(Continue reading past the "Thanks" section below for an online-exclusive extended interview with Edgar Winter.)
Edgar Winter was one of the seminal rock/blues artists to popularize the synthesizer in rock music, and he was surely the first artist to strap on a keyboard and prowl the stage with the machismo of a lead guitarist. His 1973 hit “Frankenstein” from They Only Come out at Night topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May 1973 and was named one of the Top 25 Best Rock Instrumentals by Rolling Stone. We covered “Frankenstein” in detail in our December 2008 issue with a column on the ARP 2600 lead sound by Mitchell Sigman and an analysis of the solo by Tom Brislin (both available at keyboardmag.com). I recently got together with Edgar and uncovered some new insights and corrections to our 2008 coverage.
The Monster Lead Sound
Fig. 1: My corrected “Frankenstein” lead sound, as re-created using the Arturia 2600V soft synth. Mitchell’s suggested patch for the sound works great, and I love it as a general-purpose synth lead sound. But Edgar clarified that he did not use any ring modulation in the sound and had both oscillators sounding straight; a mix of a sawtooth wave and a square (or 50 percent pulse) waveform. See Figure 1 for my approximation of the patch, and read Mitchell’s column online for more details (ignore the Osc 2 tuning). I chose to blend in a little bit of the ring mod, as it does add some edge to the sound, but with unison tuning it is very subtle. I also softened the amp attack slightly (noted in red). For me, the appeal of the sound is its bold, rich character, and this can be hard to re-create with some synths. I suggest adding some compression to your patch to help the sound stand out in the mix, and consider some slight distortion/overdrive to add the smallest bit of grit as well. Don’t go too far: It shouldn’t sound like it’s being played through a guitar amp. These days, Edgar uses a Roland V-Synth XT module for the lead sound, and he isn’t a stickler for trying to get it to sound like the record. He just goes for a powerful sawtooth lead with effects. I’ve posted a short clip online of the sound as recorded directly out of his V-Synth.
Both on record and live Edgar ran the ARP through a wah-wah pedal during the solo, as that provided a stronger character than sweeping the filter cutoff. He would slowly sweep open the wah while doing wide bends for a soaring sound. It’s a testament to Edgar’s technique (and ears) how good the pitch bends are, considering the ARP 2600 only had a knob for bending pitch! Tom Brislin’s column includes excellent transcriptions and notes about the solo.
Acid Bath: A Keyboard Exclusive
Fig. 2: The Acid Bath patch with the built-in trill, created using the Korg Legacy Mono/Poly synth. Note the use of four oscillators to fatten the sound. In learning to play “Frankenstein,” I had a hard time figuring out what Edgar played after the timbale/ drum duel, when the tune moves into 6/8. Edgar was kind enough to share that info with me: This is the first time he has explained this to anyone!
The first aspect to understand is the sound, which he dubbed “Acid Bath.” He takes the lead sound and modulates the pitch of Osc 1 with a square wave to produce a trill going up a fourth, timed to sixteenth-notes against the song tempo. So when you play a middle C the sound would alternate between C and F. The second oscillator does not have this pitch modulation, but he did add a bit of pulsewidth modulation to thicken the sound. See Figure 2 for an example of this technique, this time using Korg’s Mono/Poly soft synth.
I chose to make a few tweaks to help enrich the sound. I used two oscillators for the sawtooth sound to make it richer (VCO 1 and 2), with the trill effect added to both (see the routing of Modulation Generator 1 [MG1] in the Virtual Patch window). For Osc 2, I used one oscillator (VCO 3) with pulse width modulation as Edgar did, and then added another pulse oscillator (VCO 4) tuned up a fourth to reinforce the true key center of the song. I discussed this with Edgar and he agreed that it’s a good approach to develop the sound further. Notice the effects, where I added some compression and overdrive as I suggested earlier. I also added a touch of portamento, and slightly softened the amp attack (all noted in red in the figure).
On to the Notes
Learning about the trill built into the sound helps to explain why it’s so hard to hear what Edgar plays. Listen to the original track starting at 2:49 to hear what I mean. But watching videos of live performances, Edgar seems to be playing in D in his left hand. My talk with him confirms that: Since the sound was trilling up a fourth he played a part a fourth lower so the trill would reach back to the song’s key center of G minor. See Ex. 1 for the first figure as played, and how it sounded. Mystery solved!
