Grammy-winning Winter band guitarist remembers Texas blues star
STAMFORD — Paul Nelson can still see the image of an ebullient Johnny Winter leaning over the studio mixing desk as he predicted their last album would be a mega hit several years ago.
“He said, ‘If they don’t give us a Grammy for this, they’re crazy,’” Nelson, a Stamford native, recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Wow, we’re not actually doing this to get one, but it would be nice.’”
“Step Back,” a collection of Winter performing blues classics alongside other rock giants like Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, won the Grammy for best blues album in 2015. It came after Winter died of emphysema and pneumonia while on tour in Switzerland in July 2014 at the age of 70.
“Johnny had seen all his hard work pay off and he was pretty healthy,” Nelson said. “He got a cold. Of all the things he’d done, it was the cigarettes that caught up with him.”
Nelson, a Berklee College of Music-trained guitarist, said it was “a little rough” accepting the award without Winter.
“You say it’s not going to get to you and then all of a sudden behind you is the name of the album, and you hear the music and this rush comes back to you,” Nelson said. “Like a flashback of all the time you spent together.”
He now fills his time with solo tour dates, record production and guest appearances for artists like Gov’t Mule, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and others, he said.
The Paul Nelson Band will make more than two dozen tour stops through the end of the year, promoting Nelson’s latest album, “Badass Generation,” a collection of original songs.
He also spends time as on-call musical director for Hollywood actor Stephen Seagal, an avid blues musician, as well as a go-to session guitarist and record producer. But being the guardian of Winter’s musical legacy remains center stage, he said.
In 2016, Nelson produced a feature-length documentary about Winter called “Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty.” It included tour footage and chronicled Winter’s comeback from addiction in 2004.
“He was like a father to me,” Nelson said. “I was one of his protégés and he took me under his wing. I was happy just being his guitar player. It’s like being Hendrix’s disciple.”
Meeting in Stamford
For about 15 years before he died, Winter lived in Easton and often worked in local studios, Nelson said.
The two forged a bond in the early 2000s at Carriage House Recording Studio in Stamford, where Winter heard Nelson during a recording session for World Wrestling Entertainment.
Winter asked Nelson to write some songs and play guitar on “I Am a Bluesman.” It was Winter’s first original album in eight years.
“He said, ‘Now that you’re on the album, you have to come on tour,’” Nelson recalled. “I said, ’Where are we going? And he said, ‘Bishopstock, England,’ and it just took off from there.”
In addition to playing guitar and producing Winter’s albums, Nelson said he helped the Texas blues star break a 35-year addiction to alcohol, methadone and other drugs.
“It was another instance of an idol being helped by someone who appreciated them in the music community,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t purposeful, but it just came about because I saw somebody who was going to die. Nobody was helping out.”
To help end his methadone habit, Nelson shaved the pills with a razor to wean Winter off them before replacing them altogether with a placebo for the next year.
Keeping legacy alive
Nelson, a Stamford Catholic High School grad who was lead guitarist in the early 1980s for Liege Lord, a local metal band, began idolizing Winter and other hard rockers as a teenager. He learned their riffs by heart and later studied with names like Steve Vai, Mike Stern and Steve Khan at Berklee.
“When I was young, I would start a band around any style I felt I was weak in,” Nelson said. “I had grown up playing in clubs and playing in bands around here. I always came back.”
Nelson recorded “Badass Generation,” released last year by Sony Music Group, in his Stamford home studio. He said the album is a mix of influences from the Allman Brothers Band, Bad Company, Free, Led Zeppelin and others.
“It was an album that I really wanted to make,” Nelson said. “I worked with some amazing people on it.”
Nelson has been working at the Factory Underground Studio in South Norwalk, where he produced the Grammy-nominated “Everybody Wants a Piece” album for electric blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker.
He also continues to tour with the Johnny Winter All-Star Band and has been regularly producing albums as part of the “Live Bootleg” series of concerts from different eras drawn from soundboard tapes.
“We have enough material to keep releasing them for quite some time,” Nelson said. “We have whole tapes of Johnny just playing Hendrix.
“It’s an ongoing way to celebrate Johnny’s legacy.”