Edgar Winter Keeps Playing That Rock ‘n’ Roll

Marshall WardCategories:2011Featured ArticlesMusic

Rock Cellar Magazine

With his white mop and pigment-free skin, Edgar Winter revolutionized rock and roll by inventing the keyboard strap, an innovation that allows him the freedom to move around on stage during multi-instrumental, high-energy performances like his timeless hit Frankenstein.

Having recently returned from an extensive tour of Europe, where he performed with Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band, the indefatigable Winter – who has 20-plus albums to his credit – chatted with Rock Cellar Magazine from his home in Beverly Hills, before heading off again to tour South America this fall.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What’s it been like performing with Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band for the past six years?

Edgar Winter:  It’s been magical, and it’s still a thrill of a lifetime for me to be on stage with Ringo – one of The Beatles! I really feel like The Beatles were a class unto themselves. They altered the mindset of an entire generation, and they brought about a revolution without every firing a shot.

RCM: There’s something almost mystical about The Beatles, don’t you think?

EW:  Oh yes, I feel that way too. I am totally in awe of The Beatles. What they did, it somehow transcends music for me, as they’ve touched the hearts and minds of millions – mine as well. Last year, we played Radio City Music Hall on Ringo’s 70th birthday. Paul (McCartney) came on at the end and sang Birthday, so I actually got to be up on stage with Paul and Ringo at the same time, and I tell you, it was just beyond words to experience something like that.

RCM: The current line-up of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band includes you, Rick Derringer, Gary Wright, Wally Palmar (The Romantics), Richard Page (Mr. Mister), and drummer Gregg Bissonette.  How do you explain the bands’ enduring popularity, selling out large venues around the world, after 20 years?

EW:  There is something really nostalgic about the way the All-Starr band was organized.  I think a lot of people come out to see Ringo, but then when they see the various other musicians in his band, the show begins to unfold as they say to themselves, ‘Oh yeah – I remember that song!’  And the really cool thing is that Ringo only picks people who had big hits, therefore every song is familiar to the audience.  And I think that’s what makes the shows such a big success as people come back year after year.  He’s had different musicians over the years, which changes the setlist as well.  And like Ringo says: “Everybody on stage is a star in their own right.”

edgar winter

Edgar Winter / Photo © Mark Walton (all rights reserved)

RCM: It looks like a lot of fun for the band too, playing all those hits –  Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo, Dream Weaver, Hang On Sloopy, Yellow Submarine, What I Like About You, and your classic Free Ride.

EW: It’s hard to look at it as any kind of work, because it is just so much fun.  Ringo makes it fun for everyone, because he’s a really natural, down-to-earth guy both on stage and off stage, and everybody in the band has such respect and admiration for him.  And that same respect is there between everyone in the band as well, as everybody’s very supportive of each other.  When we get together, it becomes a true band in an amazingly short period of time, and it’s not a competitive ego thing at all.  Everybody just really tries to work together and everybody enjoys playing everybody else’s songs.  I know I do!

RCM: You also play your hit Frankenstein every night, right?  It seems like it would be an exhausting song to play. Do you ever get tired of it?

EW:  I still love playing that song. That’s my favorite song. When I wrote Frankenstein back in ’68, I was playing with my brother Johnny’s blues trio, and it was just the basic riff: da da da da – da da da – da!  I would play that when Johnny would introduce me after the first half of the set by saying, ‘Now I’m going to bring out my little brother Edgar!’

Nobody even knew who I was back then, so I’d walk out and people in the audience would say, ‘Oh my God! There’s two of them!’ Every time I play it, it brings back all those memories of when I would come onstage and Johnny would introduce me. That was its original purpose, just an instrumental showpiece for me. That’s where it all began, even though in its present incarnation, it has evolved entirely into a whole different monster.

RCM: Can you elaborate a bit more on that early version of Frankenstein – the one you played in small clubs in the mid-’60s before it evolved into the powerful incarnation you perform these days?

EW:  I think I just saw it as this instrumental song with a nice melody and a cool, little bluesy riff.

Originally, it was called the Double Drum Solo, as it featured exactly that, along with alto sax and a Hammond organ.  It didn’t have the same complexity that it developed later with the advent of the synthesizer, which is when I revived the song.  Prior to that, it had never been recorded.

Edgar Winter

Edgar Winter / Photo © Mark Walton (all rights reserved)

RCM: Famed guitarist Paul Nelson of Johnny Winter’s band recently told Rock Cellar Magazine that one of the highlights of the last year, for him, was the opportunity to play Frankenstein with you on the 2010 Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in the Caribbean. He called it a beast to learn, but a “true privilege” to play with you.

