No Doors, No Radio: An Interview with George Winston, Part I

George Winston Portrait
George Winston

If Jim Morrison was an American poet George Winston is a distinctly American pianist. Born and raised in Montana, he later moved to Florida. Winston became interested in music specifically groups that had an organist. In January of 1967 he discovered The Doors, that became a pivotal moment in his life, and he started playing the organ.

In 1971 he switched from the organ to playing acoustic piano after discovering artists such as Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Vince Guaraldi. In 1972 Winston developed his own style he calls folk piano. Winston has been a recording artist since 1972 with 17 albums to his credit and plans for more churning in his prolifically creative imagination.

He proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, first and foremost The Doors. He’s played with Ray Manzarek, he recorded a CD of Doors music “Night Divides the Day” in 2002, and he currently tours playing his music and occasionally slipping in a Doors song.

DE: You seem very influenced by The Doors as well as rock and blues groups, how do those influences inform your music?

GW: I grew up a fan of instrumentals, any vocalists I listened to were Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. I was much more a fan of instrumentals particularly organ, so anything that  had an organ, I got it, I still have LP’s with a letter O written on them of tracks that had an organ on them, and those were the tracks I would play. The Ventures, Booker T and the MG’s,  Sammy Nelson. They played the hits but they do them as instrumentals. I wasn’t a British Invasion fan at all, that drove me to the adult stations. I was getting organ records, I was in high school, I was in Miami in the very  first part of ‘67; I did my normal Friday night thing with my friend Clark who was also an organ man, you know, go out look for organ records. I’d say, ‘hey, here’s the new Jimmy Smith one.’ Then he [Clark] came up to me later, this is about January 4th, ‘67, and said this ‘guy has organ,’ I looked at it and it was “The Doors”, I’ll get this one too. I went home, put it on, I was leveled for an evening, more than by anything I’d heard before, it was like another thing altogether, I said, I have to go out and get an organ and play in a band, I just can’t listen any more. The whole album was like one long song, they took me over, this is greater than anything I heard before. So, I got an organ and played in band later that year, they’re the ones that took me over from being a listener to being a player. It was the whole band, Ray, of course, Jim and Robby and John, it was like they were one person, I never heard anything like it, of course they were one person, they all got paid equally, there wasn’t a band leader, they were all just were equal, everybody approved it or we don’t do it. Later when I learned that, it sure shows in the music. Then I got all the albums, many, many years later, in the late 90’s, I started playing solo piano, some of those were Doors tunes. I realized in 2002, I normally think in live performances more than albums but I just thought I’d make an album, I thought there was two in the long run, I’m working on the second one now it’s taken its own sweet time, it’ll be called “No Clocks”.

DE: That’s an interesting title for an album of Doors music, what does it refer to?

Night Divides the Day, by George Winston

GW: Well, it struck me the first time I heard the first album, “Break on Through” is the first song and it immediately establishes everything right there in those 3 minutes, here’s the whole groundwork for the future right here. Ray’s organ solos were perfect, it wasn’t about liking the notes or not liking the notes, it was how did these guys all play the right thing all the time? How do you do that? The first line in “Soul Kitchen” is “the clock says it’s time to go,” and then you get to “Twentieth Century Fox” that said “no tears, no fears, no clocks” and I thought ‘oh, there’s that clock thing again’ and it just struck me, Jim sure doesn’t like the clock, and he sure didn’t, it just struck me so much. It’s important to me, I operate on the clock but I’ll break outside the clock too as much as I can. I go to rehearse the piano it may be 10 minutes, it may be 4 hours, I don’t know. I need some of that ‘I don’t know’ as well as the world needs the concert to start at 8. So, the world will provide the little clock prison, and some of it’s even good, you have an idea when the plane’s going to take off, but you also need not to have that linear thing, some times. That so struck me the first time I heard time I heard the record that he sure really didn’t like clocks. I didn’t really know anything about the band, I thought the lead vocalist was the organist, it was like one person, of course, Jim and Ray had played together and written songs before The Doors had formed, it makes perfect sense. I heard “Break on Through” and said, ‘this is like Ray Charles,’ the organist is the singer. They’re doing the same thing, I didn’t learn till later when “Light My Fire” was a hit, and started seeing literature on them and articles, they were just a band that had an organist, this was just when the record came out and because Elektra had a good distribution because of Judy Collins and Paul Butterfield, and artists like that. Of course, they [the record store] were carrying the latest Elektra records and other people liked them besides me. Some of the tunes I’m working on for “No Clocks” are some of the Jim Morrison a cappella vocal poetry sessions and it works with a piano solos instantly, it takes like a minute, it’s just like The Doors did! He’d come in and sing something and they’d do their stuff with it, he makes it easy! He comes in and doing this great thing and you just put some cords. I kind of got to have the same experience they had, in a way. There is one thing, “Love Hides”, from the live recordings that I do a solo. On the “Night Divides the Day” album I did a tune called “Bird of Prey” that was off the poetry album, a bonus track on the CD, so I put some cords to it. Jim Morrison is the essence of my right hand really, my left hand is James Booker, supplemented with Henry Butler, Professor Longhair. So, its really those four, some times not directly, their temperament is like mine but I learned from them.

