STILL COMING OUT AT NIGHT: AN INTERVIEW WITH EDGAR WINTER
BY Jeb Wright
Edgar Winter has signed on to be part of the Rock & Blues Tour, which will be touring across the USA this summer. Joining Edgar on the trek will be his brother, Johnny Winter, Leslie West, Rick Derringer and Kim Simmonds.
Winter looks forward to playing the same stage as his brother and getting to spend time with him, as for years Johnny’s management attempted to keep the two apart. Now, with Johnny back in good health and the rest of these rock and roll icons joining the Winter Brothers, this proves to be an amazing night of music.
In the interview that follows, Edgar discusses his relationship with his older brother, how being an albino has been both positive and negative in his life, his Drug addiction” and how the songs “Frankenstein” went from being a fifteen minute jam to a number one hit.
Jeb: I want to talk about this tour you are going on, The Blues Rock Tour with Johnny Winter, Leslie West, Rick Derringer and Kim Simmonds.
Edgar: Are you ready to rock and roll? They have done this in years back and they used to call it Hippifest. It just seems like a dream lineup. I always get so emotional when I get to play with my brother, Johnny, as he is my all time musical hero. When it was suggested to everybody, we all jumped at the opportunity.
Rick is part of our extended family. He played in my first band, White Trash, after the original guitarist, Floyd Radford, left. He, then, played with me in the Edgar Winter Group after the original guitarist, Ronnie Montrose, left the band. Rick produced a lot of my early albums, as well. We’ve been fast friends for years. What could be better than all of us getting together for this particular tour?
Jeb: This seems like a great opportunity for some great jamming with each other on stage during each other’s set.
Edgar: I am sure there will be some of that. I am certainly going to invite Rick to sit in. I do about fifteen, to twenty, shows a year with Rick. Johnny and I recently played The Blues Cruise with his band, which was a lot of fun.
There was a period of twenty years, or more, where Johnny and I had not played together. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. I am certainly up for jamming and I will do everything I can to make that happen.
Jeb: How is the show going to work?
Edgar: Johnny will have his own band, his blues trio that he normally plays with. I have my own band on the tour, as well. My guitarist is Doug Rappoport, he has been with me for over ten years. He joined me when he was young and he has developed into quite a guitarist. All of you guitar aficionados out there, this is a dream lineup. My bassist is Coco Powell, who I first met when he was playing with Spencer Davis, and my drummer is Jason Carpenter.
Rick will be playing with my band, as is Kim Simmonds. Leslie is going to have his band for part of his shows, but he will have to use my drummer for part of the shows. There is already some mixing and matching going on.
To me, this is reminiscent of what I loved about the ‘70’s festivals. The shows, back then, were very diverse. You would have Blood, Sweat & Tears, Country Joe & the Fish, the 5th Dimension and Jimi Hendrix and everybody jammed. I think that is what a good part of what made that such a magical era.
Jeb: It really was a magical era.
Edgar: We are all brought up to think that our era was special and magical. I really think there were two golden eras of music, the ‘40’s and ‘50’s for Big Band, Jazz and Swing and the ‘60’s and ‘70’s for rock. I think they are both unparalleled. Hopefully, we can capture some of that on this tour.
Jeb: You, as an artist, fit that bill. You’re a rock guy, a blues guy, a jazz guy and a funky guy, when you want to be. How do you choose what you are going to play?
Edgar: Because there are so many acts, we have to have shorter sets. Expect to hear, from Edgar Winter, “Tobacco Road,” which was on my first album, which was a blend of rock, blues, jazz and classical. It was an ambitious undertaking. It was an unusual undertaking for a first release by an artist.
We will do “Tobacco Road,” a traditional blues song that I popularized with my brother, Johnny. We will be doing our biggest hits like “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” We will be playing some songs from our latest CD, Rebel Road. It is going to be fun.
