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Winter's tale

Man who wrote some of Guess Who's biggest hits humble to the end

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Don't give me

no hand me down world.

I got one already.


Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of the passing of guitarist/songwriter Kurt Winter at age 51 from kidney failure.

While the local media took note of his accomplishments, Winter's death went largely unnoticed elsewhere. And yet his creative genius helped save the Guess Who and in so doing contributed to the soundtrack of the early '70s.

A self-styled meat 'n' potatoes guitar player, success never altered the humble, everyman appeal that Winter held for his legion of fans throughout the world. While some of his bandmates were ensconced in Tuxedo mansions and drove imported cars, Winter chose a modest, funky abode in a working-class neighbourhood of Fort Garry. It was immortalized on the back cover of the band's 1971 album So Long Bannatyne (Hello, My Chevrier Home).

His lone concessions to wealth and status were a 1957 Chevy and an early '60s white Cadillac convertible. Gold records, money, world tours, fan adulation and the respect of his peers never changed the man.

Winter served time as a journeyman guitarist in a succession of local bands after leaving Daniel McIntyre School (a scholarship in his name has been presented annually since 1998). He moved from short-lived aggregations like the Ramrods, Cavaliers, Sons & Lovers and Syndicate before the Gettysbyrg Address cast him in a brighter light. In 1967, the band was tipped to be the next big thing following in the footsteps of the Guess Who, but it folded the following year. Winter landed on his feet with popular band the Fifth, in which his Hendrix-influenced guitar playing and distinctive overdriven sound (running his Garnet amp at full volume) were given ample room.

Tiring of covering the hits of the day, Winter, along with Fifth drummer Vance Masters and former Gettysbyrg bandmate Bill Wallace, struck out on their own in early 1970 in power trio Brother. Brother was a force to be reckoned with, presenting all-original material. As Burton Cummings observed, "Brother was the best live band I ever saw in this city. They compromised for nobody." Among the band's repertoire of original songs were Bus Rider and Hand Me Down World. Despite being blessed with abundant talent and chutzpah, Brother's tenure was a mere three months. On the afternoon of May 16, 1970 the big time came calling for Winter. And he almost didn't take it.

With the ouster of founding guitarist Randy Bachman that same afternoon, the Guess Who, currently boasting the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts, turned back to Winnipeg to replace him. Winter got the first call but hesitated, asking for time to think it over.

"I went through hell and high water whether to sell out Billy and Vance and take the easy money," he revealed to me in what became his last interview. "We didn't have much money between me and my parents, so I figured I might as well go for it."

Guitarist Greg Leskiw received a similar call and signed on. Winter joined the Guess Who on June 4, bringing with him the follow-up single to American Woman.

Hand Me Down World peaked at No. 17 in Billboard, selling more than 900,000 copies. This set the stage for the Share The Land album and single, which both went gold. In between, the band played the White House by invitation of Tricia Nixon and were seen by several million on The Johnny Cash Show. Winter wore the same striped pants throughout the tour.

"I didn't have any other clothes," he admitted. "I didn't even own a suitcase." Winter's penchant for "Sound By Garnet" T-shirts set a fashion trend among local musicians.

Winter and Leskiw shouldered the unenviable task of stepping into an immensely popular group that was at the top worldwide and maintaining that level of success. His blues-rock guitar style suited the band's new rockier approach.

"I never realized how good a guitar player Kurt Winter was until I had to learn his solos for the Guess Who reunion," says Bachman.

With Bachman gone, Winter became Cummings' songwriting collaborator, and his gift for catchy guitar hooks served the band well. "We wrote because it was fun," noted Cummings. "Kurt and I would party and write songs." From that kinship came songs like Hang On To Your Life, Broken, Rain Dance, Heartbroken Bopper, Runnin' Back To Saskatoon, So Long Bannatyne, Pain Train and Clap For The Wolfman.

The band played the biggest concert halls across North America, Japan and Australia and appeared on The Midnight Special several times.

But by 1974, Winter had fallen out of favour with Cummings and in June, just as Star Baby, featuring one of Winter's finest moments on guitar was rising on the charts, he was let go four years to the month he joined.

"The band didn't have the same nucleus," he noted. "I was summoned to a meeting and told 'We no longer require your services.' Cummings wasn't there."

The dispassionate dismissal left a lasting residue of bitterness. As for his financial settlement, "Once the accountants and lawyers were done I got zip."

Despite brief flings with Papa Pluto and Jim Kale's reformed Guess Who, yielding the album Guess Who's Back, for all intents and purposes, Winter retired from the music world. Instead he spent his time golfing, gambling or puttering about.

Ted Arichteff recalls often seeing Winter at the Grant Motor Inn pub. "He was just a down-to-earth guy, never ever bragged about who he was or what he did. In fact, if you didn't know who he was and were sitting at his table you never would."

He appeared unannounced onstage at 1987's Shakin' All Over concert and reunited with Brother for the 1994 Get Back event organized by the Manitoba Museum.

Health problems plagued Winter in later years, the result of decades of alcohol abuse. He was hospitalized in 1996 for a benign brain tumour but recovered enough to travel to Toronto in November 1997 to accept an award from SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers) for more than 100,000 airplays of Clap For The Wolfman. He died a month later. Cummings later wrote and recorded Kurt's Song for his fallen friend.

Reflecting on his time at the top of the rock 'n' roll pantheon, the always self-effacing guitarist mused, "I wouldn't trade it for anything. You were getting paid real good money and traveling around the world for doing something you actually liked to do. So I can't complain."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2013 A8

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