The man contains multitudes. Sure, it’s something which has been said about others, but for Edgar Winter it’s literally true: His musical multitudes alone are staggering, and they are not all of who he is. As his fans know well, he’s a joyful genius, a musical wizard capable of solving any problem, and for whom limitations don’t exist, only possibilities.
A self-taught virtuoso on almost all instruments known to man, winter has long been fearless in his fusion of genres and use of brand-new technology such as the synthesizer. It’s these multitudes which have defined him, and distinguished him all along from his legendary big brother, the late great Johnny Winter.
Hailing from historic Beaumont, Texas, Johnny (born February 23, 1944) and Edgar (December 28, 1946) both were born with albinism. They each had bright white hair, and when rock & roll inspired long hair, in addition to hip shades, their shared condition only intensified their distinct cool. Long before Bowie took on the otherworldly guise of Ziggy Stardust, like an exotic alien among us, Johnny and Edgar looked that way naturally.
Of course, the image alone would be meaningless without their staggering talent and drive. Given that they looked almost like twins, and were bonded by their albinism and fiercely united in a passionate musical mission, it was easy to assume they were identical in every way. In truth, they were fundamentally different.
Even their relationship to music, and their goals, were completely divergent. Johnny’s soul was entirely in the sway of one genre of music and one instrument: the blues and the electric guitar. His singular dream was unwavering: to become a star.
Edgar’s passion was never about fame or stardom, but purely for music. He loved playing from the start and this grew into composing, learning about every instrument he could, arranging, performing, and later recording.
Their first musical appearance together was on a local radio kids hour called “The Uncle Willie Show”. Johnny had just started playing the ukulele at age 7 (shown the chords by their father) and Edgar sang harmony, being too young for an instrument yet (at only age 4). They both loved it, and so their musical adventures began. Not much later, Edgar picked up the ukulele and they were soon playing together like kid Everly Brothers.
As Johnny’s ambition to be a guitar hero began to take hold, they decided to form a band with their friends around the neighborhood—the only drawback being, none of them knew how to play. To Edgar, this was no problem at all. Johnny would pick the songs, learn the words and all the guitar parts. Then Edgar would figure out what all the other instruments were doing, learn the parts, and teach the other kids what to play. This was a perfect arrangement for them both.
Now a lot has been said about sibling rivalry between brothers in bands, but this was never an issue with the Winters. Johnny Loved the spotlight, and Edgar was quite content to ignore it, though he does admit to eventually (years later) coming around to liking it himself.
Although they were different kinds of people in every way, the bond between Edgar and his big brother never faltered. The one time that their musical pathways diverged temporarily was when Edgar began to play the alto saxophone (an instrument their dad had played in swing bands as a youth) to become something of a jazzman. As Edgar recalled “Man, the truth was—despite the Jazz thing—sax was the most Rock ‘n’ Roll instrument around, next to guitar. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, all sax solos. We’d already had two other sax players in the band. Johnny just didn’t want ME playing sax. I was getting so much into Jazz (from Ray Charles to Cannonball Adderley, Coltrane, and Miles) he knew I’d be uncontrollable, and he was right. I’m still uncontrollable to this day!”
As the music scene evolved, and bands started to emerge with horn sections, Johnny warmed to the bluesy R&B sound, and Edgar was once again back in the band playing sax and organ. During this time, Edgar also drifted in and out of various other bands playing with (and arranging for) real horn sections, which he absolutely loved. This is where he met many of the musicians he would eventually enlist to play in the band “White Trash.” But he always came back to bands with Johnny.
In 1969 as Johnny’s star ascended and he found himself suddenly famous and playing real concerts for big crowds, it was natural for him to reach out to his brother Edgar to play on his next record and also appear as a special guest with his blues trio on tour.
“This was my first experience with shows on a concert level, and the whole thing was totally new to me (and Johnny as well, for that matter)“, Edgar explained. This also ushered in a singular and pivotal moment in Edgar’s career – Woodstock. As Edgar recounted, “We flew into Woodstock by helicopter, and the first thing that struck me was the VIBE. The whole thing was set against the social backdrop of Civil Rights and the Peace movement. There was this feeling of unity, of belonging, of being part of something that might make a real difference.
“It happened standing on that stage, I experienced a moment of clarity – a transfiguring epiphany. Looking out over that endless sea of humanity I was thinking, how did I get here? It was totally unfathomable to me, and suddenly I had this realization that music could be much more than just artistic beauty, it could have a higher purpose! It could reach out to people, bringing them together in a way I had never really considered before. Seeing all those people united in this unique way caused a complete change in me. After Woodstock, I really started considering what it might mean to be an artist—not just a musician.”
When Edgar returned from that tour he began writing in earnest. As he described it, “I had many ideas and numerous fragments of Jazz and classical pieces I’d been composing just for fun. I had never understood why music had to be separated into genres, or accepted the idea that songs could never be more than 3 minutes long. To me the Beatles had disproved and broken those supposed rules long ago. My idea was to weave these various pieces into a cohesive whole, a sort of symphonette with recurrent themes and different movements: some Jazz, some classical, some rock, some blues. Why not?”
