25 Years After “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” Edgar Winter is Still Rockin’
by Michael Buffalo Smith
From his early, jazz-influenced solo work to his rhythm and blues powerhouse group Edgar Winter’s White Trash to the hard rocking group that gave us “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” The Edgar Winter Group, to duets with his brother Johnny and guest appearances on countless albums and tours including Tina Turner, David Lee Roth and Leon Russell, Edgar Winter continually tops himself as one of the premier musicians of the seventies and into the 21st century. We were extremely thrilled to speak with one of our long time, true blue musical favorites.
Do you still live in Texas?
No, we live in Los Angeles, but we still get back there two or three times a year. My parents still live in the same house Johnny and I grew up in. It’s like a time warp when I go back. My room is the same, my model airplanes, my gun collection, it’s all still there. You know, right out of High School I moved to New York and I lived there the majority of my life. Then, in about 1990, my wife Monique and I moved out here to Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills. So I’m a New York Texan living in Beverly Hills!
There’s got to be a song there.
(Laughs) Maybe there is a song there.
How did you first become interested in music and who were some of your early influences?
Well, my father played guitar and banjo and alto sax in a swing band in his youth and I started singing at church in the choir when I was about seven or eight years old. My mother played classical piano and my earliest memories of music are sitting on her lap as she played and barely being able to look up between her hands and connect what I was hearing with what she was playing.
Musically, when Johnny and I first started, he was three years older so we were eight and eleven and we played ukuleles and played Everly Brothers songs like “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Hey Bird Dog” and Buddy Holly stuff like “That’ll Be The Day.” We were cute and we won some local talent contests and went on TV. I’d say as far as my first real musical influence, Ray Charles was probably the first. Johnny loved the really primitive Delta blues and I gravitated more toward urban, jazz-influenced blues like Ray Charles, B.B. King and all of the r&b people like Bobby Bland, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. And, of course, gospel. Having sung in the church was a big influence and I think it’s probably the most overlooked influence in music.
I think the screaming style of rock and roll vocals is directly derived from the charismatic preachers and singers, people like Ray Charles, Little Richard and Al Green. It’s a huge influence -- Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry -- all of those were the real roots of rock and roll -- people who innovated that style. Jerry Lee Lewis as well. That’s where I came from. When I was in my mid-teens, say 16 or so, that’s when I really got interested in jazz. Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were the saxophone players that I listened to most. And people like King Curtis and the guy who played sax for Bill Dogett, I can’t remember his name but I sure do remember his sound. I just like all styles of music and I have tried throughout my career to broaden musical horizons. I just tried to overcome what are to me some of the simplest musical prejudices.
I don’t see why people who like classical can’t appreciate rock or why people who are into jazz can’t live with country. You’ve got people like Bruce Hornsby who is a fluid jazz player but still maintains that simplicity and honesty of country music. Country music is a big influence of mine as well, growing up in Texas. There was about every kind of music you could imagine. There was authentic country, authentic blues, there were hot Latin rhythms being close enough to Mexico and it was right on the Louisiana border, so I played more over there than in Texas, the liquor laws over there being 18 rather than 21 in Texas. We’d go across the river and play in all of those clubs over there. That’s how I came up.
How did you manage to form Edgar Winter’s White Trash?
White Trash was in actuality a revival of the High School band that I used to play clubs with. This was after the “Entrance” album. I had flown all over the country looking for musicians and I had decided to put together a big band and ended up going back to Texas and using the guys I had grown up playing with because to me there was nobody with the heart and soul and sincerity that those particular people played with. There is something that you can hear in a band from the same area and have grown up together and listened to the same music and this really came through in that band.
I still keep up with those people. Jerry LeCroix is in Texas and still singing great. George Sheck the bass player is a music teacher. They were great live, a very inspirational band to play with and we had fun every night that we played. I will never forget that time. We were one of the first white bands to play the Apollo theatre when we recorded “Roadwork” and I will never forget being introduced at the Apollo as Edgar Winter’s White Trash Band. It was really something. Gladys Knight and the Pips were headlining that night and there were mixed reactions when we walked out onto that stage. There were some people who actually had heard some of the songs on the radio and thought we were black, some wanting their money back, but I explained to them to give the music a chance and then if not satisfied you can have your money back.
Let’s talk about one of my all time favorite records, They Only Come Out at Night, by The Edgar Winter Group. What do you remember about putting that band together?
That was more or less the same thing, but this time I wanted to find people from all different areas, the quintessential All-Star Rock Band. I wanted people who could have easily fronted their own band. I wanted it to be a really cooperative band with people who could equally contribute and sing and write. Dan Hartman was the first person I heard and knew from hearing his demo tape he was happening. We became the real nucleus of the band and I felt the real strength of the band was in the co-writing with Dan. He had a really great ear with a commercial radio sensibility but in a young innocent king of way.