Ex. 2 is the full part he plays. Note that the original recording is edited to be as short as possible, but onstage he always doubled each arpeggiation grouping as I have notated. I had a hard time trying to decide how to notate the hammeron effect he plays starting at bar 17: Use my score for the note choices but watch a live video to get a better grasp of what he’s doing rhythmically. Could this have influenced a certain rock guitar god from the ‘80s whose last name rhymes with Pan Failing? You be the judge.
Thanks Are in Order
This was such a bold piece of music and varied use of a synthesizer, especially considering how well Edgar pulled off the song live, night after night. As another exclusive, he has written “The Real Story of the Song ‘Frankenstein’,” describing how the piece came to life (available at keyboardmag.com), and I can’t thank him enough for sharing this info with all of us. And while I’m at it, thanks to Stephen Fortner and Gino Robair for supporting me: This issue marks my 50th column and we’re still going strong. See you next month!
ONLINE-EXCLUSIVE EXTENDED INTERVIEW
Can you talk about how you’ve used keyboard technology over the years? We’ve already covered the synths in “Frankenstein” in the column (Art Of Synth Soloing April, 2016), we don’t have to go back there.
[Side note: When discussing Frankenstein for the column, I couldn’t fit in that Edgar only used one ARP 2600 on stage, so his roadie had to reconfiguring the sound live onstage while the band was playing!]
The RMI was important to me. It was an amplified electric piano and it had a strange sort of distorted harpsichord kind of sound, and I used that on my first album Entrance (1970). At least it stayed in tune. Wurlitzers were so difficult to keep in tune. And I played Rhodes in the studio a lot, but never took one on the road. Then I used a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand on the road for a while. Univox had something that was similar to the RMI (The Univox Compac-Piano); it was a five-octave keyboard that I could play complete piano parts on and not have to sit down. It weighed about 26 pounds or so (Ed: compared to 85 for the RMI!) and I would wear it around my neck.
With a really strong guitar strap and younger, stronger shoulders, right?
Yeah, I was able to do that. I wired my sax so I could use it as a controller before that came out as a commercial product. I used a wah-wah pedal for the saxophone for things like “Jump Right Out” on the Entrance album. So I had a pretty open mind about technology, trying to do simple things that would be different and unique, and to some degree inventive. I liked doing things that I hadn’t heard before, and I still do. I know there’s a lot of synth stuff that’s out there. I’m kind of out of touch right now with what’s going on.
The advent of MIDI certainly changed things, offering layering and sequencing. Did you take advantage of that?
When home recording started, I started using (Digidesign) Sound Tools, which eventually became Pro Tools. Later I moved to (Opcode) Studio Vision for the sequencing and two tracks of audio—only two tracks and you had to bounce everything together. That was the way I first started home recording.
Did you use the MIDI side of Studio Vision?
I used the MIDI side for sure. The first album I did that way was Not A Kid Anymore (1994). That was done at home bouncing everything together, just like I described. I would start out each of those songs and then get the band to come over and record the guitar, record the vocals. On that one it was all programmed drums. It was really fun doing that but I didn���t do it a second time, it didn’t sound live enough for me. But it definitely had a huge affect.
Learning how to use drum machines was cool because having been a drummer myself, it was really fun to try to translate that. There were a lot of people programming drum parts that you could tell that they were not drummers. But it’s all had an immeasurable affect on my playing—my style. It’s definitely become influenced by a lot of the gear that I chose. It’s interesting that when you find a sound that you like, it will inspire you to write a particular part or even come up with a whole song. So that’s another creative aspect.
Right now I still have a Korg M3 and a Yamaha Motif. I probably will continue to make records that way, to start out with a MIDI version of it and then develop it with live players.
What’s in your home studio these days? You’ve got a Mac based system…
Yeah. I’m pretty far behind but I use those (FXpansion) BFD drums a lot, and (Synthogy) Ivory for piano, and (Spectrasonics) Omnisphere for all the synth stuff. I run it all within Pro Tools. I’ve got various outboard gear for vocals and channel strip and compression, etc. You’ve got to have a good vocal mic–I have a Neumann. It’s pretty easy to make good sounding records as far as you can go in the digital realm. And I think it’s going to continue to just get better and better.
Live is the area where we first met and I’ve helped you over the years. You tended to have a workstation keyboard to help “run” the show. We met during my Ensoniq time and you were doing it with the…TS-10?