At this time Johnny’s manager began to take a serious interest in what Edgar was doing, and arranged a meeting with CBS Records President Clive Davis. Clive and Edgar soon found themselves in a deep conversation about music, and Edgar’s intense interest in genre defying experimentation. Clive wanted to hear more (and putting Edgar somewhat on the spot) organized an impromptu audition or showcase for a packed room full of music executives. Edgar started out with the blues. Tobacco Road, which he was playing with his brother Johnny, met with overwhelming applause, and a couple of more rhythmic rock pieces really got everybody moving.
When the room finally cleared, Edgar explained and performed for Clive some of the more esoteric jazz and classical pieces he had been working on. The meeting concluded and the two shook hands, Clive saying he would be in touch. Within a few days, and much to Edgar’s amazement, He was signed to Epic Records (Johnny already being on the sister label Columbia), the contract giving him total freedom to record anything he wanted. “I owe Clive a great debt of thanks. If not for his faith, trust, and belief in me as an artist, the Entrance album would probably never have been made,” Edgar reflected. And with that, his career had actually begun.”
Thus, Edgar’s debut, Entrance, was released in 1970. It included his classic emotionally-charged masterpiece “Tobacco Road” and propelled him into the national spotlight. Edgar considers it “the purist music I’ve ever made, in that it was totally free of any commercial considerations whatsoever. I am not aware of any other piece of music that actually blends jazz, classical, rock, and blues in such a way. It was something new, and there’s never been anything like it before or since that I know of.”
Entrance was also the closest he and Johnny ever got to a real collaboration. “I really didn’t consider myself an artist yet. I was still just a musician, nor did I think of myself as a lyricist. So I asked Johnny if he would try writing lyrics to some of the music I had. I started revising and refining some of what he came up with, and that inspired me to start originating ideas of my own. This was my birth as a songwriter. It opened up a whole new world.”
Edgar’s career continued to be as dynamic and all encompassing as his musical ability. Spanning over five decades, the details could fill volumes—but for purposes of brevity, here are some broad stroke highlights.
After Entrance came two hit albums backed by his group White Trash, actually a reunion of his old friends and other musicians from Texas and Louisiana. White Trash enjoyed huge success, both with the 1971 release of the studio album, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, and the one to follow, 1972’s live gold album, Roadwork. This album included “Cool Fool”, a track recorded live at the legendary Apollo Theater, White Trash being one of the first white acts accorded the honor of appearing on that great stage.
Edgar brought his natural musicality even to new instruments such as the synthesizer, very controversial at the time and accused of dehumanizing music. Edgar disagreed saying, “Look at a piano: rods, pedals, hammers, and strings—it’s a machine. A good symbol of the industrial revolution. Now look at a synthesizer. Oscillators capable of producing an infinity of sounds, able to introduce modulations such as pitch bend, vibrato, and growl, much like the human voice. It’s still a machine, but it’s a Smart machine. More a symbol of the Information Age, it’s as limitless as the human imagination, and as flexible as the mind controlling it! Now tell me, which one sounds more human to you?”
As the first primitive models began to emerge in the 70s, the ARP among them, Edgar dove deeply into its potential, and along with a few other innovators such as Stevie Wonder (who played the Moog), they pioneered the use of the synthesizer in rock and pop music. Unlike many who considered it, at first, to sound cold and robotic, Edgar found it the very opposite. “I think it’s one of the most human sounding instruments there is,” he said. “It will sound like anything you can imagine. What could be more human than that.”
True to the persona often ascribed to him as the brilliant but eccentric scientist unleashing the undiscovered powers of the musical monster creation, he seems capable of solving any problem. Wanting the same freedom of motion onstage with the synth as a guitarist naturally enjoys, he made the synth a “moveable ax,” by inventing the first keyboard body strap. This also allowed the audience to clearly see what the player was doing and relate it to the sound of the instrument. It could be said this was an innovation that changed the face of music, and certainly the keyboard world.
In late 1972 Edgar brought together Dan Hartman, Ronnie Montrose and Chuck Ruff to form The Edgar Winter Group. It was with this legendary band that Edgar created his most famous song, and the one linked most to his legacy, “Frankenstein,” This monster track made it all the way to #1 on the charts – an amazing feat in itself, but even rarer for an instrumental, especially one which was also the first to feature the synthesizer as a lead instrument. The main theme was a heavy blues riff Edgar had come up with years earlier while playing with Johnny’s trio and adapted for the synth. It also featured a percussion section with drums and timbales. Edgar’s continued experimentation with the synthesizer led to the addition of more sections inspired by newly created sounds until the piece had evolved into a long twenty minute jam. His actually wearing the keyboard made it a showstopper that always closed the show.
