On July 16th, 2014 an American Blues legend, Johnny Winter, passed away just as his career comeback was in full swing. For the past decade Paul Nelson not only became Johnny’s guitarist, they formed a special friendship that deeply affected both of their lives. This February at the 57th Grammy Awards, Johnny’s album, Step Back, produced by Paul Nelson won the Best Blues Album. In September, a critically acclaimed documentary, Down & Dirty: The Johnny Winter Story, executive produced by Paul Nelson will be hitting the silver screen. I was fortunate to be able to conduct a special interview with Paul and learn about his upcoming solo album and share memories of his time with Johnny Winter.
Hey Paul, great to meet you! You’re no longer guitarist Paul Nelson, now you’re GRAMMY winner guitarist/producer Paul Nelson. How was the award experience this year?
Yeah, that came out of nowhere but it was bittersweet. We had worked on Johnny’s album and he graciously honored me with asking me to do the producing duties. Johnny got an award, I got an award. In the Best Blues category, the award goes to the artist, producer, mixer, and engineer. I’m proud of it but sorry Johnny’s gone; he heard the final album and loved it. He never won something for himself before, all that work with Muddy (Waters) he got producer credit but never for his own music. This was very special.
It had to be so emotional accepting the award after his passing, do you remember what you said on stage receiving the Grammy?
I drew a blank; I swore I wouldn’t get emotional but then when they started playing the music and the award was on the screen came this rush of memories of playing with him, we were such good friends. It’s not like we go off touring and don’t see each other again. We lived relatively close and I’d take him bowling and stuff. It was kind of rough and I broke up a little.
It’s been almost a year to the date since his passing, any special memories of those last months with Johnny Winter?
Oh yeah, he passed away on the 16th (of July) a year ago. Those last shows in Europe, in Austria, we were playing with Chicago and John Fogerty. The shows were packed and everyone knew the back story how Johnny was making a comeback, getting healthier, and everyone was so supportive. There were B.B. (King) type applause when he walked out on his own. They knew his eyesight was better and he was clean and sober. The cheers were not only for the playing which was so much better at the end but also the effort to clean up. Their idol that had fallen through the 90’s was now in the mainstream again. I will tell you it was the emphysema that got him. He smoked too hard for too long and it caught up on him. He got a cold and it got really bad after you smoked like that.
My grandmother passed away from smoking and emphysema too.
Everybody’s saying that! Johnny had gotten off of everything, everyone knows he was open about it. But the hardest thing was those cigarettes. I couldn’t believe it after all that drinking and everything. Make no mistake, Johnny pushed the envelope. He was a child of Woodstock and he made Ozzy Osbourne look like he had training wheels.
I read that in France you got a street named after Johnny, how did that story happen?
Yeah, it was the last performance in Cahors, France. We were going to do a show with Johnny, myself, and hopefully Edgar (his brother), but he couldn’t get there due to routing. I said some kind of dedication would be great. They said, “We were thinking about that” so I said, “Then let’s do it!” Back and forth were the conversations and then it became a reality, Johnny Winter Allee. An allee over there is a major street. The place where that’s located is where ALL of the bands and their tour buses have to go by there to get to the main stage. So, it couldn’t be in a more prominent spot!
Was that in Paris?
No, Cahors, it’s very south of Paris where a HUGE festival that everyone from France goes. So it’s a very prominent location and a huge honor. I had worked early to get Johnny honored on the Book of Marker in Leland, Mississippi on the Blues Trail. But to get one in a different country was a big deal and I wanted it to happen on the anniversary of his passing. It worked out one day short but it was right there. Trying to keep his name alive; he didn’t need my help but I’ll always be Johnny’s guitar player and associated with all that he did. So when people call to do things like this, I’m the go-to guy. I was always a big fan and would do whatever I could to make sure all that he worked for in the later years sticks and stays.
You’re an incredible guitarist, I was watching many of your clips on YouTube. Then I saw you’re in one of the original Speed Metal bands in the 80’s!
Oh, you found that! Yes, late 80’s (laugh) You found me out.
Do you remember those early days, what were those shows like?
