Remembering bluesman and Easton resident Johnny Winter

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Scott Gargan with Johnny Winter at Stamford’s Carriage House Studios in 2010.

When I arrived at Stamford’s Carriage House Studios in February 2010, it was with little appreciation for the blues.

I didn’t share this with Johnny Winter, of course; the guitarist and producer, who was in Stamford recording his first album in seven years, had dedicated his life to performing the expressive musical style.

I did, however, have a deep respect and admiration for Winter, a widely-cherished icon who overcame drug and alcohol addiction to mount a successful comeback late in his career.

At the time of my visit, Winter credited his manager and friend Paul Nelson for helping him get back to doing what he loved most.

“That’s playin’ the blues,” he said. “I plan on doing that til the day I die.”

And so he did: the longtime Easton resident, who turned 70 this year, was in the midst of a European tour when it was announced, to the surprise of fans and loved ones, that he was found dead in his hotel room in Zurich Wednesday, according to Carla Parisi, his representative. The cause of death has yet to be revealed.

Nelson, of Stamford, took to Facebook to express his sadness over the news.

“I lost my friend and mentor yesterday,” he said in a brief status update. “An official statement with more details shall be issued at the appropriate time.”

Winter, who rose to fame in the late 1960s and ’70s for his energetic performances and musical collaborations with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and his childhood hero, Muddy Waters, defied death throughout his career.

In the height of his fame in the 1970s, Winter suffered from terrible addiction problems with heroin. He enjoyed periods of recovery, but by the time the 1990s rolled around, he was hooked on antidepressants, vodka and methadone. He was also seriously malnourished and, as friends have told me, neglected by his management.

Winter might not have survived if it wasn’t for Nelson.

“There was so many bad things going on, it was mind- boggling,” Nelson, who met Winter in 2000 during the recording of his 17th studio album, “I’m a Bluesman,” recalled. “Once I started managing Johnny, I tried to change everything. It is amazing how much a manager can affect an artist.”

After Nelson took over as Winter’s manager, the blues legend saw a vast improvement in his health and, from that, a resurgence in his career.

During my visit to Carriage House Studios in 2010, Winter was in the midst of  recording his first studio album in seven years, and his first since getting clean. The LP, “Roots,” pays homage to 15 artists who have shaped Winter’s career.

“I have always loved recording blues songs, and this seemed to be a great way to record what I love all at once,” he said of “Roots,” which features guest spots from Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons and Winter’s brother, Edgar Winter.

In addition, Winter was planning to release a new album, “Step Back,” in September.

Even at 70, the blues master was still performing around 200 concerts a year. Four days ago, he performed at the Lovely Days festival in Wiesan, Austria.

I may not be a fan of the blues, but I’ll always be a fan of Winter — a musician so passionate about his craft that he played until his dying breath.

R.I.P. Johnny.

 

Categories: General
Scott Gargan

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