"I wet my pants," says Paul Nelson, Winter's guitar player and manager, in response to Winter's casual comment a couple of days ago that he wanted to record Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" for an upcoming album. Nelson wasn't the only one affected. "The producer--his jaw dropped. The publicist had a heart attack."
Winter is picking material for a new album, Roots. He's on a comeback, with a new manager and a renewed energy. His former manager, Teddy Slatus, died last year. Guitar Player magazinereported in a recent article that Slatus took advantage of Winter for years, exploiting his substance abuse and mismanaging his career. Although Nelson has been playing with Winter for the past six years, he's only been managing about a year.
"I don't even like to put that I'm his manager," Nelson says, "because I'm more of his friend and a guitarist guiding him, guiding his career."
Winter's output had been spotty over the last decade. After putting out a trio of outstanding albums for Alligator in three years--1984's Guitar Slinger, 1985's Serious Business and 1986's Third Degree--he didn't do much until Live in NYC '97. This year, he put out the Grammy-nominated I'm a Bluesman, which shows him in top form, bouncing back after an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome and playing, Nelson says, "ten times better than he has in years."
Roots promises to be his most ambitious and exciting project since his Grammy-winning days playing with and producing Muddy Waters in the 1970s with Hard Again, I'm Ready and Mississippi Muddy Waters Live. "It'll be alot of the old stuff that I've learned from," Winter said last week from his Connecticut home.
Winter has said that he felt guilty about forsaking his blues career for rock, and now refuses to play any of the songs in his catalogue he considers rockers. As partial payback, he hopes this project will help expose people to the artists who influenced him. But not all of Winter's influences will be onboard. "I don't think I'd do any Son House stuff," Winter says. "His stuff is so great on its own. I don't know whether I could do a good job on it." Muddy will definitely be part of it. Nelson thinks they may record his "Sugar Sweet."
Other artists Winter plans to interpret stretch from John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins to Clarence Garlow and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Robert Johnson, who Winter has been credited as being his best living interpreter, is also in the mix with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Guitar Slim and, as a bonus track, Hendrix.
"One from each artist, and when we weed out which ones are his favorites, we'll probably be left with 12 or 13," Nelson says. "And what'll make the traditional artists more contemporary are the artists who'll perform on it."
Promising to hire "as many as he can afford," an early, partial list of players includes his brother Edgar, who Johnny has been playing with alongside Rick Derringer. Z.Z. Top's Billy Gibbons has said yes, along with Late Show with David Letterman bassist Will Lee.
But no matter who he's channeling or playing with, he still blisters it raw with his ripping, rhythmic licks. Johnny Winter is a man of few words, but he still has plenty to say with his guitar.
Johnny Winter plays the ArtsCenter Saturday, May 13 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30. Tickets are $36 and can be purchased at www.artscenterlive.org.