Yeah, that was Metal Blade Records, even Johnny would say “You used to play some heavy stuff early on.” I’d say “Johnny, I really don’t want to scare you with that stuff” and he’d say “I saw you with this long hair and I knew you played that stuff but I’m glad you’re now playing blues with me.” But yeah, that was great playing with a lot of bands all over the world, such a cool time, but I always made sure I played many styles. That’s very important. Like most players when I was young I played the Blues to learn. Johnny was one of those guys like Hendrix – to actually play with an idol is HUGE, such an honor. Then something else happened, it turned into a friendship when he needed some help and that’s actually coming out in movie called “Down & Dirty” coming out in September or October.
Yes, I heard September 18th, what was your goal in making the film?
Well there has never been anything done for Johnny, not even a tribute record which is something else. I knew it was time. I knew there was a story here; there were a lot of missing pieces. The musical landscape centered around Johnny was such that he was in such bad shape in the 90’s, he never really spoke out or answered a lot of questions so I posed it to our record company that something should be done for Johnny. They laughed and said we just had somebody contact us, Greg Oliver, wanting to do a doc on Johnny and he just did the Lemmy video. I thought Motorhead, hmm, now with Johnny? They said check it out and I saw what they did with the editing, the closeness, his style, the whole look of the thing was brilliant. So I contacted him and said I’d love to do it but said “Well, here’s the catch, you’re going to come out on the road with us.” He came out for three years. He came with us to China, Japan, when we did Letterman, Kimmel, Johnny’s house in Texas, even to Europe. He interviewed Johnny’s first guitar teacher to Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) to his brother Edgar, Joe Perry (Aerosmith). We get to see Johnny getting healthier. From the beginning of the film to the end, Johnny gets younger.
In the movie trailer, it shows Johnny dealing with some of the addictions. Was everyone happy with the final cut and how honest the film was?
Absolutely! He said everyone should know about what I went through so he asked if it was okay to talk about all of this. It ends up being a good story as well as inspiring to others, so of course! I mean it shows when you were on top, then you had your troubles, then cleaned up your act and this comeback happens. It’s a great story about Blues, Rock, addiction, about getting older, friendships, there are three stories in the documentary and when you pause it you never knew where it’s going to end up. But when you’re looking through the rushes and seeing it through the eyes of people looking at your situation from the outside it’s pretty interesting. And the way it’s all pieced together it’s really good and fills in a lot of questions about Johnny. He was a major key in a lot of events like Woodstock, his association with Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the festivals, the recordings with other artists. AMAZING STUFF! I’m sure people will enjoy it when it comes out. I know I do.
I love rock documentaries. The Amy Winehouse movie debuted this week and Kurt Cobain’s film came out this summer. Do you have any favorite rockumentaries?
Oh Yeah! (laugh) I actually ended up loving the Lemmy one. It’s great! I loved the one on Anvil and the one on Pentagram, that was good! It was really deep. I even loved “Searching For Sugar Man“.
Great film about Rodriguez!
It was brilliant. I love any of them. You can have one about Blues artists, rockers, this one is so up close with Johnny. You’re sitting with him the whole way, it is deep. He’s so open and honest, you can tell that he is not speaking to the camera but speaking his mind. Johnny saw the whole thing and approved it. He also heard the last album, Step Back. Nothing coming out was something Johnny didn’t want to come out. He worked hard on it and was proud of it all. When he passed away, the album was slated to come out a month later anyway. That was a hard decision to make but we didn’t want the circumstances to dictate not releasing something he was proud of. So we went ahead and it became his highest charting album of his career on Billboard.
I see a parallel with Carlos Santana, one of my favorite guitarists. Both played at Woodstock yet both achieved the biggest success later in their career teaming up with guest stars like Eric Clapton.
Yes, I see a formula there. I didn’t want this to become a friends’ album where people came in just for the sake of the song. You can have the solos in there but if you have too many solos, it just becomes showing off. So the solos are still in there, but they’re shorter and fit the song. They’re all good-time songs that really work well. The production, the artists, ….here’s the weird thing Johnny was slated to do two more records, a continuation of this. Johnny said “You know what, why are we waiting to record two other albums, one every year, we should do them all at once.” He said you never know how long these artists are going to be around. I’m thinking WOW, he’s worried about the longevity of other people! We didn’t know, but that just shows how healthy he was physically and mentally. So we recorded 26 songs. I actually have the list.