The TS-10, yeah, and then later I used various Korg Triton models, and then the M3. I’ve recently changed from that approach. I now use a digital playback device called the JoeCo BlackBox Player. I never trusted Pro Tools enough because computers crash. That’s why I always used a keyboard as the platform to run the show. We have four guys in the band—guitar, bass, drums, and myself with a Korg M3, and I use the Roland V-Synth module played from an Edirol controller that I wear around my neck. Usually if there’s a piano on the tracks I’ll play the organ live. Of course I play all the solos, and all the main part for “Frankenstein”. Those are all live.
I was always reluctant to hire another keyboard player because I would want that person to play those utility keyboard parts exactly the way I would play them. I don’t want to have to play them myself and sing at the same time. So those utility keyboard parts are pre-recorded. And even though everybody in the band sings, I like having the backgrounds: some of those are samples. There are some songs that we do from albums where I used horns, like Winter Blues had songs like “New Orleans” and “Show Your Love.” Whenever I’d decide to do horns, I always call John Smith and get the old White Trash horn section back together. I have some samples of some of that stuff. I do “Easy Street” once in a while.
In 2013 when it was the 40-year anniversary of They Only Come Out At Night, we learned the entire album, and played that as a show. A lot of those songs like, “Round and Round” and “Autumn,” I had never played live before and it was really fun to do. I’ve thought about doing the same thing with some of the White Trash stuff, we’ll see. But right now, I think I’m going to do a band album.
That’s one of the things I was certainly going to ask you, what’s coming up?
I really love my current band. My guitar player, Doug Rappoport, has been with me for 15+ years, the longest of any guitar player, and I’m noted for having played with a lot of great guitarists: my brother Johnny, Rick Derringer, and Ronnie Montrose. But Doug has been there the longest. Doug writes and sings and has really developed into a phenomenal guitarist. Everybody in the band sings and writes. So I thought it would be really fun to do a band album and actually sit down and co-write a bunch of songs.
After this grouping of albums you’ve done over the last 15+ years where you’ve brought in a lot of name people and collaborated, it would be nice to get a real band vibe.
Yeah. That’s what I thought too. But I love playing collaborations with people that I’ve never had an opportunity to play with.
Who are some people out there now that you see and you think, “It would be fun to see what would we would do together…”
Ray’s gone, but I would have loved to have done something with Ray (Charles).
I loved hearing you with Dr. John. What a natural fit that was.
Yeah. We have that one song, “Nu'Orlins” on Winter Blues that Mac is great on. But yeah, I’d definitely like to get Mac on some stuff. Stevie Wonder, I’d like to do some stuff with him. I’ve always loved playing with Leon (Russell) and I love playing with Michael McDonald.
I can see you collaborating with a younger singer like Joss Stone.
Joss is great.
I think that would be a wonderful fit. Robert Randolph. There are lots of people.
I like Bruno Mars. Bruno’s great—great R&B kind of vibe. I like Ed Sheeran. He writes interesting stuff.
Are there younger keyboard players you have heard—anybody that excites you, not for collaboration but just who you appreciate?
In the jazz world, I like Snarky Puppy. Cory Henry, the keyboard player with that band, I think he is incredible. When I first heard that band he was doing a lot of synth stuff. And then when I looked him up I realized he’s really a gospel organ player and a great singer too.
I’d say one of the things I’m most inspired by is gospel music. Modern gospel is the closest thing that you find to old school R&B, which has great piano and just great players in general. Listen to Israel Houghton of Israel & New Breed, some of that stuff; you’ll hear an interesting mix.
Tell me about your earliest musical influences and experiences.
I can recall when I was maybe two or three years old, being nestled in my mother’s lap and hearing this beautiful music flowing over me, and being able to peek up between her hands and getting the idea that, “wow, these hands were actually creating this sound.” It was really a very otherworldly heavenly experience, and I think that it affected my feeling about music from that point on. That sense of love, spirituality, and a sort of family security, I think all of those feelings for me are interconnected in part because of that experience.
I started playing ukulele when I was six. Johnny and I were cute kids that played ukuleles and sang Everly Brothers and Crickets’ songs. And then Johnny graduated to guitar and it became apparent he was going to be the guitar player in the family, so I said, “I’ll do everything else!” So I switched to electric bass for a while and then I played drums, then organ—all the organ trio stuff with Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, and Groove Holmes became popular. Even Ray Charles started doing some organ stuff with Genius + Soul = Jazz. Then electric piano came out: I remember hearing “What’d I Say.” I said, “What a cool sound! What is that?” So I got an old Wurlitzer and that was just great because I used to beat my hands bloody trying to be heard playing old upright pianos.