As you mentioned, I am primarily known as a rocker, probably do to the big chords in “Frankenstein,” which was almost a precursor to heavy metal. I really do love all styles of music. I’ve never been able to understand why those who love classical can’t dig rock, or why people who love country can’t listen to jazz. They are all equally valid musical forms and, to me, it is almost like musical segregation.
A lot of it is due to record companies trying to target a specific audience, as they want to market things. To me, music should be about art. I’ve never thought of it as the music business, as it is commonly referred to. Thank God for that, as I just want to keep on playing. You will never hear about an Edgar Winter Farewell Tour!
Jeb: Speaking of “Frankenstein,” legend holds that song was written years earlier when you were playing with Johnny. Is that true?
Edgar: Yes, it came about when Johnny had his first blues trio. Johnny invited me up to New York to play on his first several albums. I would tour with him. As a matter of fact, we played Woodstock together. A lot of people do not know that because none of that material is in any of the movies, or on any of the CDs, which is another story.
Getting back to “Frankenstein,” Johnny would play the first part of his set with his blues trio and then he would say, “I’m going to bring out my little brother, Edgar.” Nobody even knew I existed, at that time. I would walk on and people would say, “Wow, there’s two of them!” I had come up with that riff because I thought it would be a great instrumental showcase. It sounds like something you’d play to bring someone on with. I played Hammond B3, alto sax and we had two sets of drums on stage and I’d play a duel drum solo with Johnny’s drummer, Red Turner. The song was then forgotten for years after that. We did play a version of that at Woodstock.
Years later, with the advent of the synthesizer, I happened to be the first guy to get the idea of putting a strap on the keyboard. It’s such an obvious idea, yet one that no one had happened to think of. When I saw that the Arp 2600 models were one piece of machinery, but it was in two pieces, and was relatively light weight; the brains of the thing was a mad scientist contraption console with all kinds of knobs and sliders. I thought, “Hey, I think you could put a strap on this thing and play it like a guitar,” which is exactly what I proceeded to do. I will never forget that moment, the first time I walked out with the keyboard on a strap, the audience went wild. It was one of those wild rock and roll moments.
I was looking for a song to feature the synthesizer on and I thought about “The Double Drum Song.” We used to call it “The Double Drum Song” because of the two sets of drums. It ended up sounding great with that reinforced synth bottom. We worked it up and it just worked great. We never envisioned recording it, as it was fifteen minutes long, it was just a live showcase kind of thing. We, accidentally, had like two, or three, versions of it.
Back then, bands would commonly come into the studio and have two, or three, songs and, then, go on to write the album in the studio. They would write the songs and jam on the riffs, and I think that is another part of what made that such a magical era. There wasn’t the intervention of the record company. You didn’t have to send in demos and get everything approved. You went into the studio and spontaneous magic occurred. I think that is why the music of the ‘70’s has persevered.
The only way we could think to put that song on the album was to edit it down into something usable. By the way, it was Rick Derringer’s idea to do that. I thought it was a crazy idea, but I like crazy ideas. It was a crazy excuse to get more blasted than usually and have a big end of the project editing party. The only way to edit something, back then, was to physically cut the master tape, which was a harrowing experience. It was much like cutting a diamond. You would run a safety of it, but if you messed it up then you lost a generation and you lost quality. We picked our edit points and the tape was lying all over the studio, draped over the backs of chairs and lying on the console. We were trying to put it back together. Chuck Rough, the drummer, mumbled the immortal words, “Wow, man, this is like Frankenstein.” He was drawing the analogy of putting all of these things back together. As soon as he said those words, then we knew we had the name of the song; the monster was born and he’s still stalking us today!
Jeb: Does music come easily for you?
Edgar: You know what, yes it does. From a very early age, it was always easy for me to sing harmony. My father played guitar, and banjo, and he had a barber shop quartet. My mom played beautiful classical piano. My granddad played fiddle and my great-great grandfather played trumpet. Everybody in the family played something. It really was a family activity.
I didn’t realize until I started trying to put bands together around the neighborhood that this was rare. I thought everybody played music. I thought it was like learning to spell, or write, or read. I realized that it was something special, at that point.
