Edgar Winter spoke with me about his brother,
Blues guitarist and Grammy winner Johnny Winter,
Touring with Ringo Starr in recent years,
And about music in general.
Here is that conversation:
Steve: Thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with me today, Edgar. I’m definitely hoping to see you at your show on January 27th in Ridgefield.
Edgar: Well great, we’d love to see you, be sure and stop by and say hello.
Steve: Thanks, definitely if at all possible!
Edgar: I hope you will. Johnny [Winter—Edgar’s blues guitarist Grammy winning brother] DOES live in Connecticut. So from that point of view that’s most likely the place where he’d be playing. And I know Toad’s Place is a place where he’s played a lot and I have too over the years.
Steve: Yeah, it’s a great venue.
Edgar: I’m very much looking forward to it because I lived in Connecticut myself when I still lived on the East Coast. My wife Monique and I moved out here in about 1990. So I’m out here in Beverly Hills, I’m the authentic Beverly Hillbilly out here.
Steve: What part of Connecticut did you live in?
Edgar: I was in Westport. Johnny’s in Easton.
Steve: I met Johnny last summer and talked to him. He appeared at the Daniel Street Café in Milford, which no longer exists now. It just went under. Johnny’s show was great.
Edgar: I really love the opportunities I get to play with Johnny, it reminds me of the old days when we used to play together and we’ve been doing it quite a bit lately. We did the “Blues Cruise” together, we did a legends cruise with ZZ Top, George Thorogood, and Marshall Tucker; just a whole slew of great bands.
Steve: So how often do you get to play with Johnny?
Edgar: I’d say we do maybe 10 or 15 shows a year. There was a time when we hadn’t played together in over 20 years, maybe 25 years. And for no particular reason that I know of. We do cross paths on the road like you might expect. We just don’t get to see that much of each other now that I’m on the West Coast and he’s on the East.
Steve: I don’t get to spend as much time with my brothers and sisters as I’d like and all 5 of us live right here in Connecticut.
I LOVE MUSIC MORE JUST IN AND OF ITSELF
Edgar: Well Johnny and I are the only two and we do talk a lot and we continue to play on each other’s albums and CDs and do shows. He was my musical hero growing up. It’s odd because he was very driven when we were very young, he was very ambitious. He watched all the shows, Bandstand; he read all the magazines and I was the strange kid that played all the instruments—much quieter and more introspective, withdrawn. I love music more just in and of itself. I love harmony and rhythm. Johnny was very much into the blues, as was I but in a different way. He loved all the really primitive Delta acoustic style blues—the people like Muddy Waters.
Steve: Johnny won a couple of Grammys for working with Muddy Waters.
Edgar: Yep. I liked the more sophisticated urban style of blues like Ray Charles and BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, Lou Rawls; people like that with more of a tendency toward jazz. I guess that I’m primarily thought of as a rocker, largely because of Frankenstein being such a heavy song—you know it was really hard rock, almost a precursor of heavy metal and just the image of the synthesizer. I happened to be the first guy to get the idea of putting a strap on the keyboard.
Steve: WHERE did you get that idea? What were you thinking when you said to yourself, ‘You know, I’m gonna strap this sucker to my neck!”
STRAPPING A SYNTHESIZER TO HIS NECK
“IT WAS REALLY AN OBVIOUS THING
BUT I JUST HAPPENED TO BE THE FIRST”
Edgar: [Laughs] It was just totally a brainstorm that struck me as I was walking through the music store and saw the new models of synthesizers. Synthesizers were brand new and there were basically the two types; the Moog, invented by Robert Moog. And then there was the ARP, and the ARP 2600 was different in that it was two pieces. It had a console, but the keyboard was a remote keyboard connected to the console and the guts of the instrument by this big snaky umbilical cable. I was immediately attracted to it because the console looked like a mad scientist’s with all kinds of sliders, knobs and meters. And I just looked at the keyboard and said ‘This doesn’t weigh much, looks like you could just put a strap on this and play it like a guitar!’ I had just been frustrated for years in terms of playing keyboards. It was one of the most frustrating instruments for a lot of reasons. When I was first starting out, you’d have to bang an old upright piano and stick a mike in it and it would always feed back and you could never turn it up loud enough to be heard and I would beat my hands black and blue and bloody. Then the electric pianos came out and I said, ah great! When Ray did “What I Say” what a cool sound! And then the organs came in. But the problem with keyboards was that you were still stuck behind this massive bank of keyboards and you couldn’t move and nobody could see what you were doing. All the guitar players get to have all the fun, I wanted to get out there and boogie! So when I saw that keyboard, and got the idea of the strap—it was really an obvious thing. I’m sure that someone would have eventually thought of, but I just happened to be the first.
Steve: So you couldn’t have done that with the Moog synthesizer?
