Producer Paul Nelson discusses the making of the star-studded new album.
The arrival of Johnny Winter's guest-laden Step Back on Sept. 2 will be bittersweet for producer Paul Nelson after Winter's death on July 16 at the age of 70 in Switzerland.
"I listen to the album, and it's as if he's still standing there," Nelson, who was also Winter's manager and the guitarist in his band, tells Billboard. "The album was already great without this tragedy. Johnny knew this. He worked and got healthier and he had come back. Then the tragedy happens -- we all went to the funeral, then two weeks later the whole album release takes over. It's all happened so fast. But he knew about this record. He approved this record. He was proud of it, was proud of his singing and his playing and very happy with the guests I brought in for him."
Listen to the new song "Mojo Hand," featuring Aerosmith's Joe Perry, exclusively on Billboard.com:
Step Back is the harder rock-leaning sequel to 2011's acclaimed Roots, which found Winter playing some of his favorite blues songs. As on that album he's joined by a wealth of guests, including Perry, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top's Brian Setzer, Leslie West, Dr. John, Joe Bonamassa, Ben Harper and the Blues Brothers Horns. Nelson -- who started playing with Winter since 2001 and managing him in 2008, and played a significant role in helping the notoriously substance-addled icon get off cigarettes, alcohol and methadone -- calls Step Back a "continuation" of what he achieved with Roots.
"His playing had excelled so much, even past Roots," Nelson explains. "This one was even more special because he was playing and singing better, and he was more alert. He was happy. He was smiling. He was articulating, his voice was stronger. The growl was back. The song selection was more aggressive and he was able to handle that."
Nelson says that, not surprisingly, "no one said no" when approached to be part of Step Back. He did delay the album a bit in order to accommodate Clapton's schedule, while the Perry collaboration on Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand" "came out of left field. I mentioned Joe Perry to Johnny. He liked Aerosmith, so I said, 'How would you feel about having Perry on there?' We contacted them and Joe was so respectful just for getting the call. He said, 'Paul, you don't understand what this means for me. I wouldn't have picked up the guitar if it wasn't for Johnny,' and he talked about 'TV Mama' being his favorite song. All of these guys went out of their way to be part of it, a) because they all learned from him and b) because they all knew a comeback was happening here."
Nelson says two more albums in a similar vein were planned after Step Back, and that there are "two or three" songs that weren't finished from these sessions that may come out at some point. Nelson and Winter's family are also planning more archival releases, while an all-star memorial concert will take place Oct. 10 at B.B. King's in New York City, with an as-yet-undisclosed artist list that Nelson says "is still growing." Details will be announced soon.