Q&A: Edgar Winter

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Edgar Winter is still best known for his magnificent 1973 hit single Frankenstein. Well, that and the fact that, like his elder brother, the late Johnny Winter, he was born albino. It’s the Frankenstein aspect of his story that has become most apposite, though.

Unlike Johnny, whose heart and soul was firmly rooted in hard-core electric and acoustic blues, Edgar embraced every form of music, starting with jazz and classical before moving on to blues and eventually what became his own distinct brand of a very progressive rock. He could also play an instrument he set his mind to: drums, bass, sax, piano, organ, synthesiser. And he could also sing, write, produce and put on a show like no other. You like eclectic? Edgar was your man. Sewing it all together to make it into one long, Frankenstein of a career.

Did your albinism contribute to your outsider status as an artist?

There’s a definite correlation. My earliest memories of music are being nestled in my mother’s lap hearing this beautiful music floating over me. My mother played beautiful classical piano. My whole family played instruments. Growing up, music became my own private escape world. I couldn’t see well enough to play sports. So [the albinism] separated me in a sense. Music was something I could do. But it was internalised. My brother Johnny, on the other hand, was more ambitious and he really had that dream of being a rock star. He was Johnny Cool, with the shades and the guitar; I was the weird kid that played all the other instruments.

In fact you gravitated more towards jazz than rock.

Yeah. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderley, Dizzy Gillespie… For Johnny it was always the blues and rock’n’roll.

As brothers were you competitive?

No, we weren’t competitive at all. There was not the sibling rivalry that you might think, because I was completely content to be in the background. I was just into learning all these different instruments and breaking the music down into parts I could teach the rest of the band. I had no desire to be a singer or frontman. Although I did sing together with Johnny. There was almost a telepathic communication between us.

Your 1971 album Edgar Winter’s White Trash featured Johnny on guitar, Rick Derringer, who produced the album, also on guitar, plus a string orches_tra, trumpets, saxophones, congas, and Patti Smith on ‘poetry’. Rolling Stone_ said they couldn’t make up their mind if you were “a gospel singer gone mod or a fire eater”. What were you thinking?

I love to play a wide variety of music. If there’s any common thread that runs through my music, it’s blues. Even though Johnny has always been regarded as the bluesman in the family. Johnny had such a deep love, he was more of a blues purist. He was into the original acoustic Delta blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all those guys. I gravitated more towards the urban styles of blues, people like Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, BB King. A little more sophisticated and jazz-oriented. But I also loved classical. To me they’re all equally valid forms of music. I don’t believe in musical segregation. I blame the record companies; they prefer to put people into boxes: here are the pop people and the folk people and the country. It helps them sell you. Like when Frankenstein was a hit, they went: “Great! Now you can do Dracula! And the Wolfman! Then they can all meet and you can have this big monster rock party!” I’m like, no, no! That’s not going to happen.

Seeing Frankenstein as a rock track with a monster theme is about as wrongheaded as you can be. In fact it’s a marvellous amalgam of several different influences. Can you talk me through it?

It was very experimental, an interesting example of a lot of random things falling into place. I wrote the riff years before, when I was playing with Johnny, before anyone even knew Johnny had a little brother. He’d bring me on halfway through his show and people would go: “Wow! There’s two of them!” So I came up with this riff which I thought was kind of a cool walk-on.

Then we made a sort of instrumental out of it – I played Hammond B3 organ on it and alto sax – then played a duo drum solo with Johnny’s drummer, John Turner. So we used to call it The Double-Drum Song. We played it all over the world, from the late-sixties on. Then promptly forgot all about it till, like, seventy-three, when the synthesiser came along: the Moog, a big, clunky all-in-one, and the ARP, which was in two pieces, this cool, mad-scientist-looking contraption with the keyboards separate with this big umbilical cord. I thought, wow, this looks like you could just put a strap on this and play it like guitar. It was such a simple, obvious idea you’d have thought someone would have done it. But no, I happened to be the first. I’ll never forget the first night walking out on stage with it, the crowd went crazy!

After that I thought, well now I need a song to feature the synthesiser. And I thought, oh, how about that old Double-Drum Song? So we worked up a version of it which was killer. It was such a dynamic, powerful song it was the showstopper. You realty couldn’t follow it with anything.

We never thought about recording it though, it was too long. Also, there was this thing that the synthesiser wasn’t a legitimate instrument. But I loved all the old sci-fi movie music, like the Theremin in Forbidden Planet. For me the synthesiser was a new instrument, and I wanted to see what it could do. So as I experimented with it I would create another section of the song. So the song kept getting longer and longer. It was almost up to twenty minutes in our set when we decided to record it. We only did it then because we were short one track on the album [They Only Come Out At Night].

It got its title Frankenstein because it was made up of so many edited parts?

