Thursday, April 25, 2002


Whose best is better, Johnny Winter or Edgar Winter? For most people, it's a no-brainer: Guitar god Johnny always overshadowed his younger brother Edgar, who played keyboards and saxophone but was never considered a virtuoso.

Both brothers have had Best-of's released this year by Sony Music's Legacy Recordings division. Johnny's was, according to the Legacy Web site [(, just click on the Legacy logo] was released January 29; "The Best of Edgar Winter" will be released May 7.

The disparity in reputations between the Texas brothers is so vast that you're probably guessing that I'm being my counter-intuitive self by greatly preferring Edgar's collection. And you're right.

Steve Paul, who had run New York's hippest discotheque, The Scene, earlier in those bell-bottom years, was the entrepreneur who put these Albino Texans on the map. In 1969, Johnny Winter signed with Columbia Records (Columbia and Epic Records, formerly CBS Records, are now part of Sony Music) for the then-unheard of sum of $100,000. It sounds like Dr. Evil, returning from his slumber, trying to blackmail the world to give him the astonishing sum of...One Million Dollars! (During the dotcom boom, even homeless people in Manhattan walked around with stock options supposed to be worth $100,000). Paul managed both artists. On the back of my vinyl copy of Johnny's self-titled Columbia debut, he is listed as "Spiritual Producer." On the back of my vinyl copy of the 1971 Epic album "Edgar Winter's White Trash," Steve Paul has evolved to "Organic Director"

Johnny Winter certainly had the goods. But like too many great guitarists, he too often felt he had to prove it. Using four notes where one would suffice; screeching and howling where a little understatement would've sounded much more true. Listen to his version of "Rollin and Tumblin'" on "The Best of Johnny Winter": It sounds more like "Flyin' and Fryin'. " He does, however, get the amphetamine excess of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" just right. And "Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo" is as always both classic and cliché. Before restaurants that served both Chinese and Japanese food under the same roof became commonplace, Johnny inspired me to want to open a restaurant called Wok, Egg Roll, Sushi Too.

Edgar, by contrast, played keyboard and sax in r&b party bands. The "White Trash" album introduced a vocalist, sax and harp player named Jerry laCroix. Johnny makes a guest appearance; Patti Smith, yet to start her rock and roll performing career, writes on the back cover one of her passionate poems: "arms of an angel/face of a saint/mouth of a bandit/the coyote with spread teeth..." If memory serves at all, this was also around the time Patti collaborated with Sam Shephard on the groundbreaking rock and roll theater piece, "The Tooth of Crime."

What can one say except that the Edgar disc rocks? "Rock and Roll Revival," "Keep Playing That Rock and Roll," the latter featuring producer Rick Derringer on guitar...But there's more. It also rolls: great live versions of "Harlem Shuffle" and "Turn On Your Lovelight;" a Sly Stone-style groove tune "Give It Everything You Got" that doesn't fake the funk; even a holy rolling ecology song called "Save the Planet" that's as blue as green can be. Or vice versa. And of course, there are the hits: the rock radio classic "Free Ride," and that monster hit, "Frankenstein," an instrumental, of all things, that is not pronounced the way Gene Wilder preferred to be addressed in the Mel Brooks movie, "Young Froncken-steen."

I only had one semi-human interaction with the Winters that I can recall during this period. Steve Paul invited a few gazillion people out to his Connecticut estate one lovely summer afternoon. Johnny Winter was in front of me at the bar. It was before noon, and he ordered a screwdriver, with instructions for the bartender: In a 12 ounce high ball glass, there were about 11 ounces of vodka and a teaspoon of orange juice. I figured, I'll have one of those too. It was apparently a very nice day, although I remember not another moment.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

There was a kind of sad/funny front page story in the Sunday New York Times today about the terminal demographics of visitors to Graceland. "The King may be immortal, but his fans are not," goes David M. Halbfinger's wonderul opening. In other words, the people who revered Elvis are dying off, and kids today don't know anything about him, except that he was some fat guy who took drugs.

Noting that this summer (August 16) will mark the 25th anniversary of Presley's death, corporate America is desperate to continue cashing in on Elvis' legacy. An executive from Presley's label, RCA Records, stated shamelessly, "For us it's about taking a property and figuring out, how do we make him hip, young and irreverent--into a brand that's relevant to this younger demographic." I don't know, do a duets thing with Britney Spears, Moby, Jay-Z, and the Backstreet Boys adding tracks to Elvis's master tapes? This is quite a challenge especially for RCA Records, which since stumbling unto good fortune by buying Presley's recording contract from Sun Records' cash-stapped Sam Phillips in 1956, has itself defied all attempts to make itself hip and relevant. (RCA couldn't even make David Bowie the cash cow he could have been for the label in the 1970's, and lacked the vision to hold on to the rights for his compact disc reissues).
The label is planning two new Elvis CD packages: one with 30 hit singles, and another with what the Times says has "100 previously unreleased tracks." Since RCA has spent the last 25 years (if not more) scraping the bottom of the barrel for vacuous Elvis repackages, it's hard to imagine that the package will provide anything more interesting than the 63rd outttake of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," the other 62 having been previously issued on earlier compilations.

The greed gets worse, as there are Disney movie, America Online, and McDonald's Happy Meal tie-ins. The latter makes sense, of course, since Elvis was a junk food junkie as well as the prescription drug kind.

In fact, there was something spectral about the fact that Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's burger chain, died on January 8, which would have been Elvis' 67th birthday. The way I figure it, the night before, Dave Thomas had a dream. In the dream, Elvis, reunited gratefully with his beloved momma Gladys, was asked by his mom what he wanted for his birthday.

"Well, I dunno, momma," Elvis replied. "Here in heaven I get everything I want, pretty much like I did on Earth." He pauses and thinks, "You know, the one thing that kind of disagrees with me here is the food. I mean, it's great that I've got cats like James Beard, and that French feller Escoffier cooking for me every night, but I get tired of all those fancy sauces. What I'd really like for my birthday is a big double cheeseburger with bacon, and a ton of fries." In his dream, Dave Thomas delivered that birthday gift to Elvis personally. And of course, he never woke up.

(c) Wayne Robins, 2002. All rights reserved. Feedback? E-mail me at

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