Edgar: No, no not at all.
Steve: Ok, I get it.
Edgar: I’ll never forget the first night that I walked out onstage with the keyboard strapped on [laughs] –it was, like, one of those real rock and roll moments!
Steve: Is there any video of that?
Edgar: No, unfortunately there’s not too much video of what Johnny and I did early on. I don’t have a single video of the entire White Trash band period. That band was never videoed in its entire existence. I would love to be able to see it. But there is a lot of video of me doing Frankenstein.
Steve: The only time I’ve seen you do Frankenstein live was a couple of years ago at one of the Connecticut casinos with Ringo Starr and Rick Derringer, I think it was 2009. And I’ve just been looking at that video the last couple of days, it was a home video but it’s a good one, awesome to see you switch from instrument to instrument—it’s amazing. So next question: which instrument do you think is your forte? If you were to pick an instrument, which would you say you’re best at?
Edgar: I would say alto sax. It’s not my first instrument, but I think it’s become my first love. I started out playing ukulele when I was 5 or 6 years old. Our Dad showed us our first chords on ukulele, then Johnny graduated to guitar. I played guitar for about a minute, then I played electric bass for a while, then I switched to drums. My Dad played guitar and banjo, and he played alto sax in a swing band in his youth. And he had a barbershop quartet that would come over to the house and sing. And my Mom played beautiful classical piano. So our family was very musical. Then piano became—I started to get more serious with piano. And then when I was 14 or 15, I discovered my Dad’s alto sax up in the old closet in the attic. And that was a major departure and really changed my life and musical direction—and sort of a parting of the ways with Johnny for a while because I became really interested in jazz and Johnny said “I don’t want a saxophone in the band.” Because I was going through all these instruments. But later when a lot of the R & B bands, like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, which had horn sections; then we did play together in big bands later on. So there was a period of about a year there where I said, ‘Well I’ll get my own band.’ A lot of people don’t even know that I play the saxophone because of that keyboard image being so dynamic and such a powerful image, I think I’m probably considered a keyboard player more than anything else.
Steve: I have to agree. I think you play an excellent sax.
Edgar: Well thank you. I’m also thought of primarily, I think, as a rocker, but I really do love jazz and classical.
Steve: Where do you think blues fits in for you?
Edgar: Well if there’s any common thread that runs through all my music it is definitely blues. I really think that blues is so inclusive. It’s all-encompassing, really like the Granddaddy of music in the sense—people think of it as something that’s old and has already happened and is over with, but it continues to have a profound influence on all the music that’s being made today—whatever it is. Blues developed into ragtime; and Dixieland; then further into jazz, and it’s an ever-present influence. Of all the styles I like bluesy jazz more than I like fusion. I like bluesy country. I like bluesy rock. It’s hard to describe but it’s definitely an integral part of everything that I play. It’s so universal, you can go anywhere in the world and play with musicians that you’ve never seen and it’s an instantaneous connection.
Steve: Besides your brother Johnny, who else did you look up to musically growing up?
“I’D SAY RAY CHARLES WAS MY MOST PROFOUND INFLUENCE”
Edgar: I’d say Ray Charles was my most profound influence. I loved Ray. He, like I, very much loved all styles of music; he could play jazz, but was really primarily a blues/gospel/jazz oriented keyboard player. When you refer to gospel, I think it’s probably the most undervalued and least understood style in music. It really is the flip side of the blues. Most of the blues players had gospel roots as well. As far as I’m concerned the whole style of rock singing is derived from the black gospel singers like Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Little Richard—that all those people who innovated rock and roll were really gospel. I’m talking about it more as a style, than that it has to have a lyrical content—it doesn’t have to be Christian necessarily. There is a style that I associate as gospel and it had a lot to do with the New Orleans style of piano playing and music—people like Doctor John, Professor Longhair. Ray was an amazing singer. He had such sincerity. It’s just the ultimate definition of soul if you think of it—when you think of soulful singers, Ray has to top the list as far as I’m concerned. And Stevie Wonder. As far as jazz, I loved all the jazz people like Cannonball Adderly [he was my favorite alto player], but I loved Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles—all the jazz greats influenced me. In classical I loved Chopin who was probably my favorite of the classical composers. In terms of rock—Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the same people that Johnny liked, all the blues guys. I had tons of influences. But I’d say Ray would be number one because he appreciated jazz and he had his own very definite style. He made a country album, understood rock and included what I’d say is an Afro-Cuban drumbeat in it. He was a real innovator.
Steve: Would you say coming from Texas, where you grew up, had a lot to do with the kinds of music that you wound up doing?