The other interesting thing is I thought that everybody was musical when I was young, because everyone in our family played. So I thought that music was a family activity; you learn to read and write, and add and subtract, and play an instrument. I thought everybody did it. But when we started to try to put together bands with our friends around the neighborhood it was like, “What? Your daddy didn’t show you no chords?” I began to realize that some people couldn’t actually hear melodies the same way. You’d sing something and they couldn’t match a pitch and they couldn’t sing anything in tune. I began to realize that it was something that was special and only certain people could do it with varying degrees of ability.
I was always able, after hearing a piece of music to pick it out on a piano, and I don’t have perfect pitch. When I started to take piano lessons, I couldn’t see well enough to sight-read, but I wanted to learn how to read music, because by this point I was listening to a lot of Ray Charles and I wanted to have a big band, and I wanted to do the arrangements. So I did learn to read music. I had to get extremely close to the manuscript, like a half-inch away with my nose pressed against the thing, but I could write out the charts.
You had to put extra effort in to do it.
Yeah. My piano teacher would play something like Chopin, or I remember doing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” She would play a passage and I would figure out what she did and just learn it that way, without referring to the sheet music. And then later I would study the printed music with a magnifying glass for a point of reference.
So you had a strong ear, and really good recall.
Yeah. Good recall and pattern recognition. Now I want to go on because this is something that just happened recently to me, and it ties back into that original story that I told you. I have been trying through the entire course of my life to figure out what it was that my mother had been playing when I was nestled in her lap. Her favorite composers were Chopin, Ravel, and Debussy. After my mother passed away, I had pretty much given up thinking about this because I had gone online and exhausted all the works of those composers. And then one day it occurred to me, “what if I look for composers that sound like these people?” So I searched, and finally found this guy named Cyril Scott. I found the piece and it was just an inexpressible experience. Of course I got it and I learned the song. Then I could look down at my own hands playing that music and recreate that moment. It was almost like my mother speaking to me from beyond.
That’s beautiful. So you took piano lessons and you were doing the classics, etc and you were gravitating towards artists you liked and picking stuff up by ear?
Yes. I played a number of instruments, and in our first band Johnny and the Jammers, I ended up playing piano. We had guitar, bass, drums, and piano, and sometimes a sax player. We mostly played church socials and after school/after football game dances. We played some clubs. At a certain point, I think I was 14, I started to listen to jazz. I got my father’s old alto sax out of the attic. Up to that point, most of what we did was blues. Johnny loved blues and he listened to all of the acoustic style blues, like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hawkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter—all those people. And I liked Ray Charles, and BB King, and Bobby Blue Band: the bands with horns that were more R&B. Then I discovered jazz and that was really the beginning of the big change, and I decided I wanted to play saxophone. Not only did I want to play sax, but I wanted to play jazzy kind of saxophone. Johnny said, “I don’t want none of that in my band!” So I said, “Well, I’ll get my own band.” So for a while I started playing standards and trying to play much older people’s music and sneaking in jazz to whatever extent I was able to.
At a certain point horns became more acceptable to Johnny, because Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett: all of the soul music started to come out where the bands had horns and organ, so he got to be ok with that. So I began playing with Johnny again. By that time I was like 15-16. And right out of high school we went on the road playing the southern club circuit.
I should mention that in high school, even though Johnny and I were playing together, sometimes we had rival bands as well. One of the bands that I played in was a big horn band and we played all the Ray Charles stuff. A lot of the guys in that band were going to Berklee. Just about everybody I knew was older than I was because they were all more Johnny’s age. Johnny was three years older than me. They played the clubs and saved up enough money to do a semester in Boston and then they’d come back and show me all the stuff that they had learned. So that was how I got most of my grounding in music theory.
We played New Orleans and Atlanta and all throughout the southern club circuit. We were playing a little of everything, whatever was popular on the radio. We did a lot of blues, but we would do all of the R&B stuff—Sam & Dave “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “Knock on Wood”, “In The Midnight Hour” and Ray Charles stuff. The British Invasion happened so we would play the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, and the Animals.
You still had to get people dancing, right?
Yeah. It was all dance music.
And you were playing keys and sax?
