Johnny Winter, one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, is on the road somewhere in Massachusetts, delivering terse answers by phone to a wide range of questions.
What was Muddy Waters like as a bandleader?
“He was very strict. If he didn’t like something, he would tell the guys.”
Are you strict?
“I try not to be.”
Did your parents share your fascination for old blues songs when you were growing up in the ‘50s?
“I don’t think they really understood it. They sure didn’t mind me doing it, but they didn’t listen to the blues themselves.”
How did you pick the songs for your blues tribute album, “Roots,” last year?
“I didn’t have one favorite out of the bunch. They were all songs that I enjoyed doing.”
It goes on like this for about 15 minutes, until finally Winter, 68, is asked about his longtime former manager, Theodore “Teddy” Slatus, whom he fired in 2005. Slatus died a year later, and Winter accuses him not only of mismanagement but also of deliberately keeping him dependent on drugs, alcohol and methadone treatments. He also says Slatus drove a wedge between Winter and former friends and colleagues, from musicians he had worked with to his brother, Edgar, frontman for the ‘60s rock heroes Edgar Winter Group.
The singer’s relationship with Slatus was “a convoluted one that almost cost Johnny his career and his life,” veteran music journalist Mary Lou Sullivan writes in 2010’s “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter.”
The bluesman “called the shots,” Sullivan says, but Slatus undercut his decisions by “lying to him, making decisions behind his back and withholding information.” On the phone near Cape Cod, Winter adds: “I had a really bad manager before, a really bad alcoholic who just didn’t know what he was doing. So my career would have been ruined if I’d have stayed with him.”
By the time Paul Nelson, Winter’s guitar player and producer, took over as manager in 2005, the singer was not in good health. Even for him, Winter was skinny, just 90 pounds at that point, according to a 2007 Guitar World magazine profile. He’d had wrist surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and was recovering from a broken hip he suffered at home in 2000.
“He was in the same shape Ozzy Osbourne was in -- he was on the same medication, the same kind of stuff, only three times as much. He made Ozzy look like he had training wheels,” Nelson says, after Winter hands over the phone. “Now he’s completely clean.
“Slowly, we chipped away at all the bad stuff,” Nelson adds. “He started exercising. His playing, his vocals, got better. It took about five years, but once he was off the methadone, he improved 100 percent. It was amazing. Now he’s not smoking cigarettes. He’s the only musician I know who’s not only not getting older, he’s getting younger.”
For 15 years, the singer has performed while seated, but he’s starting to stand up for one or two songs at a time. He was unable to walk even from the bus to hotels, and today he walks “all the time,” Nelson says. He eats healthy meals, and he’s about to get cataract surgery, which could improve his eyesight by 60 percent, Nelson estimates.
Born in Leland, Miss., and raised in Beaumont, Texas, Winter was, by the late ‘60s, both a novelty and a phenom. He was a skinny albino from Texas (his brother, Edgar, looked exactly the same, no less) with long, blond hair and a cowboy hat. And he was an electric guitar genius who could enliven even the most familiar standard by lighting it on fire and turning it into a complex jam worthy of prog-rock bands such as Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
As his star power increased, Winter became depressed, even suicidal, and found himself a heroin addict. In the early ‘70s, he rehabbed at hospitals in Texas and New Orleans. In 1973, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a song for him called “Silver Tran.” In the late ‘70s, Waters hired him as producer and sideman for a series of superb comeback albums. By the early ‘90s, he fell into a spiral of antidepressants, vodka and methadone.
A key step toward recovery was Winter’s 2011 album, “Roots.” Planning the track lineup, Nelson asked for a list, which Winter delivered after 15 minutes: Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Contemporary stars such as rockers Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, country star Vince Gill and Winter’s brother, Edgar, showed up for guest appearances.
The album has gone over so well that Winter is loosely plotting a “Roots II,” due sometime next year, with possible guest stars including Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.
“I’ve got a few ideas, but I haven’t really picked them,” Winter says. “The first one was good, so I’ll try to do it again.”
The biggest names aren’t confirmed, but Nelson is not only optimistic, he predicts a string of sequels. “It could be ‘Roots’ 1, 2, 3 -- I don’t see any point of stopping,” Nelson says. “He’s our living Hendrix. People are now feeling they don’t want to miss the boat on him.”