Although he's often skirted the edges of blues music, at base, saxophonist, keyboardist and composer Edgar Winter is a blues musician. Raised in Beaumont, TX, the younger brother of ukulele player and guitarist Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter has always pushed himself in new directions. In fact, he truly is one musician who's never been afraid to venture into multiple musical arenas, often times, within the space of one album, as in his debut, Entrance (1970) on Columbia Records.
Edgar Winter, the second son of John and Edwina Winter, was born December 28, 1946 in Beaumont, TX, and much of the credit for Edgar and Johnny's early musical awareness must go to the brothers' parents. Their father sang in a barbershop quartet, in their church choir and played saxophone in a jazz group. Edgar and Johnny, who's three years older, began performing together as teens, but it was at high school where Edgar became fascinated with the saxophone stylings of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Hank Crawford. As a pre-teen, he had played ukulele, like his older brother, but by the time he was of college age, Edgar had become competent on keyboards, bass, guitar and drums.
Edgar was signed to Epic Records in 1970 after performing on his brother's Second Winter album. He recorded Entrance, his debut, which featured himself on most of the instruments. After radio success accompanying his brother on Johnny Winter And, he formed a large horn ensemble called White Trash. Although it was a short lived group which broke up in mid-1972, Winter assembled another group to record two more albums for Epic Records, White Trash and Roadwork. Winter's single, "Keep Playing That Rock 'n' Roll," reached number 70 on the U.S. rock radio charts, and the album Roadwork hit number 23 on the album charts. By the summer of 1972, through constant touring, Winter formed the Edgar Winter Group in the summer of 1972. In January, 1973, Epic released They Only Come Out At Night, produced by guitarist Rick Derringer, which reached number three in the U.S. This album had Winter's most famous song, 'Frankenstein,' which reached number one in the U.S. in May of 1973. Later that year, 'Free Ride,' from the same album reached number 14. Although he's never matched that kind of commercial radio success again, Winter has continued to tour and record at a prolific pace, most notably with a slightly reworked version of ’Frankenstein’ for the movie ‘Wayne's World II.’
Whilst sitting in his Californian studio busy at work on his new album entitled Jazzin’ The Blues (due out late September), I first asked Edgar to sum up who he thought himself to be: ”Good question,” he smirks. ”Well, Edgar is a man from Texas who was lucky to have the most wonderful parents in the world and he’s just celebrated his twenty-third wedding anniversary on March 23rd. I’m prouder of my marriage than of my musical accomplishments which might sound odd to say, but I know a lot more famous rock stars with successful careers than I know people with successful marriages. My wife has been my love and inspiration throughout those twenty-three years and has kept me on track and she means the world to me.”
Describe your music in three words ”Man, that’s a tough one,” he laughs. What then follows is an elapsed span of quiet down time whilst the great one ponders the correct responses. Then, out of nowhere, the silence is broken. ”Well, I would say art, beauty and love.”
How far done with the new album are you ? ” I’ve got all the songs written and I’m about half way done with everything else. Will Lee is playing bass, Steve Lukather of Toto fame is one there also, but there are quite a number more people that are gonna be on it that are not yet. David Sanborn on a song called ‘Sax Fifth Avenue,’ and on a song called ‘Key’s To The Kingdom’ I hope to have another good friend. I have certain songs earmarked for certain artists, but we’ll see how it all turns out. I’m very excited about it all and it is sort of an extension of my last project Winter Blues. I think people have a tendency to regard blues as something old that’s already happened, forgetting that it has a continuing profound influence on every form of contemporary future being played today. What I’ve attempted to do is anthologize the blues and I’m extended out now into the jazz area. Part of what I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to broaden musical horizons and I’ve never understood why old people that appreciate classical can’t get into rock. I’ve just attempted to break down what I consider some of the senseless musical prejudices between various forms of music.”
How and when did you first fall in love with music ? ”My brother Johnny and I started out playing ukuleles when I was about six years old – playing Everly Brothers songs – and I switched to guitar for a brief period and then piano, bass, and drums. Then when I was about fifteen I picked up the alto sax. And it was about that time that I really started listening to jazz and since Johnny had become the guitar player of the family, saxophone was probably the next most heard instrument as a solo spot in rock ‘n’ roll. All the Little Richard songs had sax solos and all the R&B artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett had a horn section and so it became very fashionable and very popular. So, I loved the saxophone also because compared to piano and drums it’s more of an extension of your body. You can bend notes with your arms and your lips and it’s much closer to the natural acoustic properties of the horn that I love.”