It was accidentally recorded, then subsequently edited, being cut and spliced back together into a form just over four minutes long. This process of dismemberment and reassembly is how the song got its name—and so it came to be, the monster “Frankenstein” was born! As a follow-up Edgar released a song he’d always believed in, “Free Ride” written by Dan Hartman. It was a completely different kind of song—very lighthearted, with an almost youthful kind of innocence. Nevertheless, having both the words Free and Ride in it made it a hugely popular biker song. With that, the group’s validity was firmly established.
Released in 1973, They Only Come Out at Night peaked at the number 3 position on the Billboard Hot 200 and stayed on the charts for an impressive 80 weeks. It was certified gold in April 1973 and double platinum in November 1986.
The next release was Shock Treatment, followed by a more eclectic solo album by Edgar called Jasmine Nightdreams, Then came The Edgar Winter Group with Rick Derringer (who joined the group to replace Ronnie Montrose). Later albums included Together: Edgar and Johnny Winter Live, Recycled, a reunion with White Trash, Standing On Rock, Mission Earth, Live In Japan, Not A Kid Anymore, The Real Deal, and Winter Blues, Live At The Galaxy, Jazzin’ The Blues and Rebel Road. Also the concert video Reach For It: Live At The Albert Hall and a documentary, Edgar Winter: The Man and The Music.
In addition to his records Edgar’s music has appeared in over 15 films and television projects, These include: Netherworld, Air America, My Cousin Vinny, Encino Man, Son In Law, What’s Love Got to do With It, Wayne’s World 2, Starkid, Wag the Dog, Knockabout Guys, Duets, Radio, The Simpsons and Queer as Folk.
Edgar’s hauntingly beautiful song, “Dying to Live,”is featured as “Runnin (Dying To Live)” in the film “Tupac Resurrection”, the biography of Tupac Shakur. Produced by Eminem, the song uses the vocal talents of the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, and Edgar Winter himself. “Runnin” is on numerous Billboard charts. It peaked at number 5 on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles Sales chart, and the soundtrack CD was number 1 for 8 consecutive weeks. Edgar also won the prestigious Playboy Jazz Poll (for alto sax) several years in a row in the 70s. He considered it one of the true honors in his career to have been presented the award by one of his jazz heroes, the iconic composer, pianist, and bandleader Duke Ellington.
It is challenging to try and condense a life as rich and prolific as Edgar’s. In order to tell his story, even in broad strokes, one must also speak to his live performances. “There are many shows and venues that stand out in my memory as having been special: the first time playing Royal Albert Hall, selling out Madison Square Garden, Les Paul’s all star birthday salute at Carnegie Hall, “ he reflected. “And there are many world famous musicians I never dreamed I’d get a chance to meet, much less have the opportunity to play with. The great Leon Russell and I had a band together for quite a while, which gave me the chance to really play the saxophone. And after that I had the honor of playing with the magical Michael McDonald in his very first band as a solo artist after the Doobie Brothers. It was an incredibly inspiring experience. And finally I got another call I never expected. An invitation to play with The Greatest, Sir Ringo Starr and his All Starr band. All I can say is that playing with Ringo has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.
And finally, to bring it all full circle, here’s my last and most recent meaningful moment. I’m in the legendary Capitol Records Studio where some of the most famous music ever made was recorded. I’ve dreamed of recording here for years, and knew it would happen one day. Now, that time has come. I’m here to lay down the basic tracks for my next record. It’s a tribute album dedicated to my brother, who passed away back in 2014. I’m calling it ‘Brother Johnny.’”
“When we were kids,” Edgar said, “we both loved music, but Johnny had this drive and determination. He had the dream, that burning ambition. He wanted to be a star! I loved music in and of itself, just for the beauty of rhythm and harmony; it was a deeply personal and private world for me. But Johnny wanted to be famous… He was Johnny `Cool Daddy’ Winter, with the guitar, the pompadour, the shades, and the girls. I was the quiet kid who played all the instruments.”
Now that quiet kid will release a musical love-letter to his first champion. Brother Johnny is an album which he has been considering since Johnny’s death in 2014, and a tour they had been scheduled to play together. Years in the making, It fuses Johnny’s lifelong passion for the electric blues with the warmth of a brother’s genuine love. “No matter how much time goes by,” Edgar said, “or how old I get, what happens in my life, or how far I end up from home – there is one person in this world I know will always understand what I’ve been through, how I feel. And that person is my brother Johnny.”
“As kids, we were inseparable, much closer than average brothers. Not only did we learn to play music together, but because we were both albino, we shared a unique personal perspective on life different than anyone else’s…So much has happened to both of us since then, but one thing will always remain the same: that bond of brotherhood, of family, of music, and of love.”
“So in his name,” he said, “I dedicate this album, Brother Johnny.”
Brother Johnny will be released worldwide on Quarto Valley records on April 15, 2022 across all platforms and in all formats.
Edgar and his lovely wife, Monique, continue to live in Beverly Hills, and send their best wishes to you all.