Edgar: Oh, absolutely! I didn’t fully appreciate how wonderful that area was musically until I got some distance from it and moved up to New York and I thought ‘Oh wow this is going to be such an adventure, some of the greatest musicians in the world.’ And there are great musicians, but there’s nothing in New York that you can really characterize as a sound. In Texas there is an indigenous music that’s been passed on from generation to generation that is very unique and very special and it certainly has everything to do with my style and the way that I play.
Steve: My friend, Charlie Adams, wanted me to ask a question. He wonders whether you felt pressured to do rock and roll over blues or jazz simply because of its popularity?
Edgar: I would answer that no. I believe that pressure certainly exists. And is and has been exerted especially by record companies. In the 60s and 70s—let me put it this way, I think we all tend to think that the era in which we grew up was somehow special. I believe there were two golden eras for music—the 40s and 50s for big bands and the 60s and 70s for rock. I think it’s largely because there was so much freedom at that time, and there was less of that pressure. I don’t think people had begun taking music so seriously against the social backdrop of civil rights and the peace movement and when Woodstock happened. That really changed my life and that was the turning point for me when I decided I was going to start writing music. Before I thought of music as my own private escape world as a kid, just something I enjoyed and spent hours a day doing. But when I saw Woodstock, hundreds of thousands of people—an endless sea of humanity and saw how all of those people were united and brought together in that unique way—pop music had meant that you had somehow lowered the standards of your music, but all it meant really was that it was popular or universal. Music that would reach everybody was popular. And that’s something I think you’d strive for. All the record companies wanted everything to be one thing specific so that they could reach a demographic market. They wanted you to be a rock guy, a blues guy or whatever it was. I’ve always disagreed and flown in the face of that kind of restriction. To me it’s like turning music into musical segregation.
“IT’S LIKE TURNING MUSIC INTO MUSICAL SEGREGATION”
Steve: That’s a good way of putting it.
Edgar: Like; all you black people are going to sing the blues, all you southern people are going to play country… You know what I’m saying.
Edgar: I’ve never been able to understand why people who love classical can’t appreciate rock. Or why people who love country can’t dig jazz. They’re all equally valid forms of music. So what I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to broaden musical horizons and not to fit in or be categorized. To me it’s all music. I never considered myself one thing or the other and I know that I could have had far greater success if I had focused on one direction but it was never my intent to strive for success, recognition or any of that, I just play music because I love it—and I want to be happy doing it. You hear a lot of musicians talking about the intervention of record companies and complain about it, but ultimately it’s up to each individual artist to maintain the integrity of his or her music. I’ve played all kinds of stuff. My first album, Entrance, was sort of a blend of jazz and blues. Then I put together White Trash and we did R & B. The Edgar Winter Group was really a rock band—we were really the quintessential American rock and roll band. I’ve done a little bit of all of it and enjoyed it along the way, but it wasn’t because I felt the pressure to do it, I just did whatever I felt like doing at the time.
Steve: I think maybe your success possibly has a good bit to do with the fact that you have chosen to do a variety of styles, in some senses. Do you think that might be true?
Edgar: I have no regrets, I’ve really done what I’ve wanted to do and intend to continue doing it. You’ll never hear me talking about a farewell tour. I come from the old blues mentality—you know they’re still playing at 70 or 80 and I’m going to do exactly the same thing.
Steve: Change of subject. How were you approached by Ringo Starr to do his All Starr Band tour the first time?
Edgar: Well, it just came out of the blue. I had wanted to do it for years. Some of the people I had looked up to had done it; Doctor John, Billy Preston—great keyboard players. I should preface this by saying that I really feel that the Beatles are in a class unto themselves. I believe that what they did was bigger than music. They changed the mindset of an entire generation. They brought about a revolution without firing a shot because it was a revolution in freedom of thought and in peace and love. The music they made changed the world and it will never be the same.
Steve: Let me pause you here for one second. Your brother is a very humble guy. One of the things that he’s most proud of, and I didn’t realize it until Johnny told me that John Lennon wrote his song “Rock and Roll People” for Johnny, and his pride in that is evident.
“THEN I GOT A CALL FROM RINGO HIMSELF DIRECTLY”
Edgar: Yes, with good reason. The English invasion groups were enamored of the blues. The Stones, Clapton. Blues and jazz musicians are highly respected in Europe and we don’t hear anything about them over here [chuckles] and it’s really ironic because those really are the two great American music forms that were created here. Johnny and I loved the Beatles and we played all the Beatles’ songs together. I had told my friend and manager Jake that if there was ever an opportunity to do that [play with Ringo Starr], I want that to be a first priority. And there were a couple of years evidently when I was under consideration but that it never did happen. But I’d told Jake that whatever else was going on that I wanted to do that. It was a complete surprise, but finally I was talking to Jake and he said you were up for Ringo again. Then I got a call saying “You’re in the band!” Then I got a call from Ringo himself directly shortly following that and I was just on cloud nine.
Steve: When was your first tour?