Ronnie Montrose and Chuck Ruff the drummer had played together, Ronnie with Boz Scaggs and with Van Morrison. He was out in California and I had auditioned hundreds of people before deciding. I liked him (Ronnie) because he was a volatile, unpredictable, fiery type of player. He recommended Chuck and I had tried out a lot of different drummers. Chuck seemed to have the best deal. He looked right and had a great attitude. He was a lot of fun. Actually when we first began to play Dan was playing guitar still and Randy Joe Hobbs, you know, who had played with Johnny, The McCoy’s and White Trash was playing bass.
It was five pieces and, actually, Johnny B., the drummer with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels was playing drums initially, and when we recorded “Free Ride” it was that configuration. One of the music trivia questions is that on “Free Ride” it was Johnny B on drums. After that we decided to make it a four-piece band and then switch from guitar to bass and we added Chuck and it became The Edgar Winter Group. That’s when I decided to go in and record the actual album. We actually recorded “Free Ride” and “We All Had a Real Good Time” before we did the rest of the album. Johnny B. was Johnny Banocheck. He is real active in Detroit. The B is still buzzing.
How did the song “Frankenstein” come about?
I had written it several years before when I was playing with my brother Johhny, around the time of “Entrance.” At that time Johnny had his blues trio together and he would do the first half of the show and then he would introduce his little brother Edgar. I would come out and play the second half of the set. I wanted a simple identifiable riff that would fit in real good with the blues format Johnny was playing.
I wrote it and we would have lots of fun with that; we called it the “Double Drum Song.” I played Hammond B-3 organ and alto sax and I did a dual drum solo with his drummer Red Turner. We forgot about the song and with the advent of the synthesizer, years later, I was walking through the music store and looking at the new keyboards and I saw this Arp 2600, which had the big mad-scientist console with faders and sliders and knobs and you had to program it by using actual patch cords that you would plug in so it would look like a big thing of spaghetti but it had a remote keyboard and this thing was really light and you could just put a strap on it and play it like a guitar. That was what I preceded to do because I was tired of stuck behind a bank of keyboards. Why do these guitar players get to be the only ones who can move around and have some fun? I wanted to move around and needed a new song to be a vehicle for the synthesizer and I remembered that old Double Drum Song that would really lend itself to the synthesizer as a lead instrument.
So we started playing it live with the group and I never actually intended to record the song -- didn’t think that it fit with the rest of the material. I thought “Free Ride” was the hit and I thought the combination of Dan and I writing was where the hits would come from. We did need one more song and we had played it in the studio when we came in to warm up. We were just jamming and they had two or three versions of it and we were not recording it with the intention to put it on the record.
So we decided to try to edit it down into something short enough to put on the album. Back in those days we had to cut tape with a razor blade and edit and splice back together. We had parts of it laying everywhere trying to put it back together. Chuck said wow, this looks like Frankenstein, you know putting an arm here and leg here to put the thing together. When he said that I said, yeah, that’s perfect for the title. It even has the monstrous lumbering sound.
Your latest album is Winter Blues. Would you share a couple of thoughts on that?
I think this is the most fun I have had in years. It had all of the people I most love and care about and some people I have always wanted to play with -- Dr. John, for example. I wrote the song “Nu Awlins” and had him in mind to play on it. I purposely kept a simple utility keyboard on it to leave room for him to be inventive and not limit him. I will never forget the musical memory when he came in to put the piano on it. I did not know if I was in New Orleans or heaven or both. He was just playing and I asked him to sing a few lines on it and he said “I’d be glad to.” He said, “You know Edgar, there is nothing like telling the truth.” (laughs)
Johnny is on there, of course, playing slide, with Rick Derringer playing. On that song he came over to our place -- we were just playing around writing songs and he plugged directly into the board because I have my digital studio here. He played that whole thing here and I was playing a keyboard with Hammond organ sound and Rick was on the guitar. So, I took that and added some drums to it. This is “White Man’s Blues.” It gives me a real feeling of freedom not to be in a professional studio situation and the clock is ticking and no one is there looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. I had stopped recording for a while -- I was still doing stuff but not releasing albums like clockwork. In my studio at home it is really easy. I have hundreds of songs in basic forms of readiness. It is great and fun to do things at home. It has helped me shift in terms of being myself and playing things that are real to me without having to think of it in a serious way. I can instead play for enjoyment and play what I like and pick from what is there.
This is the main difference in what is going on now and what happened in the '70s. The record company people are trying to do their jobs but they are not thinking of it as art but as product. What market are we targeting and what will we sell. When that enters into it something changes. I get tired of hearing the artist complain about the state of music and not having the freedom to do what they want to do. Every artist is responsible for the integrity for their own music. I feel it is very personal and I will not do an album unless I like what it is I am doing.
Of all the songs you have done do you have any personal favorites?
Actually, my favorite songs are the ballads for the most part. The last songs on the last two albums, “You are My Song” and “The Music is You,” both songs I wrote for my wife Monique, she and I have been married for 20 years and we get remarried every year on her birthday and our anniversary -- March 23rd.
And “Dying to Live,” that song turned a fan’s life around who had been severely burned and after surgery went to college and is now a successful art designer who still keeps in touch from time to time. For me knowing that I can touch someone’s life like that is very important.