Edgar Winter’s Creation of Frankenstein
By Jeff Maisey
In 1972, Edgar Winter emerged from the recording studio with a new glam, pop-rock image and sound, scoring a monster #1 hit with “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” from an album titled They Only Come Out at Night.
Edgar was a child prodigy growing up in rural Texas. He often joined his older, blues guitar wielding brother, Johnny Winter, on stage – including Woodstock.
As a solo artist, Edgar Winter debuted in 1970 with Entrance, an album blending blues, jazz, classical and rock, and followed it with the gritty, R&B-inspired White Trash.
Between late ’72 and ’75, Edgar Winter established himself as a flamboyant, over-the-top rock star. His group’s stage clothing rivaled that of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona.
Shock Treatment was the second in Winter’s foray into the world of commercial music. Many distinguishing rock music geeks consider the 11-song album as Winter’s finest moment as songwriter Dan Hartman contributed most of the brilliantly crafted tunes, and producer-guitarist Rick Derringer created a masterfully unique sound.
Following this short period of commercial success, Edgar Winter went on to release numerous recordings as a solo artist and with Johnny.
Following is an excerpt from a phone interview I did with Edgar Winter – the pioneer of the synthesizer.
At the time, how radical an idea was it to write an instrumental hit song featuring a synthesizer? And by that, of course, I mean “Frankenstein.”
It is to my knowledge the first instrumental to feature the synthesizer as a lead instrument. I didn’t write it as such; it was adapted. The actual story of the song begins years before when I was playing with my brother’s — Johnny — blues band. He had a blues trio and would play half of the set and then say, ‘Now I’m gonna bring out my little brother, Edgar.’ And I came trooping on and played Hammond B3 organ and alto sax. I did a song we referred to as the “Double Drum Song,” because I did a duel drum solo with Johnny’s drummer, Red Turner; we had two sets of drums up there.
So we more or less forgot about that song for some time, and with the advent of the synthesizer, I was looking for a song that would lend itself to that super subsonic bottom, which the synthesizer has. And I said, ‘Hey, what about that ol’ drum song we used to do — that (with Edgar singing the melody) da nant nant nant na nant nant nuh.’ I said, ‘That ought to sound really good with that reinforced bottom.’ So I had been browsing through the music store and looking at these new instruments; back then synthesizers were new. Basically, there were Moogs and Arps. The Moog was one unwieldy piece of equipment, where the Arp had a separate keyboard connected to the brain, or the guts of the instrument, by the cable. And I said, ‘Wow, this thing is pretty light; looks like you could whip a strap on it and put it around your neck and play it like a guitar;’ which is precisely what I preceded to do. I think that sort of helped define my image. Since I was the first person to do that, I wish I could have found some way to patent that. As I recall, I did a show with Billy Preston and two weeks later I saw Billy doing it on TV. I said, ‘Ah-ha, it was a good idea.’ It must be a good idea if people are imitating it. The rest is pretty much history.
But as far as the song, when we started playing it we were playing it just for fun and never considered it as material for the album that we were doing. We’d come in and warm up (in the studio) while they (engineers) were positioning the mics, and it was just a fun song to jam on. We had three or four different versions, 15 to 20 minute versions, and toward the end of the project Rick Derringer said, ‘You know, we ought to consider that song; it really has a cool vibe, and if there was some way we could incorporate it into the album.’ And I said, ‘Wow, this is kind of a crazy idea.’
I thought that the strength of the group, the co-writing with Dan Hartman and myself, I thought “Free Ride” will be the big hit. But I loved the song and what I loved about the idea was that it really went along with my idea of rebellion, adventurous experimentation, because I’ve always been one to ignore trends. I was particularly intent in the beginning of my career to try and broaden musical horizons, expand musical awareness and break down some of what I considered the senseless prejudices that exists in various musical forms. I just don’t see why people who love classical can’t appreciate rock, or people who like country can’t understand jazz. To me, it’s all music. Classifying it means very little to me. There are only two types of music: good and bad.