So there’s going to be a Step Back 2 album coming out maybe?
We never finished the songs. But I’d love to do a tribute that Johnny always wanted to do. I really want to push this tribute thing because nobody’s done that for Johnny’s material and I’m sure there a lot of artists wanting to be involved. But that can be in the future.
That’s a great idea!
(Laughs) Well thanks! I don’t think that’s been done before where artists played songs by someone that he wanted to do and not just songs he already sung. I’m working on that now.
You played on Killing Floor on the record, how did you choose that song for yourself?
KILLING FLOOR featuring Johnny Walker and Paul Nelson
Well, it was the same formula on this album and the previous one, Roots. These were songs Johnny loved and that influenced Johnny. So, it was guests “tributing” Johnny, “tributing” his idols. So Johnny said, “What do I need to do?” I said “You’ve got to pick the songs”. In fifteen minutes, he goes “well, here they are.” I laughed and went “really?” So it was my job as producer and guitarist to find the artists that fit each song and rehearse those songs so they would fit the style of the guest. So Billy Gibbons had kind of a ZZ Top kind of chug to it, Clapton had a more Bluesy, gutsy kind of sound, Joe Perry had a rock sound. Killing Floor came up and Johnny said “you’ve got to play on this record too.” I said “alright, I want Killing Floor” and he said “Perfect!” He was so kind to me and really took me under his wing. That’s common in the Blues world where artists take someone under their wing and they kind of hand them the go-ahead or okay to do their thing. I will always have Johnny’s music in my head and in my playing because we were together so long. So I’m going to continue that. I just got signed with Sony Records so I’m doing my solo stuff now.
Which label are you with under the Sony umbrella?
It’s actually Sony Music Group which encompasses Japan. I can put out stuff that sounds like Johnny but I don’t even want to attempt to do that, I want to do my own thing and he appreciated when I did my own thing. He said “Paul, I know you can play a lot of styles but I really like when you’re playing blues with me.” So he was very supportive. So I formed a band under my own name and the album’s complete and going to come out probably around October.
Do you have a title for the album?
Tentative title but I can’t say it yet, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve got titles for all of the songs. It’s got a retro groove, the band and I are really into Bad Company, Zeppelin, that type of sound and I think there is a calling for that style today. We got a great front man from Europe, he was #2 on The Voice, Morten Fredheim. It’s a mixture of everything we do and I think that’s okay now. You know Blues, Classic Rock, Jam bands, I think it’s important to bring that rock element in.
So, it’s not an instrumental album; how many of the songs feature vocals?
All of them, yeah, it’s not an instrumental album, I did that on my last solo thing, Look, but this time I really wanted a band.
Paul Nelson Band’s new lead singer, Morten Fredheim
Did a little research, I heard you were offered jobs in Ronnie James Dio’s band, Anthrax, Steelheart, and even Hall & Oates?
Oh yeah, everyone auditioned for that gig (Hall and Oates) but T-Bone Wolk decided he would do it. So everybody who auditioned said “did you get the gig? did you get it?” I mean the line was unbelievable, everyone wanted it. Here the bass player ends up getting it. None of us got it, and trust me there were a lot of big name artists going for that gig. But yeah, you always get those calls. Steelheart was a band from New England and I knew those guys really well. But right now, I’m doing this project and it’s really important to me and when you hear this stuff, I hope you like it.
Absolutely looking forward to it! That really showcases your diversity being considered from Dio to Hall and Oates to Blues with Johnny Winter. Tremendous.
That’s a great heading, “Paul Nelson: From Dio to Hall and Oates”
That’s great! I went to Berklee School of Music and studied with Steve Vai and Fusion and Blues guys. You have to be able to wear different hats and be an all-around musician. You have to be “all in it” and that helped out Johnny. When I first started working with him, he said “there’s something about you, Paul”. It went really deep, far past the musical end of it.
True, I heard you even helped with his vision, could you share that story?
Oh yeah! It’s true everyone presumes that albinos have trouble with their vision so I asked him if he ever got it checked. He said he did when he was very young and I said “well they’ve made a lot of improvements since then, why don’t we get it checked?” We did, turns out he had cataracts, NO ONE had checked. We brought him to a specialist and they fixed him in one hour.
