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Edgar Winter: Brother In Arms

Edgar Winter decides to create a memorable tribute to his brother Johnny Winter. Edgar tells Goldmine all about it.
 Musician brother duo Johnny Winter and Edgar Winter pose for a portrait session on July 24, 1976 at the Lamar Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo by Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Musician brother duo Johnny Winter and Edgar Winter pose for a portrait session on July 24, 1976 at the Lamar Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo by Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By Mike Greenblatt

“I finally decided to do a Johnny Winter tribute album,” says the late Beaumont, Texas guitarist’s little brother Edgar. “I had been very reluctant to do it at first. I got a lot of requests from people all over, musicians as well as record companies, all expressing interest. It just seemed exploitive to me, like doing it for the wrong reasons and trying to capitalize on my brother’s name. Finally, though, I met this guy, Bruce Quarto, who has a label, Quarto Valley Records. He loves ’70s classic rock and his mission is to try to carry on that music and recreate that atmosphere of freedom. I think we’re all tempted to feel like the time we came up was somehow special but I really do believe objectively that there were two golden eras in music: the ’40s and ’50s for jazz and and the ’60s and ’70s for rock, although the ’50s laid rock’s foundations. I think they’re just unparalleled.

“So after meeting Bruce, I really started to think seriously about doing a Johnny Winter Tribute so I called up some friends who happened to be guitar players: Joe Walsh, Slash, fellow Texan Billy Gibbons, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa. Then I asked Ringo Starr to play on a cut and he said (affecting a British accent), “Yes, I’d love to do that. Lovely!” I’m not gonna stop there either. I fully intend to ask Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, too. I want all the great guitarists! I certainly have a good start with the people I’ve mentioned. Nobody else has done it so far and I think that if anybody is going to do it, I’m the logical person. Johnny is my all-time musical hero. Out of respect for him, I think enough time has gone by now, and the fact that I’m in my 70s, it’s something that I need to do.”

In the 1960s, Johnny used to call out his little brother Edgar to blow some saxophone or play some keyboards. When Edgar struck out on his own, though, in 1970, with his self-produced Entrance album, he positively dazzled on organ, vocals, alto saxophone, piano and celeste. He was 24.

“I grew up in a musical family,” he explains. “My dad played guitar and banjo after playing alto sax in a swing band and singing in a choir and a barbershop quartet. My mother played beautiful classical piano. My granddad played the fiddle. My great-grandfather played trumpet. Music was an everyday activity in our house. I thought every household was like that. When Johnny and I tried to put together bands throughout our neighborhood, we were surprised to learn it wasn’t like that in the homes of our friends. I remember saying to some kids, ‘What? Your dad hasn’t shown you some chords?’ That’s when we learned that our household was rather special. Not everybody did that. I started playing when I was four and Johnny was seven. Ukulele! The both of us! And we’d sing like The Everly Brothers. We were cute little kids. I didn’t take music that seriously, though, until my teens when I discovered jazz and classical. When Johnny graduated to guitar, it became quite apparent how good he was and that he was to be the guitar player of the family. That’s when I said, ‘Well, I’ll just play everything else.’ I played bass at first. Then, in Johnny & The Jammers, I played drums. Then all these electric piano players came out. Man, I got carried away with that. Especially Ray Charles on ‘What’d I Say.’ Then organs! Jimmy Smith! Brother Jack McDuff! Jimmy McGriff!”

Edgar Winter’s White Trash debuted in 1971. Produced by Rick Derringer, the self-titled album contained Edgar’s most beautiful song, “Dying To Live,” a gem that’s up amongst the greatest compositions of that or any year. “I got a letter from a guy years after I wrote it,” he remembers fondly. “He wrote how in high school he had a severe facial disfigurement. He had been contemplating suicide and went on to say how that song had saved him. He saw life in a whole new context. The song itself recontextualized everything so he could go on to have a whole series of operations, go to college and became a very successful commercial artist. To me, that meant more than any award I could ever receive: the idea that you could reach out and touch somebody on a personal level, and change their life with a song.”

The 1972 Roadworkfollow-up made stars out of White Trash with Derringer now full-time lead guitarist. Certified gold, the double-live album featured as one of its four vinyl sides a 17-minute jam on the 1960 John D. Loudermilk “Tobacco Road” blues. They also covered Otis Redding, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Chuck Berry and Stevie Wonder while jamming out on Derringer’s “Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo” with lead vocals/lead guitar by Johnny.

“I was in Houston when Johnny invited me up to New York to play on his first few albums,” says Edgar. “His manager Steve Paul introduced me to CBS President Clive Davis. I had no particular aspirations but figured it couldn’t hurt to talk to this gentleman. I went in totally unprepared. Clive seemed like a pretty cool, interesting guy. Then he asks me to play something for him! That was the last thing I expected. He picks up the phone and calls all these other CBS record executives and we go into this huge conference room with a piano. I was terrified! But I sat down and played ‘Tobacco Road.’ I considered myself an instrumentalist, not a singer, really, at all. I mean, I still remember the night Johnny first asked me to sing a song in his set and I chose that one. Ever since that night, I’ve done that song as part of my standard set, still do it and probably always will.”