When I was four years old, I don’t even remember this, my mother told me about this, Johnny and I went on this kid’s radio show called The Uncle Willie Show, and we played ukuleles and sang Everly Brothers songs. Johnny graduated to guitar and it became apparent that he was going to be the guitar man in the family, and the blues man, so I just decided to play everything else.
I played electric bass for a while, then I switched to drums and then electric pianos came out, so I played that. In my teens, I dragged my father’s alto sax out of the attic and I got really interested in saxophone and jazz. I went thought this phase where I just loved Charlie Parker and all of the jazz guys. I’ve sort of maintained that interest. Music is a natural thing.
The way it wasn’t necessarily easy was when I saw people like Michael Jackson that can just sing instantly, without really having to work at it. I practiced a lot when I was young. It was sort of my own private escape world that I constructed for myself. I loved to play and I spent endless hours doing it. It was easy, in terms of understanding and having natural talent, but it still took work as well.
Jeb: I am wondering if music helped Johnny and you to establish your own identity as children because you were physically different than other kids. Also, later on, did it help you to stand out as you got into the professional ranks?
Edgar: Undoubtedly, it did both. There were positive and negative effects. Looking different, kids are always going to make fun of you. You can be too short, too skinny, too fat or whatever. I think that we naturally gravitated towards music because we couldn’t see well enough to play sports. I think that was part of our identity. I think that starting out there was a lot of negativity surrounding it. I don’t know if you remember Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour or not. Johnny and I went up to audition for that. We had won every contest that we had ever entered and we thought we would be accepted and go on and win it. Our parents were told that they just didn’t think we were the image that their audience wanted to see. We could only assume that it was based on the fact that we were albinos.
Later on, the whole idea in rock was to be distinctive and to look different. People were going out of their way to be different. Alice Cooper and David Bowie were trying to be as wild and crazy as they could be. In that way, it definitely was a positive factor.
Jeb: You will be doing this tour with Johnny. Expand on your statement that Johnny is your all time musical hero.
Edgar: I am always so emotional every time I get a chance to play with Johnny. Like I said, we went twenty years or more not playing together. Thankfully, it is not that way anymore. He has had some health issues but he is doing so much better. It means so much to see him out there still playing. I think that is the best medicine for him. It is great to see him doing so well.
We grew up as kids playing together and our first band was Johnny and the Jammers. Johnny from a young age read all of the magazines and watched Bandstand. He was Johnny “Cool Daddy” Winter with the shades and the guitar and the girls… I was the weird kid that played all of the instruments. He was more ambitious and outgoing and I was pretty shy and content to be in the background. I never thought about being famous, that was not my dream. I think if it had not been for Johnny, I would have become a jazz guy, or an engineer.
I always looked up to Johnny, as he was always the band leader and the front guy. I didn’t particularly like singing back then, even though we started out singing together. I loved doing the arrangements and being a multi-instrumentalist.
As I said, I played alto sax and then I got into trumpet for a while just to get a working knowledge of those types of instruments. A lot of the bands at the time, like Otis Redding and Ray Charles, had horns, even BB King had them. A lot of the songs on the radio had horns. Johnny, originally, was very resistant to horns. When I picked up the saxophone, he said, “I don’t want no saxophone in my band.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll get my own band, then.” I had a jazz band for a while. When Eddie Floyd came out with “Knock on Wood” and “Midnight Hour” by Wilson Picket came out, we heard that and we had big horn bands.
Johnny really loves traditional blues, he always has, and he always will. He loves guys like Lightenin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and the acoustic Delta blues guys. I gravitated more towards the urban blues like Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland and BB King. I got interested in all of those other styles of music later on. I think it would be really boring to just play one style of music all of the time. I think if you play the music that is in your heart then you can’t go wrong.