Oh my God!
And this was after years assisted because with the stage lights you get that glare, and now he’s walking out on stage unattended. There were a lot of changes; big changes after that.
So Johnny took you under his wing, are there any current artists you’re mentoring or working with?
I just produced Joe Louis Walker’s record, I got him signed to Mascot Records. Lance Lopez from Texas, I just produced a live record for him. I’m working on his studio album in my studio. Artists just keep coming up especially after the Grammy thing my phone’s ringing off the hook.
(Laughing) That’s a good thing!
Great thing, absolutely!
I saw a clip of you playing with Samantha Fish?
Oh, I love her, a lot of people are having me guest appear with them. So I’ve been playing with artists like Samantha Fish, Johnny A., and then we did the Johnny Winter Legacy stuff with Edgar Winter. Just got back from Jamaica sitting in with Gov’t Mule. Sonny Landreth. A lot of that has been happening, other musicians have been very supportive. They’ve been saying Paul we want you to sit in with us, so I’m doing this Slash thing where I’m bouncing up everywhere. It’s nice and I’m really appreciative of it.
Who’d be on your Mount Rushmore of the four all-time greatest guitarists?
Hendrix, Johnny, Clapton, and B.B. King
B.B. King was the first Blues artist I ever discovered. Saw his show when I just a teenager in Minneapolis. Who was the first Blues artist that drew you in?
Johnny. It’s so weird, you grow up with a poster on the wall learning the riffs and later you’re sitting face to face with him, you just go WOW! Funny, when Johnny first played with Muddy they asked what did you learn from Muddy once you sat with him and he said, “it’s funny but I already knew all of his stuff.” I knew all of Johnny’s stuff that’s why we got along so well musically. But you could choke, you could panic, but I just worked too hard for this and I’m ready. We ended touring the world together, 140 shows a year for years. He was a road warrior!
Last week I interviewed Thom Gimbel of Foreigner who went to Berklee as did Steve Vai who you went to school with. Who else attended Berklee with you?
The list goes on and on. Al Di Meola, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith; most musicians went there for a month or a year, others graduated. There were a ton of artists who went there. It’s a great school. When you’re there you want to learn everything but then you want to get out of there quick and get going! I’m really glad I went to Berklee, you ate, drank, and slept music. There’s no TV, you’re just there like a sponge. There’s like 300 other guys learning, you’ve got to get out and learn from other people. Oh yeah, Susan Tedeschi went there.
Love her and her husband, Derek Trucks!
Yes, he did too.
You’ve got your new album coming up and who knows you might be up for an Oscar when they check out the Down & Dirty documentary.
(Laughing) Who knows, you don’t go out looking for these things they just kind of happen. You’re not in the studio trying to get a Grammy. Awards come up, you just try to do the best you can. Funny, that’s not even something that has crossed my mind but you’re right documentaries do get listed and submitted. I just want it to come out for his fans. There is this mystique behind Johnny that his fans would like to see what their idol was truly like. He’s very honest, sincere, and funny.
There’s a music video for “Death Letter” sung by Johnny for the Step Back album. It shows footage of your tour in Japan but it opens in my Tampa Bay area.
For that video I was behind the board and Johnny just plugged in his guitar. He picked the song, it was going to be the only one where it was just a man and his guitar. He laid into that Son House song. I had chills where the hair sticks up on your arm, you knew it was historic. He nailed it. It was so emotional. That’s what they used for the (documentary) trailer. It was just one take. You hear him pay tribute to Son House but you also hear him Johnny-ize it.
Johnny-ize it, I like that!
(Big laugh)….or Winterize it? He’s one of those artists that when he plays it – the song instantly becomes theirs. Like Bob Dylan said he’ll never do Highway 61 again after Johnny, he considers it Johnny Winter’s song now. He won’t play it live because of Johnny.
Amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time today.
No, thank you for asking the great questions. You did your research, you must be a Johnny fan. I really appreciate it. Thank you!
The interview concluded with a discussion of an upcoming Blues Cruise and some possible dates in Florida. Look out for Paul Nelson’s new solo album and the Down & Dirty Johnny Winter documentary both scheduled for release in September.