Best known for the classic track ’Frankenstein’ , how did the song come about and where did you pull the name from ? ”All good questions and one of my favorite stories to cover. ‘Frankenstein’ was written at a time when I was playing with my brother Johnny’s blues band. Shortly after he became famous I came up to New York and worked on his first two albums. We then toured together until I put together my first band, White Trash and during the course of that time Johnny would play the first part of that set as the blues trio and then bring out his “little brother Edgar” where I would come out and finish the set. One of the songs that we did was a song that we called the ‘Double Drum Song’ because I played Hammond and alto sax and did a duel drum solo with his drummer Red Turner. That song had the original riff …..,” (he breaks straight into the beloved ‘Frankenstein’ riff verbally himself right about now) ”….. that I thought would fit great into Johnny’s set. So, the song more or less disappeared for several years, but then I thought about it again with the advent of the synthesizer.”
Weren’t you one of the first people to sling a synthesizer across your chest ? ”Yeah, I’m the first person to get the idea of getting a strap put on a keyboard. I’m the first keyboard slinger as it were. I got very frustrated being stuck behind the banks of keyboards thinking why was it all these guitar players get to have all the fun. I was browsing in a music store one day and saw this Arc 2600 with a remote keyboard and a cable to the guts and the brain of the instrument and picking it up thought that it was pretty light and that you could just put a strap on this and play it like a guitar ! Which I proceeded to do. So then I thought what would be a good song to showcase this instrument and so we started playing it live – and it was still untitled – and when we made the album there was never any intention of the song being a part of the album. We considered it a live song and I thought ‘Free Ride’ would be the hit – which it eventually was, but not the first hit. So, towards the end of the project I was talking to Rick Derenger who was producing the album and this song that we used to warm up with when we got into the studio he suggested putting on the album somewhere. We had two or three fifteen minute versions of it that were just jams that we just had from different days so we stated to think of how we could edit into something cohesive that could fit onto the album and get it under four minutes. Back in those days the only way to edit was to physically cut the tape with a razor blade and then tape it back together. So, we were in the control room doing just that and we had the whole thing in pieces strewn all over the control room, lying over the backs of chairs, draped over the couch and we were making fun of it saying things like, ‘well, this is the main body’ and things like the ‘foot bone is connected to the leg bone.' Then the drummer said, ‘wow man, it’s like Frankenstein and as soon as I heard it I said that’s it. It even sounds like the visual imagery with that lumbering monster vibe to it and so the monster was born !”
Which of all your songs is your personal favorite and why ? ”I would say there are several of them, but driven to name one I would say ‘Dying To Live’ because it is the most personal song to me that I’ve written. It was one of the first songs that I wrote with White Trash actually, but it had a poignancy to me because it was a song that I wrote in dream state that just came to me all at once. And those are frequently some of the songs that are special as opposed to the ones that you have to labor over for weeks. It’s just a touching song. There was a young boy who had a severe facial disfigurement and had been contemplating suicide and he had written to me that after hearing that song that he had undergone a whole series of operations and that it had given him new hope. Being able to reach out and touch someone’s life in a positive way is really very rewarding of an experience.”
Reveal something about yourself that you don’t normally get to reveal “Well, let’s see. I can think of a lot of them. Okay, I had a Superman suit that I wore under my clothes to school. How about that ?! I had the outfit, but I wasn’t Superman though.” he laughs. ”I’m about the opposite of Superman,” he laughs again. ”I’m an albino and I’m legally blind so I certainly don’t have any X-ray vision.’
You wore this every day to school ? ”Yeah, but I couldn’t wear the cape and everything, but I had all the other stuff. “
How old are you these days ? “I’m 55. I’m breaking the speed limit next year, Russ,” he laughs.
What is your most treasured possession ? ”That’s another good question too. There would have to be so many things, but I’ll mention one that springs immediately to mind because it’s current. If you go to my web site www.EdgarWinter.com it would be a sword that belonged to my father. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute and was posted overseas in the Second World War. I used to love this sword. It was a dress sword and it was silver and had his name embossed in gold and because it was a dress sword it was just perfect for a little kid to wave around and pretend to be Zorro. And this sword just sort of disappeared, but just recently a fan acquired this somehow and returned it to me and it brought back so many memories of childhood. I actually wrote this whole piece for the web site regarding the sword.”
Name something that you will always be remembered for long after you’ve gone ” I’ve been variously acclaimed and accused of ushering in the era of the synthesizer: Acclaimed because I was on the cutting edge of a new frontier, so to speak and accused as the synthesizer put a lot of good musicians out of work because people tended to use it to emulate the sounds of already existing instruments. I was more or less the mad scientist of the synthesizer and my whole attitude toward it was here’s a new instrument and let’s see what new sounds we can invent and create as opposed to having it just recreated the sounds of instruments that we all have heard time and again.”
Who is your all time musical hero ? ”Ray Charles is probably my all time musical hero. He had a wonderful band with great jazz soloists.”
What would be your final advice to musical wannabes ? ”Play what you love, follow your dreams, and never give up !”
Interviewed By Russell A. Trunk
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