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Winter’s Return: A Guitar Legend Triumphs Once Again (Relix Revisited)

by Nancy Dunham on July 17, 2014

Photo by Susan Winter

Back on the bus, talk turns to management, who Winter feels typically treat musicians like human ATMs.

Winter and current manager Paul Nelson discuss about former management that not only encouraged his addictions but added to them, encouraging doctors to give him anti-depressants in addition to methadone. Add vodka and other alcohol to his daily intake, and it’s not surprising that Winter became increasingly unaware of his own business matters. When he’d become lucid and ask questions, former management would bully doctors until they increased Winter’s dosages. At the same time, the one constant in Winter’s life—his performance—began to crumble.

“There was a time when a friend of mine had gone to see Johnny play at Orlando’s House of Blues,” recalls Nelson. “[My friend] said, ‘I had to leave. As much as I love Johnny Winter and as much as he my idol, I really thought he would die somewhere in the middle of that concert. I couldn’t be there and watch Johnny die.’”

Many people including Winter credit Nelson, who began working with him about eight years ago and became his manager about five years ago, with turning his life around.

Nelson became Winter’s champion when he found the guitarist adrift in a financial mess. He also worked to help Winter—whose normally thin 130-pound frame had dropped to just 90 pounds in 2003—recover from hip and hand surgery. Now touring regularly, Winter’s management fields many contract offers but Nelson is in no rush to sign.

“Johnny has literally come back from the dead,” says Derringer. “For the first time in his life he has a guy who is watching out for him. He shows up for all concerts, he plays well, he is getting stronger and stronger. He walks. He swims. Paul has a plan to keep getting him stronger.”

***

Inside the club, fans are seated, munching on pizza, corn bread and other bar foods served at the Birchmere. A few fans still roam the room, looking for tables close to the stage, although the show is apparently sold out.

The opening act ends and receives a warm if not enthusiastic response. It’s clear they are here for Johnny and no one else. “I don’t care what he does,” says one fan impatiently tapping her foot as she watched Winter’s roadies set up the stage. “I just want to see him.”

Nelson and the rest of the band take the stage, but most eyes in the audience stay glued to the stage door. Soon, Winter—led by a member of his entourage who’s shining a small flashlight ahead so Winter can see where he’s walking—enters. The audience screams and applauds as Winter takes a seat in the center of the stage and leads his band through an ambitious set of classics including “Hideaway,” “Sugar Coated Love,” “Black Jack” and “Boney Maroney.” Throughout the set, Winter’s voice is strong and passionate, his playing fluid and fiery. Audience members push chairs aside and dance in the aisles, stopping only long enough to hoot their approval and clap.

When the set ends, Winter’s gait is slow and uneven as he makes his way backstage. He reappears after thunderous applause for encore renditions of “Mojo Boogie” and “Highway 61.”

As soon as Winter exits the stage door, the club’s lights come on. It’s clear no amount of cheers will bring Winter back, so fans power walk through the hallways and out the front doors of the club. The gates at the rear of the club, where Winter’s bus is parked, are opened and fans scurry to form a line that leads to the bus door.

After nearly 15 minutes, Winter’s manager and security come outside and begin to usher fans into the bus to meet with Winter. Camera flashes continually light up the bus as fans pose with Winter, push posters and albums and even guitars toward him to sign, and tell him over and over how much they admire him. Throughout most of the time the bluesman, visibly exhausted, nods, smiles and whispers words of gratitude.

“I told him I have loved him since 1971 and he wiped his eye,” says one 50-something woman, clutching albums that Winter had signed. “I think it really meant a lot to him.”

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