I became the mad scientist of the synthesizer and the Arp, unlike the Moog you had to actually know the signal flow, so you had these tiny mini patch chords that looked like a big mass of spaghetti back there. I’m variously acclaimed and accused of ushering in the era of the synthesizer. Acclaimed in that I was on the cutting edge of new technology, but accused in that the synthesizer eventually put a lot of musicians out of work as a result of people using it to substitute for strings or orchestral parts. But my approach to the instrument was totally the opposite. I was a Sci-fi nut and I like bizarre sounds. I used the new instrument to see what we could do to create new, unheard sounds. That was the story up to that point. When we decided to try to include it on the album, it being so long; back in those days the only way to edit something was to cut the tape and splice it back together. So we went into the party mode and had a tape editing party in the studio, and we started cutting the thing up and it was lying all over the control room, draped over the couch and on chairs; all over the floors. Chuck Ruff, the drummer, said, ‘Wow man, it’s like Frankenstein,’ drawing the analogy of an arm here and a leg there, and taping the things back together. And as soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Wow, Frankenstein. That’s it!’ The musical imagery, like I can just see Frankenstein, it just had that lumbering monstrous vibe. The monster was born.
You mentioned Dan Hartman and Rick Derringer. For two albums — They Only Come Out at Night and Shock Treatment — during the early ’70s you went from a blues rock artist (Edgar Winter) to a glam rock pop star (Edgar Winter Group), bringing them in as songwriting partners. How did that process happen?
It was definitely a departure. When I decided to put together the Edgar Winter Group, it was almost as though it was done on a dare because I considered myself more of a serious musician and had already explained my eclectic musical leanings; you know the Entrance album was a blend of jazz, classical, rock and White Trash was really a funky R&B; we were white kids who loved black music, playing black music, hence the name White Trash. When I signed with CBS, Clive Davis was the president at the time. And I told him that I really had no interest in commercial pop music and that I wanted to do serious music, and it was going to be very experimental. And Clive allowed me to do that on the first album. What would normally happen would be that they would say, ‘Well, give us some hits first; give us some commercial music, then we’ll allow you to experiment.’ When it came to the Edgar Winter Group, it was time to give them something that they could promote. Plus, my musical tastes had developed and changed over that period of time. When I first started out I was young and idealistic. I think when I did Woodstock it changed my life. It had a great impact and I saw the other side of music in terms of the power that it has to communicate. And I was interested in reaching a broader audience at that time. So I decided to put together the quintessential all-star, all American rock band, and I set about finding the best people that I could. I traveled around; I did auditions; I put out the word. We were deluged with tapes and resumes. Going through them, when I heard Dan Hartman I instantaneously knew that he was a great talent. I got in touch with him and flew him to New York. And that was the beginning of the group. Dan played guitar and bass, and it was uncertain at that time which he was going to play. But we decided we needed the real, all-out rock star image, and Ronnie Montrose fit the bill perfectly. He had that fire and energy that I was looking for. He introduced me to Chuck Ruff, who had played with him in another group. And that was how the group was formed. Back to your original question, as for the writing, I always felt that Dan didn’t have to try to be commercial. He had a natural innocence in the style he wrote. And when I heard “Free Ride,” that was one of the few times I said, ‘This song should be on the radio.’ As you can imagine — OH, IT’S A HIT — I didn’t go quite that far, but it was. It wasn’t as big a hit as “Frankenstein,” but the point I’m making is when you try to contrive and calculate, it may not be as successful as when you follow your heart; what you do naturally and what you most love. And I think “Frankenstein” is a perfect example of that because I never in a million years would have dreamed that song would have been on the radio, being an instrumental. If I had any advice to offer people starting out, it would be to not get caught up in trends and to play what you really believe in. Play what you enjoy and the audience will pick up on that.
With Leon Russell
Friday, Aug 30
American Music Festival
17th Street Stage/Oceanfront
6:30 PM, Free