February , 2013
By Vinny Cecolini
Always Ready to Rock 'N' Roll
Classic Rock Legend Speaks With JAM Magazine
All Photos Courtesy of www.EdgarWinter.com
It is difficult for most siblings to follow in the footsteps of an older brother or sister. How tough is it, however, when that brother is guitar prodigy-turned blues legend Johnny Winter? Born a couple of years after Johnny, Edgar Winter was not only proud of his older brother, he was happy to stay out of the spotlight and be a supporting member in Johnny-fronted bands. He also chose not to focus on the guitar, but to play "everything else," including the alto saxophone and the keyboards.
As the teen Winter brothers developed their abilities, their musical tastes changed. While Johnny focused on traditional blues and rock, Edgar embraced jazz and rock. Although this eventually led them down different musical paths, those paths often crossed both in the studio and on the road. Recently, the siblings were part of the annual Rock 'n' Blues Festival.
On his own, Edgar has also become a musical icon. In addition to his Edgar Winter Group recording two rock classics, "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride," he is a pioneering synthesizer player. His latest album, Rebel Road, was recently released by Airline Records to the expected critical acclaim. During a rare free moment the musical legend took some time to reflect on his family, his passion for music and the creation of a certain rock monster. He readily admits that he was once a reserved, serious artist who refused interview requests, until he experienced a certain legendary music festival. Appropriately enough, he began this conversation by announcing, "I'm ready to rock and roll!"
Jam: The name of the annual traveling music festival you recently completed was changed from "The Hippie Music Fest" to "The Rock 'n' Blues Festival."
Edgar Winter: I think the new title is more appropriate.
Jam: Do you still consider yourself a hippie?
Oh yeah. I played at the original Woodstock with my brother Johnny and I've toured with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. Ringo is a heartfelt advocate of peace and love, which has always resonated with the hippie culture.
Jam: How did being a member of Ringo's band differ from leading your own group?
It was fabulous. The Beatles are in a category and classification unto themselves. What they did for me goes beyond music; they changed the mindset of an entire generation and brought about a revolution without firing a shot. It was a revolution in freedom of thought; and it was all about peace and love.
JAM: It must have been very satisfying, on a personal and professional level, to have Ringo personally invite you to join his All-Starrs?
Ringo is a great guy on and off stage. He has a great sense of humor; he loves to play and have fun. He creates an atmosphere that makes it fun for everyone. There is usually a week of rehearsing and putting the show together. The last couple of times we did it at a casino in Canada where we all stayed. We had the stage to ourselves all day and we all got together after practice to hang out and really get to know one another and smooth out all of the rough edges. Each time I've done participated, it's really come together and evolved into an actual band in an amazingly short period of time. We performed at New York's Radio City Music Hall on Ringo's 70th birthday, and at the end of the show Paul McCartney came out to perform "Birthday." I actually got to be on stage with two Beatles!
JAM: And Ringo let you perform your own music.
That is the format of the All-Starr Band. Every member of the band has to be responsible for a couple of instantly recognizable radio hits. Each band member performs their two songs; the rest of the show is Ringo performing both solo and Beatles material.
JAM: What instruments did you play in the band?
I played keyboards - piano and organ - on "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride". I also played synthesizer, Timbales, alto saxophone and I sang.
JAM: The logo on your web site includes a saxophone.
Because of "Frankenstein", I'm thought of as a rocker and a keyboard player. It was such a hard rock song, almost a precursor to heavy metal, and I was the first guy who had the idea to put a strap on a keyboard. It was such a simple and obvious idea that you would think that someone would have thought of it before me. "Frankenstein" was a vehicle for the synthesizer. But I consider myself a sax player more than anything else. It became my first love, but it wasn't an instrument that I picked up until later.
JAM: Music was a family affair in the Winter household, wasn't it?
My dad played guitar and banjo and had a barbershop quartet that would come over to our house and sing. My mother played beautiful classical piano. My dad also played alto sax in a swing band during his youth. But I didn't get around to the sax until I was in my mid-teens. Johnny and I started out playing ukuleles when I was four years old. Johnny graduated to guitar and it quickly became apparent that he was going to be the guitar player in the family. I decided to play everything else. For about a minute I played guitar then switched to electric bass. Then I played drums for a while and from there graduated to the electric pianos when I heard Ray Charles perform "What Would I Do Without You?" When I was about 14, I discovered my dad's alto sax up in the attic. At that point, I got really interested in the saxophone and, through that, I got into Jazz. I loved the music of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. For a while, Johnny and I quit working together. When I picked up the sax, he said, "I don't want that in the band!" So, I put together my own band and played jazz for a while.
