Nearly nine years after Johnny Winter’s death, a battle for control of the legendary blues guitarist’s music is being fought in court with allegations of theft and greed flying back and forth.
The legal fight pits Winter’s former personal manager and bandmate, Paul Nelson, against the family of the bluesman’s late wife, Susan, who died in 2019.
Winter’s in-laws say Nelson and his wife improperly took more than $1.5 million from Winter’s music business, including auctioning off some of the late musician’s guitars.
Nelson and his wife have countersued, saying Susan Winter’s siblings swooped in when she was medicated and dying of cancer and tricked her into giving them control of Winter’s music, stripping away Nelson’s rights as the beneficiary of Susan Winter’s estate.
The case was scheduled to go to trial in a Connecticut court in April, but was rescheduled for September.
At stake is ownership of Winter’s music catalogue, proceeds from record and merchandise sales and authority to approve any commercial use of his songs, the value of which is uncertain.
“The case is about preserving Johnny Winter’s legacy and vindicating and making sure the Nelsons haven’t improperly taken the moneys rightfully owed to the plaintiffs,” said Timothy Diemand, a lawyer for the Susan Winter’s siblings, Bonnie and Christopher Warford.
Nelson wants to be reinstalled as the beneficiary of Susan Winter’s estate.
“The Plaintiffs orchestrated the wrongful termination of Paul Nelson during a difficult time in Susan Winter’s last year of life,” the Nelsons said in a statement released by their lawyer, Matthew Mason. They said it was clear that both Johnny and Susan Winter wanted Nelson to be responsible for Johnny Winter’s music and legacy.
John Dawson Winter III was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas. He burst onto the world blues scene in the 1960s, dazzling crowds with his fast licks while his trademark long, white hair flew about from under his cowboy hat. He and his brother Edgar — both born with albinism — were both reknowned musicians.
Winter played at Woodstock in 1969 and went on to produce albums for Blues icon Muddy Waters in addition to his own music. In 1988 he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Rolling Stone magazine listed him as the No. 63 best guitar player of all time in 2015. He released more than two dozen albums and was nominated for several Grammy awards, winning his first one posthumously in 2015 for Best Blues Album for “Step Back.” Nelson produced the album and also took home a Grammy for it.
Winter, who spent two decades living in Easton, Connecticut, before his death, battled heroin addiction for years and credited Nelson, whom he met in 1999, with helping him get off methadone, according to the 2014 documentary Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty.
Before he got clean, bandmates and friends said they were concerned because of his frail appearance and trouble talking. Nelson also credits himself with reviving Winter’s music career.
The Winters and Nelsons became good friends. Paul Nelson played guitar in Johnny Winter’s band and started running his music company beginning in 2005. Nelson’s wife, Marion Nelson, did bookkeeping for the Winters and the music business, according to legal filings in the lawsuit.
Winter died at the age of 70 on July 16, 2014, in a hotel room just outside Zurich, Switzerland, while on tour. Susan Winter and Paul Nelson have said the cause of death was likely emphysema.
Susan Winter was the sole beneficiary of her husband’s estate, which she put in a trust in late 2016. She named herself as the trust’s sole trustee and Nelson as the successor trustee, meaning he would inherit the rights to Johnny Winter’s music after she died.
But in June 2019, four months before her death from lung cancer, Susan Winter removed Nelson as the successor and replaced him with her sister and brother.
The Nelsons allege in their lawsuit that Bonnie and Christopher Warford got control by lying to their sister, wrongly telling her the Nelsons were mismanaging the music business and her affairs.
The Warfords’ lawsuit accuses the Nelsons of improperly taking more than $1.5 million out of Winter’s business “under the guise of royalty income, commissions, reimbursements, fees, social media expenses and other mechanisms, while obfuscating and misrepresenting these dealings to Susan Winter.”
They have also accused the Nelsons of taking three of Winter’s guitars, worth about $300,000 total, and selling them at auction without permission. The Nelsons deny the allegation.
“In short, this is the classic case of a manager taking advantage of an artist-client, and worse here, an artist’s surviving family,” Diemand wrote in a legal filing.
It’s not clear why Edgar Winter, a noted musician in his own right, was not involved in his brother’s estate after his death. Edgar Winter and his representatives did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
The Warfords’ lawsuit is similar to one the Winters filed against Johnny Winter’s former manager Teddy Slatus for alleged financial wrongdoing around 2005. Slatus died in late 2005. It’s not clear what happened with the lawsuit.
“Johnny and Susan have been battling lawsuits all their lives, and still can’t rest in peace,” said Mary Lou Sullivan, who wrote a biography titled Raisin’ Cane: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter published in 2010.
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