Brotherly Love – Edgar Winter remembers Johnny in tribute album

Memories abound as the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches. Edgar Winter sees the three-day festival as a catalyst for his career. At the time, he was a member of his brother Johnny’s band, but had no real ambitions of his own. Then he stepped on stage and everything changed.

“I just remember this moment of looking out over this endless sea of humanity and thinking ‘wow, this is really something amazing,’” Winter said in a recent phone interview. “Just the whole thing being set against the social backdrop of the civil rights and the peace movement. Seeing all those people united, brought together in that unique way just changed my whole perspective on music.”

It was a “transformative moment,” he continued. “I decided I would really apply myself, and that’s when I got interested not just in the type of music that I would play for my own enjoyment – which wasn’t going to find much of an audience – but thinking about communication, other than just something to satisfy myself.”

Growing up in Texas, the two brothers jammed together from an early age. Johnny emerged as an ace guitarist; Edgar did the rest. “I was the weird kid that played all the instruments,” he said. “I liked to figure out the arrangements and show everyone what to play. There wasn’t any sibling rivalry; I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

“I just loved music in and of itself, not as a means to an end.”

Johnny, though, wanted to be a star, and desire led him to New York City. Edgar followed. He expected the music scene there to intimidate him, but something else happened. He found a new appreciation for his home state. “I had no understanding of what a special area that was musically,” he said. “Real cowboys playing country music, authentic old blues guys; it’s close to the Mexican border, so you’ve got hot Latin rhythm players.”

He also spent a lot of time in Louisiana, with its adventurous music and 18 year old drinking age. “The Bible Belt is a couple of notches looser there,” he said with a laugh. “We called the French Cajun sound swamp music, and then the term Zydeco came into vogue. I loved all that New Orleans stuff as well, Dr. John & Allen Toussaint. And North Texas is a great music school, with an infusion of really educated musicians… it’s all indigenous music, it’s real.”

The most important factor remains his older brother, who passed away in 2014. “He and I were so close as kids,” he said. “We did everything together, and he’s my all-time musical hero. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I might have been a struggling jazz musician, an engineer, or a teacher.

Edgar is now at work on a tribute album, something he resisted doing for many years. “I always got the feeling that it was business people that wanted to exploit Johnny’s name and memory and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” he said. Bruce Quarto, a rock fan who made millions in technology and used it to start a record label, changed his mind. “He wanted to do it for all the right reasons.”

An all-star cast includes fellow Texan Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, Edgar’s old bandmate Rick Derringer, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Slash and Joe Bonamassa. He’s excited to add Buddy Guy and singer Bobby Rush – “I wanted to do a tribute to Muddy, which I know Johnny would have wanted, and the whole Chicago blues thing,” he said. “I decided to do ‘Mojo,’ which is pretty much a Muddy signature song.”

Also on board for a duet are Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, along with veteran guitarists Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. There is no release date for the ever-expanding effort. “Bruce said to do as much as we want; we’ve got 16 songs and may wind up recording more,” Winter said, adding he’d love to get Jeff Beck.

“When Johnny passed away it was so totally unexpected,” he continued. “Playing his music turned out to be a great source of strength and healing to me… making this album is totally a joyous experience; it’s really something I feel I was meant to do, and I haven’t had that feeling in a long time.”

Edgar Winter performs Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m. at Tupelo Music Hall (10 A Street, Derry) . Tickets are $40-$45 at tupelohall.com

This story appears in the June 20, 2019 issue of Hippo Press