"Don't you know that I was sittin' back in Texas, I was playin' on those rhythm and blues. And then I got a big offer, for more money than I could refuse." -- Edgar Winter, “Keep Playing That Rock and Roll”
With one huge hit record, Edgar Winter left his sonic fingerprints on 1970s arena rock for all time.
While working in the studio, Winter chopped up dozens of his various recordings and reassembled them into an instrumental called “Frankenstein." The showstopping number has been a part of his repertoire ever since, and he’ll perform it on Saturday, Sept. 30 at the Miller High Life Theatre as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.
“To play music with Ringo, the man who put the beat in Beatles, has been one of the greatest experiences of my life," Winter said in a recent interview. “The Beatles were not just a band. They changed the mindset of an entire generation."
Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1946, Winter and his older brother, Johnny, had albinism, a genetic condition where the hair and skin have little or no pigment. In addition, both brothers were legally blind, a common side effect of the condition. They were different than the other kids at school, and that made growing up in the 1950s a challenge. But the Winter brothers were musical prodigies who would go on to perform at the legendary music festival Woodstock in 1969.
During our interview, Winter shared just a few memories of an amazing life.
OnMilwaukee: A minute ago we were discussing what it was like to be different when you were growing up.
Edgar Winter: My parents helped me accept it and to see it in a positive light. Emotionally, that wasn’t always easy to do. Most people want to be normal, whatever that is, and they make friends with others like themselves. This may lead them to exclude, alienate or even ostracize those they don't understand or who just don't fit in.
We all have hurdles to overcome in life. Johnny’s and mine were somewhat unusual, but I think being different fueled Johnny’s determination and ambition. In my case, being different helped me strengthen and define my character for the better.
Was there music in the Winter home?
Definitely. Everyone in our family was musical. My dad played guitar, mandolin and banjo. He played alto sax with a swing band in his youth. He had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir.
My dad taught us to play chords on the ukulele when we were little. Our mother was a wonderful classical pianist and often accompanied herself singing. She could go through old stacks of sheet music and play the whole thing through by sight reading! As a child I thought this was amazing, even magical. Johnny and I grew up with music as a family tradition. We sang in the car on long vacation drives and performed at campfire cookouts, park picnics and backyard barbecues.
Did Johnny find the blues first and get you involved after that?
Yes, absolutely! Johnny loved the blues, but we’d play anything. We sang country songs and traditional folk songs like “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More" or “In the Jailhouse Now." One of our favorites was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by the Sons of The Pioneers. And we did lots of stuff by Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.
As we got older, we developed different tastes in music. Johnny loved the old-style, acoustic, delta blues – people like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. I gravitated toward the urban blues and soul of Ray Charles, B. B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
The roots of that music originated in the cotton fields and Black churches. Even though you were underage, you and Johnny played the East Texas and Louisiana nightclubs.
That’s correct. When rock ‘n’ roll first came in, we were exposed to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, among others. At this time, I became interested in jazz and played the saxophone in some big bands. I found Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Out of that Johnny and I created a new band with a bluesy R&B horn section. We covered Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, guys like that. Then Motown and the British Invasion came along, and we loved all that new music.
Were you present the night B.B. King invited Johnny to play onstage?
That was in Beaumont when we were still just kids. There was a nightclub in town, The Raven, that had great Black music. B.B.'s invitation was a surprise to us because at that time Black people didn’t know who Johnny was. It was really something! And B.B. was truly impressed by Johnny’s impromptu performance.
As you became more proficient playing in your bands, who was influencing your vocals?
I’d have to say Ray Charles. He was the most soulful vocalist ever! I got my scream from Ray – and I loved his gospel, blues and jazz-influenced piano style. Later in R&B, it was Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. And for rock vocals, it was Little Richard and Chuck Berry all the way. Johnny had a powerful high, clear voice in addition to his growly blues thing. Every so often he’d do a version of his song Roy Orbison’s “Crying” that brought the house down. He could also sing like Jackie Wilson or Sam Cooke.
Talk a bit about the experience of playing at Woodstock.
I would say my professional career began at Woodstock. Participating in that was a mind-expanding experience that changed my ideas about music forever! As part of the Civil Rights Movement and the peace and love generation, Woodstock gave us a sense of unity, belonging and being part of something that could make a real difference.
Onstage, I looked out over an endless sea of humanity, and I found myself wondering how I made it to a place like this. I saw that music could be more than entertainment. It reached out to people and brought them together in a unique way. After Woodstock, I considered what it meant to be an artist rather than just a musician.
When you created the Edgar Winter Group, it was one of the hardest live rock bands of the day. What did your mom think when she saw you playing “Frankenstein" with a keyboard slung around your neck?
As for my mom, she was highly intelligent, sophisticated and broad-minded. I can’t say I remember us having a conversation on the subject, but the huge success of the group overshadowed any misgivings she might have had about the image.
As for the portable keyboard, I think putting a strap on it was one of my major contributions. It changed the face of music along with the look of so many bands. The first time I walked on stage with the strap-on synthesizer, it was a WOW moment in rock history. Now the audience could see what the keyboard player was doing and associate it with the new sound they were hearing. The fans loved it, and so did I.
This is your fourth All-Starr Band tour. Why do you keep coming back?
For starters, Ringo himself. He’s a terrific drummer and a world-renowned humanitarian. And it’s fun to play with the other musicians in such a great band. We all speak the same language. I’ve never experienced anything else like it, and that’s why I keep coming back!
You’re 77 and still one of the kings of rock and roll.
Johnny and I started playing together when I was 4 and he was 7. The formation of our fundamental musical foundation had so much to do with family and the cultural environment in which we grew up. I’m talking about the Deep South, and specifically Texas! I don’t know about being a king of rock 'n' roll, but I know this is what I should I be doing!