Edgar Winter pays tribute to his sibling with “Brother Johnny,” a recently released salute that features 17 tracks and a massive guest list. (photo courtesy Quatro Valley Records)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It’s been eight years since Johnny Winter passed away, and he’s hardly been forgotten -- least of all by his younger brother Edgar.
The two Beaumont, Texas, natives were musically joined at the hip as youths, taking slightly different paths but never getting too far away from each other. Johnny hit the big time first, discovered by Mike Bloomfield and then signed to Columbia Records for what was reported to be the largest advance ever at the time, $600,000. Edgar, now 75, played on Johnny’s first two albums and as part of his band at Woodstock before starting his own recording career in 1970 and going on to hits such as “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.”
The two would continue to work together, from Johnny’s guest appearance on the live “Roadwork” album by Edgar’s White Trash through their “Together” collaboration in 1976 and at other points later on.
Now, Edgar is paying tribute with “Brother Johnny,” a recently released salute that features 17 tracks attached to Johnny’s career, with a massive guest list that includes Joe Walsh, Keb’ Mo’, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Michael McDonald, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the Doobie Brothers’ John McFee and Billy Payne, Bon Jovi’s Phil X, Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Bobby Rush and more. It also features vocals by the Foo Fighters’ late Taylor Hawkins on “Guess I’ll Go Away.”
It’s hard not to feel the love from “Mean Town Blues” through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hootchie Koo” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Johnny Winter may have sung about “Self Destructive Blues” and engaged in some self-destructive practices during his time, but eight years later, it’s the music that remains, and in glorious fashion thanks to “Brother Johnny”...
“Brother Johnny” has been a long time in the making, right?
Winter: I’ve never made an album over such a long period of time. I wasn’t sure about doing it in the beginning, and my wife Monique, who I’ve been married to for 43 years now -- not bad for rock ‘n’ rollers! -- helped convince me. Shortly after Johnny’s death I had lots of offers, and it just didn’t feel right to me. It was more like business people sensing an opportunity. And when I talked to Monique she said, “Of course, you should do it. You owe it to yourself, to Johnny, to the world to acknowledge your older brother. If it weren’t for him, you wouldn’t be where you are.” I would’ve thought somebody else would have done one, but when I thought about it I felt I’m probably the only one to do it, and it just meant the world for me to be able to make this album.
It was a very symbiotic relationship you two had with music.
Winter: Johnny is my all-time musical hero, always has been. He encouraged me to play more jazz and classical, ‘cause his heart was always in the blues but he knew my musical taste. If I just went into blues he’d be like, “Why are you doing my style? Do YOUR style.” Because of Johnny’s drive and determination to become famous and become a star, I think he was drawn in that (rock ‘n’ roll) direction naturally. But his first love was always for the blues.
What was it like to immerse yourself in his catalog over these years?
Winter: I knew it would be highly emotional and maybe difficult, but it turned out to be a really joyous experience, and I got to meet so many people that I’ve never had the opportunity to play with and they all had Johnny stories, things they had done on the road. It was really something I’ll never forget, and something I felt that the time was right for.
Johnny left a substantial body of work. How did you choose what songs would be on this?
Winter: It’s hard for me to tell what songs are obscure and what songs people know, but when I set out to make the album I picked songs I wanted to be on there. One of the things I tried to consider was should I just do a straight-ahead blues record, paying tribute to the great legacy that Johnny left the world, or should it be a more personal dedication from me to my brother based more on my own preferences. I tried to do a balance of both. I just feel like there was a depth and scope to his playing that was never understood or appreciated. He’d take a song like “Stranger,” that’s not a characteristic Johnny song; it has beautiful chords, and I think it reveals a sensitivity and vulnerability that Johnny was reluctant to display too much. But he wrote that song, which I always loved, so I put it on there. I tried to paint the whole picture of the Johnny that I knew growing up.
How did recruiting the guests work?