Correct. It was Rick Derringer’s idea to try and put some of the edited parts together. I love crazy ideas, and it became an excuse to come into the studio and get even more lasted than usual, and it became a great end-of-the-project session. Back then, cutting tape was like cutting a diamond; if you messed it up it was gone. Pieces of tape draped over the backs of chairs, all over the desks, the floor, everywhere. Then the drummer [Johnny Badanjek] uttered the immortal words: “Wow, man, it’s like Frankenstein.” And that was it!

It was such a worldwide hit – Number One in the US, Top 20 in the UK – it turned you into an international star. Were you ever tempted to try to manufacture a follow-up?

No. Whenever I’m asked what advice I would give young musicians starting out, I point to Frankenstein as an example of what can happen when you ignore commercial advice and simply play the music you really love, that means something to you. I wasn’t looking to write a hit. I was looking to experiment. In fact Frankenstein started as the B-side to a single called Hanging Around. It was only because the underground radio stations in the US picked up on it and started playing it that it took off. So there was never any idea of trying to make a follow-up, just to continue making the kind of music that really turned me on, and hope enough people like it that it allows me to continue on that path.

Did you enjoy the stardom it brought, though?

I loved that aspect of the song. To me, Frankenstein is still my favourite song to play live. I love it because it’s almost like a precursor of heavy metal. I mean, it really rocked hard. But it also has this sense of freedom and has this improvisational jazz aspect too. It’s just a great excuse to jam. And it’s evolved into so many new sections too. We change it pretty much every year, while keeping the main part of it.

Your career since has seen many highs and lows.

I believe there are two golden eras in music: the forties and fifties for big band jazz and swing, and the sixties and seventies for rock. I really think they’re unparalleled eras in music. And the reason they were so important is because they really were all about making great music, over just making music that sells. I love music and I intend to continue playing. I don’t care if it’s at Madison Square Garden or the club around the corner. It’s all music, and it’s all fun.

It must have been a huge blow when your brother Johnny died.

If it hadn’t been for Johnny I might have ended up being a jazz guy. Playing at Woodstock with him pretty much changed my whole life. That was one of those defining moments. I’ll never forget looking out at that sea of faces. And the whole thing was set against this backdrop of civil rights, people up there playing for what they believed in. Music really meant something back then. That changed my identity. It changed a whole generation of people.

Johnny was my all-time musical hero. We grew up playing together. There’s never been a stage that I walked on where I don’t think of Johnny, and I don’t think there ever will be. Johnny is just as alive as ever in his music and his presence and his essence. It’s there in my heart, and every time I play I’m thinking of him and playing with him and for him. It was such a totally unexpected thing. We were scheduled to do a tour together in two weeks, and it was just so sad. I was looking forward to seeing him. It was very emotional. All the people on that tour were very supportive. At the end of each set we would play some of Johnny’s music, like Johnny B Goode, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, songs that he would have been playing if he were there. That turned out to be a great source of strength and comfort. And he won a Grammy for best blues album, Step Back, which was really great. But it was sad to be there on his behalf.

Does it make you think more about your own mortality?

Oh, I just… You’ll never hear about an Edgar Winter farewell tour, put it that way. I don’t know what the future holds in store but I’m in it to the end. I’ve got my home digital studio – like everybody these days – so any time of the day or night I can get up and put down ideas. Right now I’ve got a couple of interesting projects. Sort of a Broadway musical comedy version of Frankenstein, called Frank & Stein. Doc Stein is like a posh, Park Avenue plastic surgeon who caters to the rich and famous. Then he gets government funding so he can animate these creatures. To erase the moral objection to war because using these people, they wouldn’t be quite human. So the doctor decides to clone his brain, and Frankie is the monster creation. Of course, he tries to show him karate, but he likes violin and gardening. So it’s like a social satire. I have all the music to that and I’m looking for somebody to collaborate on the book.

You mentioned two new projects. What’s the other one?

Also, I’ve been more interested in poetry than song lyrics lately. I started out with lyrics to songs I never got around to using. I was gonna do a collection in book form and call it The Songs That Never Were. My wife Monique and I have been married thirty-six years, thirty-seven coming up, and we get remarried every year on our anniversary. We renew our vows. And one of my favourite things on the road is to write her a poem as email. I was going back and looking at these things and I went, wow, there’s over a hundred of these! She was so touched she said: “You’ve got to share these with the world.” So I have that coming up. And I have a whole series of short stories. Fantasies that occur in this mythical realm called the Shadow Lands. And I have some music, Shadow Dance, sort of semi-classica, that goes along with those stories. There’s also poetry from the Shadow Lands as well. So I got all that going on, plus my touring which I’ll never grow tired of.

Classic Rock 218: News & Regulars