It was mostly organ and sax. I had a little Hammond M3. The B3s were so huge and we were carrying everything, with a car pulling a trailer. So I could get away with the M3. I think I did have a Wurlitzer.
Were you singing?
Very little. I didn’t consider myself a singer for quite a long time. I would do it occasionally just to help out Johnny. When I was still in high school we’d often have to play from 8 to 1, with one break in the middle. It’s pretty hard to do that so all the guys in the band would sing a song to help out. But I wasn’t really that interested in singing. I enjoyed figuring out the songs and doing the arrangements and showing the people what to play.
On the other hand, I’ve mentioned this before, but it really is important. From a very early age, Johnny was more outgoing, more ambitious, and he had the dream. He’d watch Bandstand and read all the magazines. He was really serious about it. I was the weird kid that played all the instruments. I wasn’t particularly interested in music as a means to an end. I just loved music in it of itself. I loved the beauty of harmony and rhythm. It was a very introverted, internalized kind of thing with me. Music was my private escape world and I really couldn’t see well enough to play sports so music gave me a sense of identity and a certain sense of security. It was something that I could do.
So you weren’t looking for the spotlight.
Yeah. I’m usually asked about sibling rivalry. There wasn’t really any of that because I didn’t like the spotlight and Johnny loved it. He was Johnny “Cool Daddy” Winter with the shades, and the guitar, and the pompadour. He was into the whole thing. So it worked out well. And then Johnny went to Chicago and that’s when he really changed directions and decided that he wanted to play blues, period.
Then Johnny became famous, seemingly overnight. That Rolling Stone article came out and Johnny was proclaimed the new hot Texas guitar slinger. He was getting offers from record companies and management. He came back to Houston and asked if I would be interested in coming up to New York and working on his new album. He had done The Progressive Blues Experiment with his blues trio, which I love. I think that’s one of my favorite Johnny things. We did First Winter and then Second Winter. So I ended up playing with Johnny again, as a special guest. He would do the first part of the set with his blues trio and then say, “Now I’m going to bring on my little brother, Edgar.” I came on and “Oh wow, there’s two of them!” It was wild and crazy. Johnny suggested that I sing a song so I started singing “Tobacco Road.” That was why “Tobacco Road” was on my first album, Entrance (1970), because I was doing it with Johnny’s band at that time and that’s the only song on Entrance that has Johnny’s blues trio on it.
So I met his manager Steve Paul, who introduced me to Clive Davis, who was president of CBS at that time. Johnny was on Columbia and Clive offered me a record deal. When I met Clive Davis, I was totally unprepared. He asked me some questions and I explained that my music wasn’t at all like Johnny’s. I said, “I have this music and the idea is it’s sort of like a symphonette in seven different movements and it’s one continuous piece of music and it incorporates blues, jazz, rock, and classical. I don’t think it has any commercial potential whatsoever, but I would love and welcome the opportunity to be able to record this.” Clive accepted that and one of the interesting things he said was, “I understand what you’re saying but are you prepared to do this?” In other words, what he was really saying was, “Ok, I’ll give you the chance to do this music with the understanding that it’s not going to sell records. So you need to be prepared to accept that, because somewhere in the back of your mind you’re hoping maybe this is magically going to happen.” But evidently, he heard or saw something in it and offered me a record contract. I made that album (Entrance) with the band I was playing with in Houston.
Johnny and I would still play together, and we played Woodstock. Woodstock was the turning point for me; it really changed my life. Up to that point, I had more or less considered myself a serious musician and thankfully, I’ve gotten over that. But at that time I would just stand there and I never made any attempt to move around or communicate with the audience. I was just in the zone playing music. When I started playing with Johnny in concert situations, it was immediately evident that it was on a whole different level because before, nobody cared what you looked like. You were just there playing music and people were dancing. But now you’re on a big stage with a spotlight and all eyes are on you. I was an introvert finding myself in a position where I had to be an extrovert. So I learned how to be comfortable onstage and started to actually enjoy running around and being more physical. I didn’t have to do a lot of it because Johnny was there and he really had developed into a good showman. He had a very cool vibe.
How would you say it changed you? Did you go from being kind of a muso caught up in the art of jazz to communicating to the audience more?
