Edgar Winter may be 60, but he sure isn’t letting that stop him from embarking on yet another cross-country and European tour. After all, Bob Dylan turned 65 a few years ago, and he’s still out on a seemingly never-ending tour of minor league ballparks and large theaters.
Winter, a keyboardist, saxophonist, singer, arranger, and composer, who had huge FM radio hits in the 1970s with “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” and “Keep Playin’ That Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is based in Beverly Hills when he is not on the road. Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, he has concentrated his efforts on producing music for film, since he and his wife, Minique, left New York City in 1989.
Winter, born December 28, 1946, in Beaumont, Texas, is the younger brother, by three years, of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Johnny Winter. The Winter brothers and Rick Derringer spent much of the 1970s playing to large festival crowds and in arena-sized venues. As radio grew more formatted through the 1980s and ‘90s, there was less and less of a place for their blend of Texas blues and roadhouse rock on commercial radio. The Winters then found themselves playing large clubs like the now-closed Club Bene in Sayreville and the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village.
The Winter brothers and Derringer will take their current tour to the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank on Friday, April 6, and to Patriot Theater in the War Memorial in Trenton on Saturday, April 7. “Johnny is my all-time musical hero,” Winter says, “and this will be the first time in many years that Johnny and I and Rick are doing shows together, so this is going to be an exciting tour,” says Winter in an interview from his home studio in Beverly Hills. Called the Triple Threat Tour, the trio of musicians and their backing band will also play several dates in Germany and Austria.
Raised by educated, musically aware parents in Beaumont, Texas, the Winter brothers got their musical education early, from their mother, a housewife who grew exotic flowers and plants and played classical piano, and father, who played a variety of instruments, sang in a barbershop quartet and church choir and spent his working hours building houses around Beaumont. Edgar says his earliest awareness of music is sitting in his mother’s lap while she played the family piano. Their father gave them both ukulele lessons when Edgar was six and Johnny was nine. Such was life in Beaumont before the widespread advent of television.
Growing up, Edgar applied himself to master both the organ and the saxophone, but he also plays a variety of other instruments. Elder brother Johnny focused his efforts completely on guitar, and it may be his formative years as a ukulele player that gave him such dexterous fingers and such a fluid, fiery guitar style. “My mother told me we were on a kids’ radio show when I was four years old, singing, but the earliest memory of I have of it is when I was six, we went on the radio together, and later a TV show called the Don Mahoney Show. We were little kids playing ukes and singing Everly Brothers tunes,” Edgar says.
‘My deep love of music stems from the fact that it was always a family thing, and growing up, we thought all families did this,” Winter says. “It’s just different than hearing stuff second hand or watching it on TV. We had just the best imaginable home life, our parents were a cross between Ozzie and Harriet and the Cleavers. We did so many things together. They were married for 55 years, so we had a very stable, loving childhood and they were both very supportive.”
The Winter brothers’ first band was Johnny and the Jammers, led by Johnny Winter on guitar and vocals and Edgar on keyboards and saxophone, and some other neighborhood kids on bass and drums.
Johnny attended LaMarr Technical College, at the same time as another young singer who would later set the rock ‘n’ roll world on fire, Janis Joplin, but the elder brother dropped out after a year in the late 1960s. Edgar recalls his parents were disappointed when he decided to go on the road with a band rather than attend college. Fortunately, both parents lived to see the success of both their sons, and attended several stadium-sized concerts the brothers played in the 1970s.
In anticipation of the upcoming tour Winter says, “whenever we play together it’s emotional for me because all these early childhood memories come flooding back, and it’s an almost telepathic experience being on stage with Johnny. We have this bond as brothers and a musical bond that goes back to when we both first picked up ukuleles.
“Johnny is a walking encyclopedia of the blues, he’ll play some unexpected lick from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, or Muddy Waters that I haven’t heard in 30 or 40 years,” says the younger Winter.
“I’ve always considered Rick Derringer to be a kindred musical spirit, and we worked together in White Trash and the Edgar Winter Group,” he says, noting he first saw Derringer play guitar at the Club Tarot in New York City.