Johnny went to Chicago, first, and then he went to New York. The big turning point was when Rolling Stone magazine ran an article and proclaimed that Johnny was the hot new Texas guitar player. As a result of that, he met Steve Paul, who became his manager, and my manager. Steve introduced us to Clive Davis, who was the President of CBS, at the time. Johnny was signed to Columbia and I was signed to Epic Records. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jeb: You did not fall into the same trappings a Johnny concerning drug addiction. I know you did drugs but why do you think you escaped that and Johnny did not?
Edgar: I am thankful to have survived that. I went through my drug phase just like everybody else. For a long time, everybody we knew did drugs. Our normal mode of operation was to see how many different kinds of drugs we could ingest and still get out and play. We did festivals high on acid or mescaline. I did heroin. I did everything that was out there. At a certain point, when people started to die…there is that whole mystic and mythos around drugs. A lot of the great jazz players, my idols, like Charlie Parker, became addicted. When Jimi and Janis [Joplin] died, it really became very real to me that it was an ever present danger. I was out of it. I knew I was going to quit.
With reference to that, I think that people make so much out of how hard it is to quit. I quit everything. I don’t even smoke cigarettes or pot anymore.
People have this attitude that it is going to be hard and impossible to quit. I guarantee you that if you have that attitude, then it will be hard because you’re setting yourself up to make it hard. If you just make a decision that you’re not going to do that anymore, it is as simple as that. There isn’t any room for anything else because you’ve made a definite decision. If you decide that you are going to try to do it, but you’re not sure if you can, then you probably won’t because you’ve already decided to make it really hard.
Jeb: Just that fact that guys like you, Johnny, Kim, Rick and Leslie are going on tour together and that people are buying tickets speaks volumes for the music you made. Why do people still want to see you play this music live forty some years later?
Edgar: Who would have predicted that there would have been a Classic Rock music genre? I think it was cultural, as well as musical. Woodstock is the perfect example, as it was set against the peace movement. There was so much freedom. Bands would create in the studio and that process no longer exists. Record companies are really out now, but for a long time they would make you do so much preproduction that all of the magic was sucked out of it.
Jeb: Is there anything left for you to accomplish?
Edgar: I am working on a Broadway, musical version of “Frankenstein” that I’ve been thinking of for a long time. I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and poetry as well. I will probably end up releasing some books. As far as albums go, I have always wanted to do a jazz album. I would also love to do an album with Johnny and play a lot of the songs that we started playing together as kids. We have done the album Johnny and Edgar Together where we played the songs we played as teenagers, but I think it would be fun to do one with the earliest music that our father taught us. I think that would be a cool album. I wish I had gotten to do something with Ray Charles. Other than Johnny, he was my most profound musical influence. Ray was great. He played piano, but he played gospel and jazz and blues and he integrated it all together. I am going to keep on doing my own thing. I enjoy doing the unexpected. I have no idea, myself, what the rest of my career will hold, but I will be experimenting and pushing the envelope. It is what I have always done and I don’t see any reason to quit now.
Jeb: I was talking with Bill Szymczk and he told me about working with you on They Only Come Out at Night.
Edgar: I’d love to see Bill again. I know he is around, as Rick has been in touch with him, but I have not. Bill was certainly responsible for They Only Come Out At Night coming out the way it came out. Even though Rick was technically the producer, they were a team. The combination of Bill and Rick was perfect for that album. Bill was not so much a technical guy but he innately knew what he wanted to hear and he was great with guitars. If you listen to the guitars he did on Hotel California then you can hear that each one of those guitars had their own place in the stereo image. They all have different personalities and that is part of the magic that Bill brought to the game. He is a very passionate guy and he wasn’t scared to do things.
Bill was the guy when it came time to edit “Frankenstein.” It was really an insurmountable task to make that a song that could go on an album. He likes to edit different takes together and it became his forte. I would guess that early experience with “Frankenstein” sort of established that direction.
Jeb: Any last words?
Edgar: I would just like to thank all of our fans for all of their support over all of these years. It means the world to Johnny and I to go out and do what we love to do the most and we couldn’t do it without all of you. So, come out to the show and get ready to rock and roll!
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