DE: I listened to your music on your website and with some bands and musicians you hear the influence right away but I didn’t hear the influences in your music.

GW: If you hear the folk piano stuff you hear James Booker, but if you hear the melodic stuff that’s just a style I made up back in 1971 to complement the up-tempo stuff, there really aren’t any influences in that, no classical, not jazz, the closest influence would be folk-guitar finger picking. I was just kind of playing the piano simply and melodically. The second album I did, “Autumn”, that was definitely Doors influenced, I’m gonna do one long song here with different parts, like they did. Really all their albums are like that. The first one is probably even more like one long song than all the rest of them, to me they are like one long song, but that just may be the way I listen, but, I hardly hear any other albums as one long song. The first album I ever heard that was one long song was Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in ‘65 that kind of prepared me for The Doors, it prepared me for an album that was one long song. Later I got to Ray Manzarek and he said, “oh, Vince Guaraldi is one of our influences,” when he was working out the piano break for “The Crystal Ship”, he said, Robby Krieger said, ‘do Vince Guaraldi’ and John Densmore’s book [Riders on the Storm] said, “The Doors pinch Vince Guaraldi!” Maybe it was for “Riders on the Storm”, or “Love Her Madly”. Vince Guaraldi and The Doors are two of the three composers I have everything they ever did, that was The Doors, Vince Guaraldi, and Professor Longhair from New Orleans, it kind of all makes sense. They didn’t hear Professor Longhair, and Vince Guaraldi didn’t either, but Professor Longhair’s influence is in things that came after him, it’s indirect, like Dr. John and many New Orleans musicians. I kind of take a lot of North American music, I’m not a European player, I’m not an Asian player, so that kind of North American thing slightly more rough edged than European, so for me The Doors, Vince Guaraldi, Professor Longhair are part of that North American thing to me as normal as somebody classical playing Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I’ve heard everything I can hear of “Back Door Man” and “Alabama Song” The Doors are great interpreters too, I was inspired by them in that way too, I thought “Back Door Man” was a Doors song, they were that good, they had their moments, but we inside ourselves have our moments too. I saw that recent video, God, finally the anti-Oliver Stone.

DE: “When You’re Strange”?

GW: People see that one [Stone’s The Doors], well delete your hard drives, it’s the worst possible introduction you could have, I almost threw something through the TV set it was so horrible, I could imagine how mad Ray was. Then I realized don’t ever watch a bio-pic about anybody, it can’t be done, even if Ray had done it, it wouldn’t have worked because you can’t do it. And then this [When You’re Strange] is The Doors playing The Doors. Some people ask, who’s that playing Jim in “HWY”? People don’t know that’s Jim some- times in there who’s that actor playing Jim in all those “HWY” scenes? In all fairness to the director it’s just not something that can be done, the last person in the history of the planet you should try to portray is Jim Morrison, the most charismatic person in history and you’re going to try and portray him? It can’t be done, nobody can do it. I realized I can’t watch a biography about anybody, you just can’t do it, it’s an invalid art form, it’s not possible, any more possible than for me to have a baby! There’s just some limitations in this universe. When Jim Morrison died, that was the end of popular music for me, things get more and more commercial. When he died I went back to the 20’s, I said, enough rock, if there are no Doors on the radio, there ain’t no radio for me.

DE: Not even Elton John caught your attention?

GW: Nothing struck me, I wasn’t interested anyway, I was kind of popped out, rocked out. I needed Fats Waller. I went back to the 20’s, I needed to know what happened before 1961. I’m always a tune looker, so much more likely to get back to the 20’s, I don’t think I play anything from ‘71 on except, “Angel”, by Sarah McLachlan, people told me about this tune, I said this is like a killer Sam Cooke ballad, and it has piano in it already so I don’t have to invent a piano part! So, I went to the 20’s and worked my way back up to ‘67 again. I know people who play classical and say I’m only going to play Baroque, or I’m only going to play 20th century, so over a matter of time it was just finding my era which is about 1920 to 1970, probably more accurately 1929 to 1968. It’s not anything I pushed on myself, it’s just something I kind of noticed. It’s the fifty years I draw from. It’s just kind of a matter of finding out who you are, I check things out I’m always looking at songs, but the odds of it being after ‘71 are pretty slim, unless its New Orleans.

(Continued in Part II.)

For information on George Winston appearances and recordings please visit his website.

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