Winter: Well, some of the people are longtime friends. I didn’t want to make a copy album or a soundalike album or a nostalgia album, really. I wanted it to be a tribute to not only my brother Johnny but to blues, and the guitar. I wanted to make a great album, and I wanted to pick people I thought were great artists, whose playing I loved, and let them pay tribute to Johnny by playing his songs in their way. There are so many fantastic performances by all of these amazing artists, but I did not want anybody to play a song that they did not feel passionately about playing, so that’s why I think everything came out so well. People were playing songs by Johnny that they already loved. The whole thing just took on a life of its own.
It’s interesting that you have Joe Walsh on “Johnny B. Goode,” but singing rather than playing guitar.
Winter: I used to sing that song with Johnny, and I thought Joe should be on it ‘cause he’s a rocker. And when I asked him he said, “Well, it’s such a classic Chuck Berry, I don’t know what I can add to that particular song.” Then I said, “Y’know, you don’t have to play. Why don’t we sing on it together” and he said, “Yeah I’m up for that,” which was such a beautiful, heartwarming experience. It felt like I used to do it with Johnny. And then he said, “Give me some other choices and he picked “Stranger.” I would have expected him to pick something uptempo, but he did a beautiful job on “Stranger.”
That’s quite a track in general with Joe playing, Michael McDonald singing and Ringo (Starr) on drums.
Winter: Joe played on “Stranger” first and I had hoped I would be able to talk Ringo into playing on something. He loves playing shuffles but he likes the light, kind of bouncy shuffles and there wasn’t anything on the record like that. So when I asked him to do (“Stranger”), he said, “I’ll do it for you,” and I was just over the moon -- “I can’t believe we’re gonna have Ringo, one of the Beatles, on this record!” And then Ringo invited me to play in the All-Starrs again this year, so that was great, too.
Having Taylor Hawkins on “Guess I’ll Go Away” has become bittersweet in light of his death.
Winter: (via post-interview statement) It stands out in my mind as the highest energy and hardest rocking song on the entire album. I have always considered it stylistically the most uncharacteristically advanced song Johnny ever wrote, almost a precursor of heavy metal. Because of this unusual quality, we wanted a younger, more energetic, modern approach to the vocal. Our engineer, mixer, and producer (Ross Hogarth) had worked extensively with Taylor and they were very close friends. When Ross suggested Taylor (being such a huge Foo Fighters fan) I said, ‘Wow, how perfect’...I had only just met Taylor, and barely got to know him, but I was so impressed by his sincerity, positive energy, and pure enthusiasm. He had a unique spontaneous style different from anyone I’ve ever worked with before. He put his whole heart and soul into it, and I am so sad that I never found a way to thank him properly as he so deeply and profoundly deserved.
What do you have planned now?
Winter: Well, I love music and I’m always going to be doing something. As far as making records, it takes a lot out of you, and for me, ‘cause I’m such a perfectionist, it always winds up being a long process. I think albums are now more like videos used to be; they’re a promotional tour more than anything else. So when the idea of doing the Johnny tribute album came up, I was like, “There’s an album I would want to make, and there’s a real reason for doing it.” I have a whole book of poetry and a whole series of short stories that occur in this mythical world called The Shadowland, and I have music associated with that called “Shadow Dance,” so I might release that as a solo record. And before I decided to do the Johnny tribute I had thought of doing a tribute to all those great Texas blues people -- of course, Johnny would be on that, Stevie Ray (Vaughan) but also all these people like Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Guitar Watson. I might do that, too.
You’re working on a musical based on “Frankenstein” as well?
Winter: The “Frankenstein” idea, yes. The idea is a doctor who’s a posh Park Avenue plastic surgeon. It’s sort of a social satire -- the government gets interested in him and they think if he can construct these bodies and animate them, this would make the perfect soldier because they wouldn’t be exactly human, so it would remove a lot of the moral conflict from war. It’s a very involved plot, but I have all the songs and music, and I’ll probably record the music by itself. I just enjoy doing things that are unexpected like that.
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