Johnny Winter got signed to a then-unheard of $1 million record deal by Clive Davis at Columbia Records in 1970. The contract took place shortly after a story ran in Rolling Stone magazine about Winter’s guitar playing prowess and after Winter’s arrival in New York. His 1970 debut for the label made waves on then-emerging FM radio stations around the country, as did Edgar Winter’s 1973 album, “They Only Come Out At Night,” which contained the hit single “Frankenstein.” The instrumental song, featuring Edgar’s keyboard and synthesizer treatments, a drum solo, and throbbing bass line, can still be heard today on TV on car commercials.
The younger Winter recalls making his first albums for Columbia Records, as he also got signed to the label, releasing his debut, “Entrance,” in 1970. The Winter brothers frequently performed together in 1969, 1970, and 1971 in New York clubs and then-emerging rock festivals up and down the East coast.
“The common wisdom back in those days was that artists were not supposed to produce themselves and the record companies were much happier if they had a producer, someone with an objective ear,” he says, “so I thought, well, if I have to have a producer, I want someone who’s going to understand my music, rather than someone who wants to get in on the songwriting [publishing royalties] as producers will frequently do. Rick Derringer really did get my music. His interest was in just keeping it pure and what it was, rather than trying to change it into something else,” Winter says. “He played the solo on ‘Keep Playing That Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ and he played on ‘Good Morning Music,’ so he was a great producer for me, because from time to time he’d pick up a guitar and add a guitar lick here or there.”
The Winter brothers reunited last year at Christmas at a club in Beaumont, but other than an early 1990s show at Club Bene in Sayreville, they haven’t performed together much and certainly haven’t toured together in years.
Winter says his first love was always the saxophone. “A lot of people still don’t realize I play saxophone. I’m more generally thought of as a keyboardist, because I was the first guy to come up with the idea of putting a strap on the keyboard,” he says. Winter still plays his keyboards with a strap around his shoulders and neck, so the audience can better see and appreciate what he is doing.
After just a few years of touring in support of his early albums for Columbia Records, he says, “I had gotten really frustrated with being stuck behind a big bank of keyboards. You’re stuck in one place and can’t go anywhere on stage, so the rest is now musical history. The first night I played keyboards with a strap around them, the audience response was just phenomenal.”
Winter’s biggest hit, “Frankenstein,” was born out of an instrumental he and his older brother had played years before in Beaumont. Producer/guitarist Derringer and Winter and the assembled musicians were figuring out how to make a shorter, more radio-friendly version of the tune to fit on Winter’s then forthcoming album, “They Only Come Out At Night.”
“Back in those days, tape was rolling all the time in the recording studio, and bands would come in with three or four tunes and create an album in the studio. People would just jam, and back then, the cardinal rule was the tape was always rolling,” he says. “Rick suggested we edit `Frankenstein’ down to make it something more usable on the album. In those days the only way to edit something was by physically cutting the tape and splicing it in. We had it laying all over the couch and the console and we were singing that old ‘Dry Bones’ spiritual song, and Chuck Ruff, the drummer on the session, said, ‘Wow! It’s like Frankenstein!’ and so, the monster was born.
“It was an instrumental song we were doing just for fun, yet it really was the whole thing that ignited the whole album,” he says, noting ‘Frankenstein’ became a No. 1 rock radio hit later in 1973, something no one in the group expected. “That’s why whenever any aspiring musicians ask me for advice, I always tell them, ‘Just follow your heart and play the music you really love, don’t listen to anything the record company is telling you, just follow your heart.’”
Winter says he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help of his older brother, who reacted to fame and fortune in his own way. The elder guitar-playing Winter has recovered from a broken hip and a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, but younger brother Edgar thinks in many respects, he’s playing guitar and singing better than ever.
“I love him as my brother and I love playing with him,” Edgar says, “that’s why this is going to be a very special tour. So many of my fans are Johnny’s fans and vice-versa, and with Rick Derringer in the mix, too, we’re a family of musicians. I know it’s going to mean a lot to fans to see us all playing together again.”
Johnny & Edgar Winter with Rick Derringer and Friends, Friday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., Count Basie Theater 99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, 732-842-9000; Saturday, April 7, 7:30 p.m., Patriot Theater, Trenton War Memorial, 609-984-8400.