“The Weirdo Kid Who Played All the Instruments” Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 09 August 2005 18:00
“Tell them to get ready to rock and roll!” That is Edgar Winter’s official message to those who’ll see him Friday night at River Roots Live. And considering Winter’s accomplishments in 35 years of performing, who wouldn’t be ready? With more than 20 records to his name since his Entrance entrance in 1970, innumerable concert appearances, and continued public awareness due to the longevity of his ’70s classics “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” Winter is a bona fide musical legend, and one with a style that – like the musician himself – can’t be easily categorized.

Like many musical artists, Winter hails from a musical family – brother Johnny is, of course, famous in his own right – but it wouldn’t necessarily be considered a rock-and-roll family. “My dad played guitar and banjo,” Winter says. “My mom played classical piano.” And the first musical instrument Edgar became proficient in was, of all things, the ukulele, which he’d play alongside his guitar-strumming brother. “Johnny and I started playing the Everly Brothers together when we were kids,” Winter reveals (before launching briefly into an a cappella chorus of “Wake Up, Little Susie”).

He discovered the saxophone while in his teens, and was soon tackling the electric bass, the electric piano, the guitar, the drums … and the professional music circuit. He and Johnny began playing gigs together in their teens, and continued to after a move to New York, partnering in such groups as Johnny & the Jammers, The Black Plague, and the Crystaliers.

Yet despite his prodigious musical skills and brushes with popular success, Winter didn’t think stardom was in his future. “Johnny always had the desire to be famous,” he says. “I was just the weirdo kid who played all the instruments.”

But fame found him. After performing on one of his brother’s first LPs, he got a contract for his debut album – Entrance – and formed the horn ensemble White Trash and, two years later, the Edgar Winter Group. January of 1973 saw the debut of their They Only Come at Night LP, which would stand as the turning point in Winter’s career; not only did the album unleash what would become Winter’s most well-known songs, but it introduced a whole new instrument into the world of rock: the synthesizer.

Winter’s “Frankenstein, ” from They Only Come Out at Night, is credited as the first song to feature synthesizer as lead instrument, and as such, it stands as a polarizing moment in rock history. Winter says he has been both “acclaimed and accused” of bringing the synthesizer into popular usage – most bands use one now, of course, but at what cost? “I say ‘accused,’” Winter admits, “because it’s put a lot of musicians out of work,” adding that many consider the synthesizer a means of “dehumanizing music.”

“But I’m a great advocate of the synthesizer,” he says, revealing that his infatuation with it came from childhood, and the science-fiction movies he saw as a kid. “I was a big sci-fi fan,” Winter says. “Forbidden Planet, that sort of thing.” The rush of that synthesized, metallic whoooosh in the movies he loved fascinated him. “And I thought there were new, unique ways to use that sound.” The success of “Frankenstein” indicated that listeners were ready for Winter’s “new, unique” sound – the song was a chart-topper in the spring of 1973.

That fall, Winter’s “Free Ride” hit the charts. At the time, “Frankenstein” might have been the bigger hit, but its follow-up is what will keep Winter a legend; thanks to its continued usage in television commercials and movies, even grade-schoolers can sing along to it.

For the next decade and a half, Winter continued to tour and release albums (among them Recycled, Standing on Rock, and Mission Earth), always dividing his time between genres – a little R&B here, a little jazz there, and a little rock in between.

But by the end of the ’80s, you were just as likely to hear Winter’s music at the cineplex as you were in a record store. There was a time during the early ’90s, when it was tough to find a movie that didn’t feature an Edgar Winter tune. Within a three-year period, following Winter’s move from New York to Los Angeles, his music was heard in Wayne’s World 2, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Dazed & Confused, Son-in-Law, Encino Man, and My Cousin Vinny, for which Winter composed the memorable “Way Down South.” His forays into film scoring include contributions for such movies as Duets, which featured Winter’s single “Keep on Rockin’,” and Wag the Dog. (And for those who’ve seen the film, you’ll be amused to learn that, yes, Winter composed “Good Ol’ Shoe.”)

When not recording or touring, which Winter has continued to do in the past decade, the musician’s L.A. digs have allowed Winter this opportunity to explore other outlets for his talents, a setup that suits Winter just fine. “I really love living out here in L.A.,” he says, then laughs. “I’m a New York Texan living in L.A.”

What to expect from Winter at River Roots Live? “Everything you’d expect to hear from Edgar Winter,” he replies. “‘Tobacco Road,’ material from the White Trash days, the indestructible ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Free Ride’ … ” along with material from his most recent studio CDs, Winter Blues and Jazzin’ the Blues, which make up the first two-thirds of a trilogy Winter intends to complete with Rockin’ the Blues.

Jazz, rock, and blues. Three genres in two CD titles, and perfectly emblematic for the musician himself. “I’d get tired of playing the same old thing,” says Winter. “I think it’s important to continually broaden your musical horizons.”

Winter has certainly accomplished that, and says that his refusal to keep playing the same old thing is what has kept his musical career a joy for the past 35 years.

“I love it every bit as much as I ever did,” he says.