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Piano man Winston has many music influences

Solo piano performer George Winston comes to Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 10 for a 7:30 p.m. show.

Though he cites the pianists of New Orleans as the biggest influences on his own musical style, the one band that George Winston credits with starting him on the road to being a musician didn't include names like Fats Waller, or Teddy Wilson, or James Booker or Henry Butler in its lineup.

So which band was it?

"The Doors," says Winston Thursday, in a telephone interview to preview his upcoming show on Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Historic Holmes Theatre.

"I didn't really listen to music the first 12 years I was alive," he says. "I grew up in Montana, so I was really involved in the seasons...I knew it (music) existed, but it was here and I was there, and we didn't really intersect."

Then one day in 1961,

Winston started listening to the radio, and discovered a love for instrumental music.

"Anything instrumental freaked me out," he says. "My favorite instrument was the organ -- I would go insane over organ (music)."

So he started buying all the records he could find with organ music in them. One thing he realized pretty quickly was that there weren't many popular rock bands around that included an organ in their instrumentation.

And then, he found The Doors. The first time he brought one of their records home and played it, Winston thought, "This is so much more than anything I've heard from anybody else."

"They were the turning point," he adds. "They were the inspiration, the ones who made me say 'Now, I've got to play.'"

So Winston bought an organ and began playing with some local bands.

But it wasn't until he first heard the recordings of New Orleans pianist Fats Waller that Winston found his true calling, as a solo pianist.

"I thought I had to play in bands," he explains. "I didn't really like playing with other people, but I didn't know there was another way to do it."

After hearing one of Waller's records, Winston said to himself, "Yes! I want to play by myself."

"Those were two of my biggest musical influences," says Winston. Although there were several more that came after, including Teddy Wilson, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butler, Sam Henton, Vince Guaraldi and others, those earliest influences were what helped to shape Winston's future.

Another prominent influence in his life? Cats.

Winston loves them.

Though he currently doesn't own any of the furry felines himself, as he is on the road too much to care for them properly, Winston says there are 19 cats that have played a prominent role in his life through the years.

"I'm a cat person," he says. "All cats are different, the same way as people -- but cats don't have that pressure to act a certain way. Essentially, cats do what they want, when they want and how they want to do it."

In 1983, Winston founded his own record label, Dancing Cat Records, to record the Masters of the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, a form of finger-style guitar playing unique to the Hawaiian Islands.

For the logo, Winston used a representation of how one of his favorite felines looked when he was standing on his hind legs, begging for a good scratch on his back -- then put a hula skirt on it.

"There's definitely such a thing as too much seriousness...and that applies musically as well," says Winston, discussing why he would use such a whimsical logo for his record label.

Musicians, Winston says, often have too much of an attachment to "everything being perfect."

"The main advice I give in the workshops I do is that if you make mistakes, just keep going," he says. "Nobody's really going to notice, and if they do, it's their problem, not yours."

Winston feels it's more important to strive to be the best at what you do than to judge the work of others -- though it's something he's had to do often as a record producer.

"When you're producing somebody, you've got to be more critical," he says. "You have to judge, or you're not doing your job."

In all, Winston says, he's produced roughly 70-80 records over his 40-year career.

And yet, he says, being critical really isn't in his nature. As for his own work, Winston says, he's constantly finding new influences and ways to improve.

"I think a lot of good things take a long time to get it right," he says.

Some of the things he's tried to do haven't really worked, he adds.

"The only artists from whom I've wanted to do all their songs (on piano) were Vince Guaraldi, Professor Longhair and The Doors," Winston says. "I love all of them, but they don't all work for piano."

Winston recalls an old saying by a friend of his, that there are only three things in life where "almost" counts -- "horseshoes, hand grenades and nuclear war."

Three years ago, in 2006, Winston recorded a CD called "Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions -- A Hurricane Relief Benefit," as a tribute to the pianists who had the greatest influence on his music through the years.

Recorded after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the region, the CD includes six of Winston's own compositions, inspired by the Gulf Coast, as well as others written or influenced by six of New Orleans' greatest pianists: Butler, Booker, Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Jon Cleary.

To help with the recovery effort, Winston donated all of his artist royalties from the album to organizations involved in the cleanup and restoration of the Gulf Coast. RCA Records even chipped in the bulk of its net profits from the album to benefit musicians in the New Orleans area.

Winston is in the process of planning a follow-up album -- because while New Orleans is "back in business," it and other Gulf Coast communities are still struggling to rebuild.

Winston's giving spirit doesn't end there. As part of Saturday's show, which starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Holmes Theatre, the Becker County Food Pantry will be accepting food donations at the theater, and Winston himself will be donating the income from any of his merchandise sold during the show to the Food Pantry.

And on Friday, Oct. 9, Winston will be doing a special piano workshop at the Holmes Theatre for any musicians who would enjoy the opportunity to work with him. The workshop starts at 4 p.m., and is free and open to the public. The workshop will last for approximately an hour.

For more information, or to reserve tickets to Saturday's show, call the Historic Holmes Theatre at 218-844-SHOW or visit the Web site,

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454