In 2004, Johnny Winter released an album [at that time his first in 12 years] called I’m a Bluesman. It was a good record, but not a great one. Some complained [rightly so] that his vocals had lost their ferocity, as had his playing. There is a reason for this. Johnny’s former manager, Teddy Slatus, kept him secluded, and kept him on methadone [for 30 years!] and anti-depression meds. Slatus even kept his brother Edgar away from Johnny. But Johnny Winter had a secret weapon. His name is Paul Nelson. Already the second guitarist in Johnny’s road band, he asked Nelson if he would be his manager. He did so after Johnny fired Slatus, and Nelson began to make some changes. He allowed people to communicate with Johnny Winter, who also credited Nelson to getting him kick all the drugs, all the booze, and even quit smoking. He once said “I never thought I would see the day that I didn’t have any vices at all.” Once all those vices were gone, the voice got stronger, and the playing got stronger.
Once he was well enough to record, the plan was simple. When JW asked Nelson what he should put down, Nelson suggested that JW record songs that inspired him. JW liked the idea, and the concept of Roots was born. Not only would they record one “roots” album, the two men planned on recording four of them. Not only did they record blues songs, but also old rock and roll songs from the 1950s. The plan was also to have other artists [most of whom had worked with JW before] make guest appearances. Other older stars have made duet records before [Frank Sinatra and BB King immediately come to mind], but these “duet” records would have a twist. The “duets” would not be with vocals [with two exceptions] – they would be with the instruments. There are plenty of guitarists on these albums. After hearing I’m a Bluesman, I was worried that any and/or all the guests would upstage Johnny. I need not have worried. Johnny Winter’s recovery from his addictions took hold, and he went toe-to-toe with his guests with ease.
In 2014 Johnny Winter followed Roots with Step Back. The plan for Step Back was the same as Roots. I think of both albums as part of the same work, hence this blog about both of them. When asked earlier in 2014 what was left for Johnny Winter to accomplish, he responded that he sure would like to win a Grammy®. Last month, Step Back won the Grammy® for Best Blues Album of 2014. Too bad Johnny Winter didn’t live to see it happen.
T-Bone Shuffle T-Bone Walker Sonny Landreth
Further On Up The Road Bobby Blue Bland Jimmy Vivino
Done Somebody Wrong Elmore James Warren Haynes
Got My Mojo Working Muddy Waters Frank Lattore
Last Night Little Walter John Popper
Maybellene Chuck Berry Vince Gill
Bright Lights, Big City Jimmy Reed Susan Tedeschi
Honky Tonk Clarence Gatemouth Brown Edgar Winter
Dust My Broom Elmore James Derek Trucks
Short Fat Fannie Larry Williams Paul Nelson
Come Back Baby Ray Charles John Medeski
Step Back 
Unchain My Heart Ray Charles Blues Bros Horns
Can’t Hold Out
[Talk To Me Baby] Elmore James Ben Harper
Don’t Want No Woman Bobby Blue Bland Eric Clapton
Killing Floor Howlin’ Wolf Paul Nelson
Who Do You Love Bo Diddley
Okie Dokey Stomp Clarence Gatemouth Brown Brian Setzer
Sweet Sixteen BB King Joe Bonamassa
Where Can You Be Jimmy Reed Billy Gibbons
Death Letter Son House
My Babe Little Walter Jason Ricci
Long Tall Sally Little Richard Leslie West
Mojo Hand Lightnin’ Hopkins Joe Perry
Blue Monday Fats Domino Dr. John
The home runs:
Dust My Broom – words escape me on how good this one is. Johnny Winter and Derek Trucks duel on the slide. Too bad Derek doesn’t play like this on his own albums.
Death Letter – This is the only acoustic slide song between the two collections. JW was always great at this sort of thing. What a shame he never recorded an entire album of this stuff.
Don’t Want No Woman – Johnny Winter sure loved Elmore James. Him and Eric Clapton together – what could go wrong?
Can’t Hold Out [Talk To Me Baby] – Ben Harper sings and plays his lap steel.
Done Somebody Wrong
Where Can You Be
Further On Up the Road
Short Fat Fannie
Muddy and The Wolf: No album of blues covers is complete without at least a nod to Muddy Waters and/or Howlin’ Wolf. Johnny Winter just happened to do my favorites from Muddy and the Wolf – Got My Mojo Workin’ and Killing Floor. Very nice!
Instrumentals: There are two of them, both from Clarence Gatemouth Brown: Okie Dokie Stomp and Honky Tonk. Both are very good.
The Pleasant Surprises:
Come Back Baby – I heard Clapton do this on his From the Cradle collection. I liked that one a lot. This one is better.
Mojo Hand – Joe Perry was pretty good here. If he ever decides to stop playing chick music with Aerosmith, he could have a future in the blues. Too bad he can’t sing…
Picks from out of Left Field:
Unchain My Heart – Johnny Winter takes a turn at an old Ray Charles song. The result isn’t bad, it’s just mind-blowing.
Maybelline – Not only did I not expect Johnny Winter to do another Chuck Berry song in his career, I really didn’t expect Vince Gill to come along for the ride. This is most excellent.
Blue Monday – Johnny Winter sings Fats Domino! I didn’t see that one coming…
Songs I can do without:
Bright Lights, Big City – There must be some clause in every contract that Derek Trucks signs that says “if you work with me, you have to work with my wife.” In the blues community, Susan Tedeschi is becoming almost as ubiquitous as Sheryl Crow is in the rock/pop world. That is not a compliment. I’m still not a member of The Church of Susan.
Last Night – If you have heard one John Popper harmonica solo, you have heard them all. He ruins an otherwise fine take on this Little Walter gem with his overplaying.
Long Tall Sally – The only person on the planet who should be allowed to sing Little Richard songs [besides the man himself] is Paul McCartney. Vocally, Johnny Winter is no Paul McCartney.
Both Roots and Step Back are worthy additions to any Johnny Winter collections. They make a fitting epitaph for a Texas bluesman who is sorely missed.