JAM: In addition to being the first musician to strap on a keyboard, you're known for introducing the synthesizer as a lead instrument as well.
I love the keyboards. It's a great instrument that enables you to physically see how music is laid out. You can play chords and bass lines with your left hand and play lead with your right hand. It's great for understanding musical theory, because it is linearly laid out. But with a piano you just strike a note. You have a sustain pedal and you can play it louder or softer, but you can't do any of the things that you can do on a saxophone, like bend notes or vibrato. Your life's breath is supporting the sound of that instrument. It becomes an extension of your body. It feels a lot more human to me than keyboards, which is like a big machine.
I have been both acclaimed and accused for ushering in the synthesizer. Synths have gotten a really bad rap. It was controversial in the beginning. A lot of people were using synths to emulate the sounds of existing instruments, like a grand piano or a string section. There were also a lot of people who were programmers and not musicians; using the synthesizers to do things musically they physically were unable to play. It was considered a dehumanizing element in music. Throughout the years I have been a big synthesizer advocate. I think it is one of the most human instruments three is. If you compare it to the piano - which is considered a legitimate instrument although it basically is just rods and hammers - it is very mechanical. A synth can sound like anything if you understand wave forms and know how to program it. It has limitless potential.
JAM: You and your brother have certainly traveled on different musical paths, though they often intertwine.
Johnny and I are very different musically. It has been that way since early on. The one common thread that runs through our music is the blues. We both have a deep love and appreciation for traditional blues. I just happen to love all the rest of music too. Jazz and blues are the two great American musical contributions with blues being the granddaddy. Blues developed into ragtime, then Dixie land and then into modern jazz. Johnny loved the traditional Delta acoustic blues artists, including Lightning Hopkins and Howling Wolf. I gravitated toward the urban blues people like Ray Charles. I was also into Gospel and R&B performers like Otis Redding. Gospel remains music's most overlooked genre. In essence, it's the flipside of blues. Rock singing is derived from preacher gospel screaming.
JAM: Why didn't you become a jazz artist?
I think I would have if it wasn't for Johnny's huge fame and popularity. Maybe I would have become a recording engineer or a producer. The other way in which Johnny and I are very different is that at a very early age, Johnny really had that drive and determination to become successful. He had that dream. My brother read all of the music magazines and watched American Bandstand. At one point he became Johnny "Cool" Winter with the guitars and the sunglasses. I never had a desire to be famous. I just loved music. During my teens, I was content playing in bands with brother. He was the leader. I was the weird kid that played all of the instruments.
JAM: Music is known as a universal language. Did it bond you and your brother together?
People always ask if there was sibling rivalry between us, but the honest answer is no. I liked playing different instruments and arranging music. It was never competitive in that way. We started out singing together. Our first band was Johnny and the Jammers. Johnny was the singer and I sang from time to time just to give him a rest.
JAM: No sibling rivalry at all?
Well, in other areas, but not in music. He would usually beat me in bowling and I'd beat him in chess. We were normal brothers. We'd pick on each other, you know, that type of stuff. But like all siblings, we grew out of it. If it wasn't for Johnny's determination to be somebody in the music business, I wouldn't be where I am today. I would probably still be doing something musical, but I certainly wouldn't have gotten into it the same way I did with him.
JAM: In the age of pop singles, what inspired you to record an instrumental like "Frankenstein"?
Although I had recorded with my brother, I had yet to record an album myself. No one knew who I was. I went up to New York with Johnny's manager, Steve Paul, who in turn introduced me to Clive Davis. At the time, Clive was the president of CBS Records. He offered both me and Johnny record deals and, as they say, the rest is history. First, however, Johnny asked me to come on out on tour with him as a special guest. He would perform the first part of his set with his blues trio and then he'd say, "Now, I'd like to bring out my little brother Edgar." I'd walk out and people would be saying, "Wow! There are two of them!" I used the riff that would become the basis for "Frankenstein" during those shows. I played the Hammond organ and alto sax and I participated in a duo drum solo with Johnny's drummer Red Turner. We called the song "Double Drum." We actually performed a version of it when I played with Johnny at Woodstock. The riff was eventually forgotten for years until I introduced the synthesizer into my musical repertoire.