Yeah. Up to that point, music was my own private world and it was very internalized. But Woodstock was set against the social backdrop of Civil Rights and the peace movement. People were writing and singing songs that really meant something, socially as well as musically. When it came time for us to play, it was just one of those peak moments. I was looking out over this endless sea of humanity—half a million, three quarters of a million people—whatever it was, and just seeing all of those people united in this unique way. It really caused a whole paradigm shift for me in realizing that music had the power to reach out, to bring people together, to transcend boundaries, and it was at that point that I decided, ‘Wow. I’ve got a real opportunity.’ That was when I started to think I’d like to go deeper into myself, try to find out what it is that I have to say, and bring that out in some kind of way. Right after that I started writing. I wrote songs like “Dying To Live” and “Keep Playin’ That Rock ‘n Roll.”
I want to jump to some musical related stuff. I know that you said that Ray Charles was a huge, maybe your number one influence. Can you name some other people—it doesn’t have to be keyboard per se, but of course this is Keyboard magazine—and say something about that person that stands out, what the influence was?
First of all, in rock, I love Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke—all of the old more gospel style singers that to me, are the people that innovated rock and roll. Mose Allison had a strong effect on me; he was the bridge from the older blues style into jazz. I tend to like artists that cross styles and genres. On the jazz side, Cannonball Adderley was my favorite alto sax player. But I also loved Charlie Parker. And I loved Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. I liked Miles and Monk as well. They were all great. Coltrane at first was pretty far out, but I got to love and appreciate him more and more as years went by. I liked Cannonball because he was a more lyrical player and he played so soulfully. He was endlessly innovative like Charlie Parker was, but it was grounded in a blues thing that I really loved. Sax wise, when I was really young, Earl Bostic—a really old style player. And I liked King Curtis and I loved Bill Doggett—“Honky Tonk.” And Junior Walker. What I liked about Junior Walker was he played a lot of guitar licks on sax and I thought that was cool. I was really more interested in jazz, but I couldn’t figure out a way—Entrance was as close as I could come to translating that into some kind of a popular setting.
There’s a lot of interesting, and if you will, more progressive stuff on Entrance, harmonically and everything. That, and then moving into Jasmine Nightdreams (1975) later. But those two were the ones where that side of your musical persona really shines. Moving through the years past that, you didn’t revisit it as much.
Yeah. Jasmine Nightdreams was sort of a return to that direction and Jazzin’ the Blues (2004), of course later. Those are my favorite albums actually, and Entrance in particular because of its innocence and complete lack of contrivance. Having done that I think was a great way to start and it then allowed me to evolve and expand. When I put together my first band, I went all over looking for musicians on the west coast and New York, and there were a lot of great musicians but something was missing for me. I had never appreciated where I grew up: it didn’t dawn on me what an amazing place it was musically, because southeast Texas was right on the Louisiana border and the liquor laws were 18 in Louisiana as opposed to 21 in Texas. So I played more in Louisiana because people would go across the river to get drunk and raise hell. Right across the bridge there were all these clubs. We just called it swamp music, I guess what you would refer to as zydeco now, but all the New Orleans stuff: Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, the Nevilles and Meters, and all of that French Cajun country style of music.
Then it was close to Mexico so there were these hot Latin rhythm players. Bobby Ramirez, the drummer from White Trash, was a great example of that. So there was hot Latin rhythm stuff and there were real cowboys—real authentic country guys. There were real, old blues guys. The radio station, KJET, was the black radio station and the DJ there was Clarence Garlow, who was an old blues guy. He would play a few records and then pick up his guitar and play a song. He had a song called “Bon Ton Roula,” “Let the Good Times Roll.” I named my first publishing company Bon Ton Roula for that.
And you can hear that in the White Trash band. It was such a compendium of all that, even down to the name.
Yeah. That was when I actually realized that there was a real musical heritage and a deep identity that I was immersed in without being aware of it. When I started playing with other musicians, I just never got that same comfortable feeling. I went back to Texas and looked up all the old guys and put that band together. It really was a special band. We did the first White Trash album (1971), and then Roadwork (1972), which was very representative of what that band was. It was live and very real. Those were great years and a great experience.
