When it comes to the music of back then versus the music of today, they sure don’t make them like Edgar Winter anymore. The multi-instrumentalist is a bit of a legend due to a career that started in the ‘60s that has spawned hits such as “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride”. His talents are spectacular with his ability to shift from bass to drums to piano and to his trademark saxophone. He was a pioneer of fusing jazz into rock music and he’s always made an effort to be experimental. Winter will be coming with his band to the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich tomorrow night to bring these experiments to life.
We had a conversation about how he started with music, performing at Woodstock, a Scientology album he put out in the ‘80s and a tribute album he his currently working on to honor his late brother, the blues legend Johnny Winter.
Rob Duguay: When you started out during the late-’60s, you were one of the first to incorporate jazz stylings into rock music. What do you consider the catalyst that made you realize these two kinds of music could work together?
Edgar Winter: It wasn’t only jazz, I love jazz and classical. To give you a background, when Johnny and I started out playing together as kids I was just four years old and Johnny was seven. Our dad had played guitar and banjo, he was an alto sax player in a swing band and he also sang in a choir and a barbershop quartet that would come over and rehearse. My mother played beautiful classical piano and Johnny really is my all-time musical hero. Had it not been for him, I don’t know what direction my life would have taken.
I definitely would have been in music somehow. I might have been a struggling jazz musician or a piano teacher, who knows? Thanks to Johnny, he had a dream and a burning ambition and a desire ever since I can remember. He’d read all the magazines and watch American Bandstand and he loved playing the guitar. When Johnny went from ukulele to guitar, it became apparent that it was going to be his primary instrument so I decided to play everything else.
I played bass for a while, then I played drums. The electric piano just came out so I started playing that and when I was in my teens I discovered my dad’s alto sax up in the attic. That was really when I got interested in jazz and I discovered that whole world. I love Cannonball Adderley and all of the jazz greats like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. To me, the whole idea of categorization in music is just apathetical to me.
I never understood it. Sure, there are descriptive ways of explaining music but it more has to do with the record companies wanting to label things. I’ve never liked being categorized and pigeonholed like that. The record companies like to have an artist be one specific thing so they have a platform and a target audience in order to promote and market stuff. To me, it’s really a lot like musical segregation.
All of the cowboys are going to play country and you have the blues guys and the rock guys and so on. It never made sense to me and what I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to broaden musical horizons and make people aware of the music that is out there. When I recorded my first album, Entrance, it was a blend of jazz, classical, rock and blues. I’ve tried to maintain that interest throughout my life and I’ve enjoyed playing a variety of styles. I still love music every bit as much as I did when I first started, it’s so much fun to me and rewarding and it’s been a great life.
RD: With showing people different styles of music when you perform, do you also feel a responsibility to educate your audience?
EW: It’s not really a conscious intention, it’s just what I genuinely do. I think there are so many examples of that. For example, someone like Bruce Hornsby who is a fluid soloist in an improvisational sense. His music still maintains the sincerity and the simplicity of country music. You see it everywhere and if there’s one thing I am and always have been, it’s a blues player. Because Johnny was a blues purist, he really loved traditional blues, the old style country delta and the acoustic artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and all those guys.
I’m more gravitated to the more urban style of blues with people like Ray Charles, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and all of the gospel soul music of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. The people who really pushed the envelope and moved music forward have meant a great deal to me. All musicians have people who have influenced them and Johnny is my all-time music hero. If I had to mention one other person it would probably be Ray Charles, he’d be #1 in my book because of his piano style and his soulful singing was so innovative in just about every imaginable respect.
RD: Oh yeah, I agree.
EW: With bearing responsibility, it never felt like that to me. Like I said, it’s just what I naturally do. It’s never been a crusade on my part but it is something that I continue to do. I just like variety, I’ve also been writing a lot of poetry lately and I have a series of short stories that I’ve been working on. I really enjoy writing poetry because it’s really liberating, from having written songs all my life it can be so formulaic. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo and you’re restricted in terms of subject matter.
I have a Broadway theatrical play that’s sort of a satirical comedy based on “Frankenstein” that I’ve written all the music for. The character of the doctor is this posh Park Avenue plastic surgeon and the government figures that he can create the perfect soldier out of reanimated creatures. They wouldn’t exactly be human so it would remove a lot of the moral objection to war so he clones his brain and he creates this monster. He tries to show the monster karate and stuff while the monster likes to play the violin and do gardening. The monster is a complete pacifist kind of guy.
I just like doing different off the wall things, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one thing or another. I just like that feeling of exploration, freedom and exploring new directions.