JAM: Where did you first come across the synthesizer?
I was in Manny's Music (on New York City's famed 'music store row' on 48th Street) and I came across these new synthesizers they had just received. There was the Moog, created by Robert Moog, which was a single unit. The Arp 2600 was two pieces: one piece was the keyboard and the other was the brains or guts of the instrument. It looked like a mad scientist's contraption. I looked at it and thought, "Wow, this thing doesn't look like it weighs much. I'm sure I could put a strap on it and play it like a guitar." That's exactly what I proceeded to do.
JAM: Once the strap was in place, you needed a song in which to showcase your invention.
Exactly! I worked out a version of the "Double Drum" song to play live and it was just killer. I'll never forget the first time I walked out on stage with keyboard strapped to me. The crowd just went crazy. It was one of those surreal rock and roll moments. The song quickly became the big closing number for the Edgar Winter Group, but we had no intention of recording it. It was live madness; something that had nothing to do with what we were doing on our first album (1972's They Only Come Out at Night). I thought the strength of the band lied in the co-writing between me and Dan Hartman. "Free Ride" was a song we really believed in.
JAM: Rock fans the world over thank you for changing your mind.
Back in those days, bands would go into a studio to do an album and have maybe three or four songs ready. The album would be created in the studio. Bands would sit down and jam and come up with ideas. The cardinal rule was that tape was always rolling. We happened to have two or three long versions of "Double Drum." At the end of the project, Rick Derringer said, "Maybe we could edit that live instrumental. It's such a big part of the show, maybe we can turn it into something usable." It was a crazy idea, but I like crazy ideas. It was also an excuse to throw a big end-of-the-project editing party.
JAM: During the '70s, the editing process was quite different.
The only way to edit tapes during those days was to physically cut the master tape and use splicing tape to put it back together. The tape for the song was cut into pieces and placed along the console, draped over the backs of chairs and across the couch. We were trying to figure out how to put the thing back together, when drummer Chuck Ruff mumbled the immortal words, "Wow, it's like Frankenstein."
JAM: A classic rock monster was born.
He was using the analogy of an arm here and a leg there. As soon as I heard him say those words, I thought to myself, "Wow! That's it! It's the perfect name for the song." Cutting the master was like cutting a diamond. Sure, we could have used safety copies, but if any part of the master was damaged, an early generation of the song would have been lost.
JAM: Who engineered the recording?
Bill Szymczyk a great engineer, who went on to work with the Eagles. Heavy duty editing became his forte. I haven't seen him in years, but he is still around doing his thing. I heard he still loves to splice songs together, taking different parts from different takes and assembling them. It was his experience working on "Frankenstein" that moved him in that direction.
JAM: You worked with the late Ronnie Montrose, an under-appreciated guitar hero, who was too eccentric to live up to his potential.
I loved his unpredictability, but our relationship was certainly volatile at times. And I mean that in the best possible way. His fire and his magic was the perfect balance for the Edgar Winter Group. The first guy I found was Dan Hartman, who loved pop music. He had an air of innocence about him. Ronnie had an edge, which added the perfect balance to the Edgar Winter Group's chemistry. I always considered Ronnie "the guy." I had seen him play with Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison. I dearly missed him.
JAM: Did you stay in contact with him?
The last five years of his life we spoke a lot. He had mellowed out by then. I was really glad to see that he became happier, better adjusted, more mature and appreciative of everything. But when he was a part of the Edgar Winter group, he was a live wire. We all were back then.
JAM: You have been fortunate over the years to have worked with a number of superb guitarists, including Rick Derringer who is highly underrated.
You are right about Rick. He is a great guitarist. On the recent Rock 'n' Blues Festival, I was fortunate to play with Johnny, who's my all-time musical hero, and our long-time friend Rick Derringer. Over the years, I have been privileged enough to perform with a lot of great rock guitarists including my brother, Rick, Ronnie and my current guitarist Doug Rappoport. He is just amazing and has developed into a phenomenal player. He has been with me for 10 years, longer than any guitarist I've ever worked with. My current band is rounded out by bassist Coco Powell and drummer Jason Carpenter.