It was at that point I decided that I should do something to pay back Clive and the record company for the opportunity that was given me. And I put together the Edgar Winter Group. It was very calculated in the sense that I wanted to form the quintessential all-American rock band. The idea was to still do music that I loved, but to communicate to more people. You can see the evolution, like Entrance, I didn’t care. It was just music for my own personal enjoyment and for musicians. With White Trash, it was more a regional thing. And then with the Edgar Winter Group, I began to perceive things more as a world stage. I wanted to find people that were not only great players, but could contribute to the band in its musical direction, as writers as well as singers and performers. So I was looking for that X factor; that star something—and it took a while. Really, it was a massive talent search. Thousands of demo tapes came in to the office. I would go through them and listen. Dan Hartman was the first person that I discovered. As soon as I heard Dan I said, “Oh this guy is incredible! Great singer. Great writer.” Then Ronnie Montrose, I’d seen him with Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison. He had great stage presence. He was really cool. Dan didn’t have to try to be commercial; he just really loved that music and naturally wrote that way. I liked a lot of complexity and always had to try to simplify when I was writing. Dan didn’t have that problem. He loved the Carpenters and he loved Hendrix. Listen to “Free Ride,” his signature—it’s very Hendrix-y. When we started to co-write that’s when I thought, “this is the strength and identity of this band.”
When I look at the credits for They Only Come Out At Night, save two or three songs, really it’s you and him together and some of his alone.
Yeah. I wanted to be fair. Even though I wrote the second verse of “Free Ride” and I came up with the outro, because Dan had the original idea…the point I’m making is we both contributed to the other in the writing. I influenced a lot of “Free Ride,” and Dan influenced a lot of things on songs that I consider my own.
Everybody studies your clavinet playing on “Free Ride” and has to learn it: it’s a badge of honor. You must have experienced this as a sax player: I’m sure there were times when you were gigging that people said, “Can you play ‘Honky Tonk’? Well, in the world of clavinet, it’s not just playing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” “Free Ride” is up there.
I didn’t know that. That’s interesting. You don’t know this stuff about your own music.
You’re coming up on a big birthday this year. One of the things that has always struck me about you and continues to strike me is how much you have maintained all of your chops and capabilities. You’re coming up to 70 now. I liken you and Paul McCartney as the guys that could sing a throat shredding Little Richard bluesy thing, and then sing a ballad in a pure good voice. And your playing chops on keyboards, and sax still sound great. What do you do to keep that going and what can you share with the readers about the ability to keep it all happening?
Just playing, first of all. I’ve never really taken a vacation, nor do I ever intend to slow down and retire. I love to play. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much time—I don’t practice saxophone. I do practice keyboards because I have an electronic keyboard that I can play late at night with headphones.
When you say practice, what would that encompass? Do you just play? Do you actually work on stuff? Do you do exercises?
Yeah, all of that. Let’s see, the last thing that I did was learn “Giant Steps” [laughs]. I thought, that song has been around forever and it’s so hard to play. Actually, Cory Henry did a version of “Giant Steps” with an (Korg/ARP) Odyssey that I thought was so cool, and it had chord alterations in it that I had never heard before. It’s very challenging to be able to solo within that chord structure. So I worked on that.
I enjoy playing standards, something with nice chords, like “Laura.” I try to get a nice piano arrangement and figure out some nice substitutions and a way to play it. To work rhythmically, I use the gospel stuff a lot, and things with really dominant left hand. I like to practice things like Leon Russell’s style and Dr. John. Actually, in the past six months I found myself playing “Such A Night”. That’s just such a cool Dr. John tune—to me, that really epitomizes his style. So it could be anything.
I learned that classical piece that my mother had played when I was an infant, and that was a great thing. I like learning classical things because they’re so complex and it’s good ear training to learn a piece like that.
It’s very kind and complimentary of you to say what you did, and I hear that from a lot of people. I personally am very aware of my limitations. I am at an age where I can feel that diminishment. I can’t do a lot of the things exactly the way I used to do them so I have to find work-arounds. For example, in “Tobacco Road,” I used to do that long scream for 20 or 30 seconds. Now it’s more like 15 to 20 instead. And I used to do “Tobacco Road” at the end of the set, but I don’t have enough endurance to be able to do that so I moved it third or fourth in the set. I’m sure that that’s just going to be an evolution that I’m going to go through. I find that I have to sing more at home. I have to play a little more at home than I used to have to in the past.
Just to keep the breath control and the endurance.
To keep control of everything, I have to concentrate on everything a little bit more. But even though I will work on those things at home, when it comes to live performance I’m a true believer in complete surrender. If I try to concentrate on everything being perfect, it’s not that much fun. I’m looking for that escape into the zone to recapture that love and inspiration that music always held for me. And now I just feel like, I know it’s not going to be perfect so I’m just going to let it rip. That’s pretty much my current philosophy, let it rip!