RD: It’s cool how you’re going through other creative avenues like writing poetry and short stories. In my opinion, one of the most unique albums you’ve put out is Mission Earth in 1986, which features words and music written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. How did the process come about when it came to making this particular record?
EW: I knew some people like Chick Corea that were Scientologists and I was familiar with L. Ron Hubbard’s work in science fiction along with Issac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. It was a really fun project to do because I kind of got to sing in different characters that were in the books. It was a challenging creative experience and it has some good messages, another different kind of thing that was a departure at the time.
RD: You mentioned earlier how you’ve been playing music since you were 4 and your career has lasted over 50 years. You’ve also gotten to collaborate with musicians like Rick Derringer and Ringo Starr. To reflect, what do you consider to be some of your proudest moments?
EW: I would have to say, first of all, that Woodstock changed my life. It really was the turning point. Up to that time, music was mostly internalized for me. Johnny had that drive and ambition and I was a weird kid who played all the instruments. Johnny loved the spotlight and I enjoyed figuring out the arrangements and showing everybody what to play. As a kid, I couldn’t see well enough to play sports so music was sort of my personal, private escape.
I spent hours with music, it gave me a sense of identity and it was a great source of strength along with it being a real blessing for me growing up. I just had an innate love of music for what it is. The beauty of harmony and rhythm, I never had a particular desire to be famous but when we played Woodstock the whole thing was set against the backdrop of civil rights and the peace movement. There were people writing and singing songs they truly believed in, but it was a transformative and transfiguring moment for me that I’ll never forget. There was no schedule to it, I was dead asleep on the floor of a press trailer and someone shook me awake to get on stage and a half hour later I was looking out over an endless sea of humanity.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. There were hundreds of thousands of people and seeing them all united in such a unique way just changed my whole perspective from something that was deeply personal into realizing that music has the power to reach out and transcend boundaries and bring people together. That’s when I actually thought that I could be a writer and an artist, it changed my whole viewpoint and I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. Looking back on that experience, I realize that’s when that shift occurred. Johnny then invited me up to New York to play on his first few records for Columbia and his manager introduced me to Clive Davis who was the President of the label at that time.
Clive is known for mentoring a lot of artists while also have a lot to do with the direction and selection of material and so forth. I owe him a great deal. When I explained to him what I wanted to do with Entrance, he gave me free reign and his faith and trust in me as an artist meant the world to me at that time. I’m so glad that he was supportive and he allowed me to make that album. It’s probably my favorite album due to it being the first one and it was pure in the sense that there was no commercial motivation.
It’s experimental music and I didn’t expect it to sell records. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to present it and the rest is history.
RD: That’s awesome how Woodstock and Clive had such a big effect on you. I can only imagine how amazing it must have been playing in front of that many people in the middle of a farm in New York state. You’re current working on a tribute album to Johnny, right?
EW: Yes, I am.
RD: Do you have a date in place for it to be released? What can we expect from the record?
EW: It’s very interesting because I had no intention of doing this. Johnny passed away so suddenly and we were scheduled to do a tour together. I thought that it was going to be highly emotional and really difficult but everyone on that tour was so kind and supportive. At the end of those shows, we’d all get together and play some of Johnny’s songs. Stuff that we played together as kids like “Johnny B. Good”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Highway 61” and of course “Still Alive & Well” and others that Johnny was noted for.
That turned out to be a great source of strength and comfort. As the years went by, I figured that the best way to honor him and acknowledge the fact that if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am would be this album. I didn’t want to be a part of something using Johnny’s name and legacy just to sell records, I wanted to do it for the right reasons. I wanted to do this in my own time and my own way so it won’t come out until 2020. I contacted people who were both friends of my brother and I to be a part of it, like Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.
EW: He’s a fellow Texan. Joe Walsh from The Eagles and James Gang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa will be on it. Of course, Rick Derringer will be on it as well. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks from The Allman Brothers Band are on it and they were some of Johnny’s favorite guys. Also, we decided since Johnny loved Muddy Waters and the high point of his career was producing a couple of Muddy’s albums that we decided to include “Got My Mojo Workin”, which is one of Johnny’s favorite songs. Buddy Guy will also be on it and Ringo Starr is also going to play drums on a song.
Steven Tyler and Paul Rodgers will also be singing on it, there’s going to be a lot of interesting people taking part in this. I’m also hoping to get Keb ‘Mo and Taj Mahal on a song. It’s really turning into an amazing cathartic experience for me doing this album. I never would have imagined that it would turn out this way but I really feel like it’s something that I’m destined to do. It’s something that I’ve put my heart and soul in, I can’t wait to hear the finished project and get it out there in the universe.