Tonight, Edgar Winter and his band will kick off the seventh annual Centenary Blues Bash at Centenary College in Hackettstown.
The multi-instrumentalist behind the '70s monster jams "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride" bellowed his excitement to visit Warren County during a late February phone interview. He promises to bring those and other hits to the stage with high-voltage rock 'n' roll electricity, albeit with a slightly bluesier atmosphere.
Winter teased cuts from the Edgar Winter Band and his first group, White Trash, and his 17-minute take on the John D. Loudermilk folk song "Tobacco Road," which he popularized with his late brother, guitarist Johnny Winter. (Johnny Winter died in July 2014 at age 70.)
Though "Frankenstein" has become a staple of classic rock radio, Winter said the song fits in with a blues festival because of its many layers. "That was a really heavy rock song, almost a pre-cursor to heavy-metal, but with jazz influences as well," he said.
"I bleed the blues," said the 69-year-old Texas native. "People have a tendency to think of the blues as something that is old and over with. But it continues to exert a profound influence over all popular music that exists today."
For Winter, blues is not a separate piece of the musical puzzle but a connective tissue to a larger, broader landscape. He said the industry is largely responsible for segregating genres and molding artists into specific categories and sub-categories.
"I don't think of them as different things. To me, it's all music," he said. "I love it all and I continue to play a wide variety of music. There is no doubt in my mind I could have been a lot more successful if I had chosen a specific direction."
Winter's appreciation and love of all forms of music is rooted in his upbringing in Beaumont, Texas. As kids, Johnny Winter soaked up the blues and the sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Lightning Hopkins. Edgar Winter, on the other hand, found himself heading in a slightly different direction.
"I gravitated more toward the R&B guys," Edgar Winter said. "A lot of the lyrics are sad, but it unaccountably gives you this happy feeling."
However, both Winter siblings found common ground when it came to being intrigued by traditional blues music. Edgar Winter would later write a song called "White Man's Blues," which was featured on his 1999 album Winter Blues.
Blues and jazz, though different on the surface, share many similarities, he said. "Both are very spontaneous," he said. "The old blues guys will sit on the corner and make up stuff about whatever is going on. Jazz is very similar in much more complex way."
Edgar Winter said his Texas roots continue to influence him as a songwriter and as a musician. However, it was not until he started traveling with Johnny and found himself in New York City that he realized the amount of musical diversity brewing in his home state. Soon Winter returned to Texas and formed White Trash, which he called "basically a reunion of all the guys I played with back in high school."
"I didn't appreciate Texas, how unique it was, especially in a musical sense," he said. "What struck me when I got up to New York was, yes, there are a lot of great musicians, but nothing I could identify as a New York sound."
Edgar Winter credited his father for putting him on the path to being a full-time musician. The elder Winter played guitar and banjo and showed his sons their first chords on a ukulele when Edgar Winter was 6-years-old.
It was not until high school when Edgar Winter started putting together bands and discovered not every family as naturally musically inclined as his. "I thought everybody did it," he said. "To try to sing something to somebody and they don't hear it the way I do. It was a rude awakening."
However, Edgar Winter is quick to offer a dose of humility. "Before, I sort of thought of myself as a serious musician. Thankfully, I've gotten over that," he said with a laugh.
Edgar Winter dropped his eponymous debut album in 1970. Two years later, Winter and White Trash released the gold-selling live album, Roadwork. The Edgar Winter Group's third studio effort, 1972's They Only Come Out at Night, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart on the strength of "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride."
However, his career highlight, Winter said, was performing at Woodstock in 1969. "That's really what changed my life," he remarked. "Looking out over this endless sea of humanity, to see all these people united in such a unique way. I thought, 'Music really does have the power to transcend, communicate in this unique way'."
Power of the pen
When he is not on stage, Winter enjoys writing poetry as a way to challenge himself as a writer. He is in the midst of penning a music comedy based around his song "Frankenstein," which he described as a satirical commentary on modern culture and politics.
Edgar Winter has also written a book of poetry inspired by, and dedicated to, his wife, Monique. The words that are put on paper have to be honest and has to come from the heart in order to connect, he said.
"I've found (poetry) to be so liberating in a sense because pop songs are so formulaic. Not only that, pop music has to be popular. The whole intent is to evoke that sense of familiarity of something you've heard before," he said. "The content is limited in that sense as well. When I started writing poetry, I have so much more freedom to say things that would not necessarily be appropriate in a song."
Before our conversation drew to a close, Edgar Winter said he misses his brother and is making sure he is doing all he can to keep Johnny Winter's memory alive in the minds of music fans and the latter's legacy in tact.
"I know Johnny has departed this physical plane, but his presence and his spirit and his music will live in my heart forever. Every stage I walk on to, I think about when we started out as kids," he said. "If I can carry on in that blues tradition and carry on the Winter name, that's really what I most naturally want to do."
Edgar Winter Band performs 9 tonight at Centenary College, 400 Jefferson St., Hackettstown. The Centenary Blues Bash starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $47 and $42. Information: centenarystageco.org