EW:  Right back at ya Paul!  I had a blast playing with that band on the Blues Cruise last year.  It was such a cool experience to play that song with Paul, and he did such a great job. I love playing on those cruises. There’s another cruise (Rock Legends Royal Caribbean) I’m doing coming up on December 1st that leaves from Florida where it will be me, George Thorogood, Dickey Betts, ZZ Top, Steppenwolf, Marshall Tucker, Blackfoot, and my brother Johnny.

RCM: Was your brother influential in turning you on to certain artists and albums?

EW:  Oh yeah, especially Frank Zappa, because Johnny was such a big fan of The Mothers of Invention, and had all the albums. So I followed Zappa’s career right from the beginning, and it was Johnny who first showed me what a demented genius Frank was.

RCM: You recently recorded a song for Johnny Winter’s new album, Roots, a tribute to his blues heroes.  Why did you pick Bill Doggett’s song Honky Tonk to record with your brother?

Edgar and Johnny Winter kids
EW:  It’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and it’s one of the songs that inspired me to start playing the saxophone.  It was also a song that Johnny and I played together in bands, from the time we started performing together, and from the first time I picked up the saxophone when I was 14 years old.  So it was actually Johnny who picked it for us to record on his new album, and I thought that was really great, because I had always thought that I would like to record it myself someday.

I think that song, along with another we sang together, Please Come Home for Christmas, are my two favorite songs that Johnny and I have done together.

And I’ll tell you a lesser known fact, that I think a lot of people don’t know is, is that on my very first album, Entrance, Johnny wrote almost all the lyrics on.  We actually worked on that album together – and that was really something.  Every time I listen to it, it really touches my heart.

RCM: Did you not initially see yourself as a songwriter when you first started out?

EW:  No, I didn’t. I saw myself primarily as an instrumentalist in those early days playing with Johnny.  It wasn’t until ’69 did I start writing, after Johnny and I did Woodstock together, and that really changed my life.  Up until that point, I internalized music and saw it as my own personal thing that I did, from the time that I was a kid . It was a place that I could go where I could always find this sense of love, safety, and well-being, that I associated with my family.

Then, when Johnny and I played Woodstock, it awakened in me an understanding of the great, spiritualization of music, and how it’s this universal language regardless of who you are or where you come from – the power it has to reach everyone, change and transform the world.  It was at Woodstock where I first saw all these artists performing songs they had written and truly believed in – songs about civil rights and the peace movement.  It was a unique time both musically and culturally, and that’s when I got really inspired to start writing.

RCM: Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band close each show with Give Peace a Chance as a tribute to John Lennon.  When you play that song, do you feel like your musical career has somehow come full-circle?

EW:  Yes I do, because John Lennon and The Beatles started a revolution in the freedom of thought.  And that’s one of the things I love most about Ringo.  He’s such a heartfelt advocate and spokesman for peace and love. And having played Woodstock with my brother Johnny, that’s something that I really believe in, and it’s so great to see Ringo really embracing and promoting that idea every night and everywhere we play. Because that’s something the world could use a lot more of – peace and love.

RCM: When not performing with your own band or on the road with Ringo Starr & The All-Starr Band, what keeps you busy?

EW: I love philosophy, and I love to read.  I’ve been writing short stories lately, along with poetry, so maybe I’ll have either a book or a collection of short stories come out at some point.  I also love all kinds of science stuff.  I think if I hadn’t gotten into music, I might have been an inventor because I like puttering around and inventing things.  Putting the strap on my keyboard, I was the first person to ever do that, even though it’s kind of a simple thing.  I’ve also got a Broadway musical comedy version of Frankenstein that I’ve been working on for years.

I also collect old peculiar instruments. Old recorders from when my brother and I first started playing, along with some djembe African drums that I really like. I’ve got some strange stringed instruments from when I was in Russia in the mid-’80s – I’m not even sure exactly what they are – but I like to play around with them.  I’ve also got the old ukuleles.  That was the first instrument I played when I first started playing with Johnny, singing Everly Brothers songs.

RCM: Your brother Johnny recently told Rock Cellar Magazine that he has no plans of ever retiring. In fact, he quipped that he kind of hopes he dies on stage, doing what he loves most.

EW:  Well, I’m of that old blues mentality as well. You’ll never hear me talking about a farewell tour.  Like my brother, who’s my musical hero, I’m going to keep on going until the end.

About the Photographer: © Mark Walton; All Rights Reserved. He is the founder and AD of Foto:RE. You can also see more of Mark’s work at MarkWaltonPhotography.com

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