JAM: Your last release, Rebel Road, seemed to hold a lot of meaning to you. Why is that?
When the Edgar Winter Group released "Free Ride" back in 1972, it became a big biker song because it had "free" in its title. I believe that rockers and bikers have a lot in common. We both have little regard for autho ritative figures. The open highway is a symbol of freedom to us. I have always considered myself a musical rebel that refuses to fit into any category that record companies strongly encouraged me to fit into. I love all kinds of music.
JAM: Always lurking in the background are portions of the blues. You just can't seem to shake yourself free of the music.
Well, like I said, my brother is the blues guy. Personally, I have tremendous respect for traditional blues and Johnny is one of the greatest living exponents of that. There are so few people playing authentic slide blues guitar and thus t has become a dying art. I have never understood why people who love classical music can't appreciate rock. And why people who love country music can't dig Jazz. They are all equally valid forms of music. Record companies prefer if an artist is just one thing, because they want to satisfy a demographic; they want to target a specific audience. I've always flown in the face of that. Rebel Road was my way of saying, "I am who I am. I am not going to be told what I am supposed to do. I am going to live my own life."
JAM" You have opened recent shows with the blues classic, "Tobacco Road," that you helped popularize with Johnny.
Until recently, it had been nearly 20 years since Johnny and I were together on the same stage. The last couple of years, we've done a number of shows together, including the Blues Cruise. I assume there will be many more shows in the future and there will be jamming between the two of us.
JAM: You never actively sought fame, but nonetheless, today you are famous. Are you comfortable with it?
I enjoy to whatever extent I am famous today.
JAM: You are instantly recognizable.
I just have that look that people think I'm somebody. It is a good thing. People often ask about what was it like being an albino growing up in Texas. Of course, if you are different, kids will always pick on you. I was ostracized and a loner in school. I had my close circle of friends, but Johnny was a lot more gregarious and outgoing. And now it is kind of reverse. He is much insulated, while I've gotten more comfortable.
JAM: Interviews weren't exactly your 'thing' when you started out in the music business.
When I first started getting some recognition, I did not do interviews. I wanted my music to speak for itself. I didn't care to discuss my personal life. I didn't think it was of any relevance. Woodstock, however, really changed my life. Up until that point, music was internalized for me. It was my own private escape from where I had grown up as a kid. When I did Woodstock, I still thought of myself as a serious musician, but thank God I got over that. I'll never forget the moment of looking out onto that sea of humanity up against the backdrop of civil rights and the hippie movement. Musicians were singing songs they had written and really believed in. Seeing all of those people united in that unique way made me realize that music was a lot more than my private fantasy land. It really had the power to reach out and transcend so many boundaries that hopefully, would change the world and bring about a little more positivity and happiness.
JAM: I think we are on the verge of a new musical revolution today.
I certainly hope so and I think it is about time.
JAM: Music has been mired in mediocrity for too long. It needs to rebound and lead change.
Music meant a lot more to people during the '60s and '70s than it does today, and that's because of what was going on culturally. People have tried to recreate Woodstock numerous times, but it is never going to happen. That festival was a very spontaneous thing and it really mattered to people. Personally, I hope music gets back to being more of an art form. I think it was the intervention of all of the music companies that had the biggest affect. And I realize that we are all tempted to believe that the time we grew up in was somehow special, but I really do believe, as objectively as I can, that there were two golden eras in music. There were the '30s and '40s for big bands and swing followed by the '60s and '70s for rock. I think that both eras are unparalleled. There was so much musical freedom during those days. It all changed when the record companies began imposing rules, like submitting demos of your new material for approval. Then bands started taking months, even years in preproduction for their new albums. By the time a band got around to actually recording new material, all of the life and magic that goes into creating was sucked out of the music.
JAM: And thus we have the classic rock era commonly referred to as the '60s and '70s.
I never dreamed there would be a classic rock genre or that there would be so much emphasis put on music from those two decades. I am glad to have survived and still be here to tell the tale.
* Edgar Winter will be performing April 11 at One World Theater in Austin, Texas. For more information on that show and others, go to www.edgarwinter.com