Edgar: I did it in 2006, and 2008 and 2010 and then in 2011 we did it two years in a row, because we did Europe and South America.
Steve: Now that looks like fun gig for you.
Edgar: The whole Beatles’ mystique is far more evident in Europe and in South America than it is here in the U.S. It was incredible. And I think Ringo was somewhat reluctant to play Europe—he thought he was more respected here. “Oh they don’t love me over there.” It was just the opposite!
Steve: I’d never seen Ringo as a front man, which he didn’t get to do when his band mates were John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. He was great.
Edgar: I think Ringo is underappreciated. I don’t think people fully realize how much he contributed to the band. The drummer is the generator of the band. The Beatles would not have had the sound that they did were it not for Ringo. He’s not a dazzling solo kind of guy like a John Bonham or Ginger Baker, but he’s got a great feel. And when you get into thinking of playing the blues, that’s really what it’s all about. I think a great musician is someone who loves music and is able to communicate that, and Ringo does that. He’s a great guy. Great sense of humor both on and offstage and he’s very casual and yet at the same time he really does have an aura. He’s such a heartfelt advocate for peace and love. The music aside, that’s something that I respect so much having played Woodstock that really means a lot to me. That’s something that the world can really use more of. He keeps that spirit of the Beatles alive and so does Paul. He still retains that youthful enthusiasm and it reminds me of when we started out as kids with garage bands and we’d get together and hang out bonding into a real band in an amazingly short period of time.
Steve: You’re on tour with him now, could you tell me about Rick Derringer?
ON RICK DERRINGER
Edgar: We did Ringo together. Rick was in the McCoys originally. His brother Randy played drums. When I met Rick I felt an instantaneous connection and musical kinship even though he was from the Midwest—a different part of the country, I could tell that he had the same blues roots; that he had listened to a lot of the same blues and rock people. In those days the prevailing wisdom was that rock artists were not supposed to produce their own music. Well since I didn’t want to have some old fat guy with a cigar as my producer, and Rick seemed like the perfect choice. So Rick produced all of my albums for a period there, from White Trash, to Road Work and he played in White Trash after the original guitar player Floyd Radford, and he played in the Edgar Winter Group after the original guitarist. We’ve been affiliated and we’ve never lost track of one another throughout all the years and we continue to play together. We do shows with our own respective bands; we do maybe 20 or 30 shows a year. And we did have the opportunity to play together again in the same band with Ringo and Ringo was very aware of that history and wanted that to happen and made it happen. That was really cool.
Steve: The next time Ringo puts his band together do you think you’re going to be a part of that?
Edgar: He’s never had anybody with him more than two consecutive times, and I’ve already done it four now. I think he’s going to have an entirely different lineup. That’s just what I think.
Steve: The website is http://edgarwinter.com for concert dates?
Steve: And your last studio CD was Rebel Road from 2008?
Edgar: Yes, Rebel Road. You know “Free Ride” was a big biker song, so I’ve always felt that bikers and rockers had a lot in common in that we have a certain disregard for authority, for the powers that be—we definitely are not 9 to 5’ers, and I’ve always thought of the open road as a symbol of freedom. It’s more a state of mind. I’m not going to be told who I am, what to believe or how to live. So that’s what Rebel Road’s about.
Steve: Johnny has just produced a studio album and that’s actually on its way to me and I’m looking forward to that.
Edgar: Yeah! He has a lot of guests. Each song features usually another guitarist. It’s very cool; you’re going to love it. We got to hang out and do the Blues Cruise together. You know when you listen to Ringo’s band, there’s a magic and a charm about that show because I think a lot of people are familiar with the Beatles’ things. When Ringo puts that band together, one of the prerequisites is that anyone he chooses has to have instantaneously recognizable hits. So every song is a hit that’s been heard on the radio.
Steve: My own brother and I went to Johnny’s concert together last year, our first concert together after all these years. Johnny and his band mates were just awesome to me and to us. All of them really caring people.
Edgar: Well I’m glad that it was Johnny’s show that got you together. Oh yeah, he loves what he does. When did you see him?
Steve: I saw him in June.
Edgar: He’s drug-free now, which is wonderful.
Steve: I’ve lost too many people, I’m glad he’s doing so well.
Edgar: Well I’m just glad to have come through it and still rocking.
Steve: And the music that you’re producing is every bit as good as the day that you first hit the record labels.
Edgar: Physically I love running around and jumping around and do a very physical show. That’s very important to me, because I’m not going to run on a treadmill or go to a gym. I need to play. My band is really a high energy band. We do tunes from White Trash; we do “Tobacco Road,” “Free Ride,” we do “Frankenstein.”
Steve: Thanks Edgar, I truly appreciate it.
Edgar: Same here and [belting this out loudly as if onstage]….. KEEP ON ROCKIN!