Johnny Winter passed away in 2014 while on tour in Switzerland from emphysema complicated by pneumonia. “My brother has always been my all-time musical hero,” says Edgar, quick to deflect kudos towards Johnny. “Were it not for him, I might have been a struggling jazz musician. I even had thoughts of becoming an engineer. Always loved science. He passed away so unexpectedly. We had a tour that we were supposed to play together. I was so looking forward to seeing him again but he passed just a few weeks before it. I knew it would be a difficult time for me, and it was, with all the emotion and all, but it turned out that the tour, without him, was okay because everybody was so kind and supportive. We’d all get together at the end of each show and jam out on some Johnny songs. It became something of a tradition that’s carried over even to today where I always end my shows with a bunch of songs associated with my brother.”

Edgar also formed The Edgar Winter Group in 1972 and its They Only Come Out At Nightdebut was a huge hit, climbing to No. 3 on the Billboard “Hot 200.” The double-platinum album yielded two hit singles, “Frankenstein” (No. 1) and “Free Ride” (No. 14). Dan Hartman (1950-1994) and Ronnie Montrose (1947-2012) added their versatility while Derringer continued to shred behind Edgar’s organ, synthesizer, piano, clavinet, marimba, sax, timbales and vocals. He even wrote the liner notes. The 1974 Shock Treatmentfollow-up went gold, hitting No. 13. Still, Edgar had reservations about being a “rock star.” Unlike his brother, it was never in his DNA.

“Johnny was the one with the dream,” he explains. “Ever since I can remember, he was very ambitious. He read all the magazines. He watched American Bandstand on TV. He was Johnny Cool with the shades, the pompadour and the girls. I remained the weird kid who played all the instruments. It proved to be a great combination, me and my brother. Johnny loved the spotlight. I enjoyed figuring out the songs, working out the arrangements and showing everybody what to play. There wasn’t any of that sibling rivalry you hear so much about in other bands. I considered myself a serious musician. Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that! Johnny, ever Mr. Cool, was so outgoing. There was a time when I absolutely refused to do interviews, had nothing to say, and really thought, ‘What difference does anything I say make anyway? I’ll let my music speak for itself.’ Now, of course, I’ve gotten to the point where I actually enjoy speaking with the press, I’m quite comfortable with the whole thing. Johnny went the other way. He was a flamboyant at first. Then had nothing to say. Whoever thought that all these years later, there would be a special classic rock genre to keep guys like me going? It’s crazy! I’m just glad I survived to carry it forward on into the future!

“I’ve never understood the whole pop form, why songs have to be these little three-minute fragments,” he philosophizes, “and why music has to be restricted, categorized and segregated. Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, I was completely oblivious to the area’s amazing wealth of music. There were real cowboys singing real country. There were authentic blues guys singing the real lowdown blues. Being on the Louisiana border, with liquor laws being 18 in Louisiana as opposed to 21 in Bible Belt Texas, you had all these clubs right across the state line. I probably played more in Louisiana than I did in Texas. I heard a lot of the French Cajun styles, all the New Orleans stuff like Dr. John and Allen Toussaint plus zydeco. There were a lot of hot rhythm players with Latin sounds, too. Then there was North Texas with its great jazz school so you had an infusion of really educated players who combined it all. Man, it was all so good. So true. So why would the record labels want you to be one thing or another? You had to be a rock guy or a blues guy or a country guy. I never understood that. I mean, sure, I know now it made it easier for them to target a specific listening audience, but that’s marketing, not music. To me, it seemed like musical segregation. I wanted to play a type of music that encompassed them all, to broaden musical horizons, to make people aware of all the various styles. That’s what I did on my Entrance debut, to blend.

“When people ask what it is about music, my relationship to it, and how it affects me, although it’s hard to explain, I feel I must say that when I perform, it draws me outside of myself. It lifts me to a state where I feel like part of something greater than myself. For that brief moment, whatever problems had been going on in my everyday affairs fall away and drop into a kind of meaningless background haze. I’m immersed, infused and enlightened in-the-moment like no other feeling in the world. And I feel that’s true not only for when I play but for when I’m in an audience hearing great music as well. I get swept into that moment. It’s just that indescribable feeling of being there. It really is a kind of magic. It’s the thing I love most of all about music.”

Edgar reverted to his super-session multi-instrumentalist self for the decades of the ’80s and ’90s, only putting out five albums while adding immeasurably to the music of Meat Loaf, Tina Turner, David Lee Roth, Todd Rundgren and Michael McDonald, while continuing to spice up the albums of his brother. The new century saw his music featured in numerous Hollywood movies and commercials while he toured with Ringo Starr. In 2017, he toured with Deep Purple and Alice Cooper.

“I was doing an interview recently,” he says, “and somebody asked me what my first memory of music was and I thought, ‘Wow, what a great question.’ I had to cast my mind back and what I came up with was something from when I was very young, nestled in my mother’s lap, and I could hear beautiful music flowing over me like a rapture. I remember squirming around on her lap, just being able to peek up between her arms over the keyboard to see her beautiful undulating hands on the piano. I vaguely became aware of all that emotion driving her hands across the keys and that there was a correlation between her hands and this music I was hearing. It was something I hadn’t thought about in years and years. The interviewer went ‘Wow, most people I ask that question to refer to the first album they bought or something they heard on the radio.’ So I tell you this because I believe that first feeling of love and security is part of what originally inspired me musically. It’s the reason I’ve always had such warm feelings about music. It’s also very spiritual to me personally in the sense of when I talk about feeling something beyond my own self. That having been said, I feel so grateful and want to thank all my fans throughout the world who have stuck with me throughout my career and the career of my brother Johnny Winter! It’s meant the world to us and I know Johnny felt the same way. Getting to do what we most love for so long and seeing you guys always out there rocking and having a great time just makes me want to keep doing it forever.”