second! I’m going to count to 15 – the time it would take to get Johnny from the side of the stage to his chair.’ I told our guy in the front row to let me know if you can see anything at all. So they turn off the lights, I walk to the stairs, down the steps and back up again and ask ‘what did you see?’ he didn’t see anything, it was pitch black. ‘I said that’s it! That’s how we’re going to get Johnny up to the stage. We’ll pretend there’s a power failure in the auditorium, I’m going to run him up there, carry him in my arms and no camera will see me and I’ll place him in the chair. You see, previously they had said there were curtains in front of the stage but they said we couldn’t use them because they had Budweiser advertisements on them.”
“Come show time – remember, I’ve got to time this right – I’m going to run out there with him, those lights gotta come on when he’s there. So, the band’s playing the introductory music, the lights go off, I grab Johnny, pick him up – he’s like ‘What the hell!?’ – and I run up the stairs, I put him in the chair. I go to run off and they turn the lights back on! So I jumped behind the chair and hid behind his chair for the whole show. On stage!” Paul chuckles. “Edgar walks out to jam. He’s looking at me like, do I play now? I’m giving everybody cues from behind the chair because I don’t want anybody to know Johnny was lifted. Then the Mayor comes out and wants to give him the fucking key to the city, looking at me behind the chair like ‘do I do it now?’ I’m like, yeah just stretch. Everybody’s looking behind Johnny for this person who’s ‘not there.’”
“So, the show goes through. I’m thinking how do I get him out of here? So I’m signaling, going kill the lights, kill the lights! So they kill the lights and I run him off. Then I look at the press for the show and it was ‘Johnny Winter back with a vengeance’ and as if by magic no one can figure out how Johnny appeared on stage. It was poof! And then he was gone.” Paul laughs. “They didn’t know how the Hell he got off stage.”
So that was the start of Paul Nelson’s career as Johnny Winter’s manager. Johnny was wondering what he got himself in to. Paul remembers “Johnny says ‘is this how it’s going to be?’ I said yep, we’re doing it. And we’re going to use the music that got you into this situation to get you out. The music is going to be your exercise – walking to hotels. And then I piled on the gigs. I piled them on! He was doing two weeks a year now he’s doing 100 to 140 a year. He also needed it for the income – he needed to pay for all that stuff to get fixed and he needed it for his own health. He was sitting around turning to mush. But nobody ever knew he broke his hip! And it’s not in the book.”
Ever since, Paul has guided Johnny’s career and legacy upward and onward and the hard work is paying off. Johnny Winter is back in the magazines, playing high profile festivals like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and The Allman Brothers’ annual Wanee Festival in Florida. There are official archival recordings readily available reminding everyone what a treasure Johnny’s music was and is. Above all, Johnny is healthy and happy and the blues world is recognizing the hard work Paul put into the success. Paul says “You think back and say maybe I did take that extra step but I had to. You don’t think. You’ve got to do those things. You have to make on the spot judgments on his behalf and you do as much research as you can to make sure he’s safe, doesn’t get hurt, his career isn’t tainted. He looks like a pro coming in and out and you just do it. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Thanks to Paul and Johnny’s hard work, cooperation and determination long time fans, skeptics and newcomers can now feel confident when they buy a ticket for a show. Johnny will be there, he’ll be healthy and he’ll be blowing the roof off the joint with his inimitable style of rockin’ blues. Congratulations to Paul Nelson for receiving this year’s Blues Foundation Keeping The Blues Alive award.
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