A Conversation with Winslow Stillman

 

 By JJ Thompson, freelance writer, Latin music critic

 

Cary, North Carolina

“What is the song you just played?  It sounds very Brazilian!” Winslow and his bass player Gene had taken a break when I approached the bandstand and asked the question.  I thought I knew every bossa nova song ever written (having grown up in Brazil), but I’d never heard that one.  Winslow’s response was laid back, pretty much in keeping with the mood of the evening:  “I wrote it.” 

“Is it recorded?”  I insisted it should be. “It’s absolutely exquisite!”

The same thing happened an hour or so later, when they played “Caribbean Feeling.”  A guy came up saying he had just been in the Virgin Islands and the song was better than anything he had heard the entire time he was there. 

“When are you going to release it?”

“Someday, I hope.”

The venue was Cary, North Carolina—not exactly a hotbed of music and entertainment, and a place I had never heard of, much less ever been to before, however,  the music that evening was astonishingly first rate. After the gig ended, I sat down with Winslow and a friend who had grown up with him in Virginia Beach, and asked Winslow to talk about his songs and his days in Nashville. 

“I wrote a song called ‘Drink Her Right Out Of My Mind’” he recounted.  “It was the first song I had written in Nashville, and I took it to RCA Records.  The woman in A&R was screening songs for George Jones and said he and Billy Sherrill were in the studio working on George’s next record.  She wanted them to hear it.  A day later I got a call from her, ‘George and Billy are going to cut it, and they think it’s going to be George’s next single.’ That one was the big one that got away.  A week later George was filmed in an unfortunate incident on I-65 South at the Brentwood exit just south of Nashville.  He was pretty much inebriated, and a Channel 5 news crew just happened to be driving by when they saw the big white Cadillac pulled over by State Police.  It made for great TV, but lousy career. Next day I got the call from RCA that George would not be doing any more cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs.”

The George Jones story had taken place many years before, when Winslow left North Carolina behind after a stint in a production partnership with national record retailer Record Bar, and headed to the capital city of American songwriting.  He returned to North Carolina some eight years later, settled in Cary, raised a son, and created and sold off three successful radio networks.  Only then did Winslow decide it was time to get back into the line of work he was destined to do from his days as a self-taught rock guitar kid from Virginia Beach, VA - the business of writing and producing music.  He found himself working as the guitar and voice of a three-piece jazz band called Elder Brother.  When the economy went south, the small venues they had been playing eliminated drums, and Elder Brother became a duo.

“I’d never been in that role before,” Winslow remarked with the same casual air.  “I’d always been a sideman playing guitar and doing backgrounds.  My main contribution was in the arrangements we would do, or some of the originals I wrote.  I was always fortunate to work with great players.  But when one group with a trio of singers fell apart, Gene (Barrio) said I had to sing.  That’s basically how it happened.”

The somewhat dismissive way Winslow described his newfound role as front man is typical of how he has approached his talent over the years.  He would play in the rhythm section, guiding a group musically, while letting others get up front in the lights.  If needed, he would step up, but he was never comfortable in the lead role.

“For me, it’s always been about the sound.  One of the best things is to have a group of really good musicians play something you created and listen to it being played back in the studio control room.  It doesn’t get much better than that, well, unless you’re playing it live.”

That’s the attitude of someone for whom the music is what matters most.

“I used to interview the top artists in Nashville.  I designed this radio show called NASCAR Country, and had the opportunity to interview pretty much eveybody in Country music.  You always knew the ones who had staying power. For them, the songs and the players were the key.  I never really cared for the ones who said being on stage in front of a lot of people had always been their dream.  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill, they never talked like that, niether did Reba, or Tammy Wynette, none of the greats.  The ones who put the music first, they’re the ones that counted.”

And the counting added up, because Winslow’s production of NASCAR Country received a Billboard Magazine nomination for Best Nationally Syndicated Radio Show.  After he sold his interest in the program, he beat out some of the top syndicators in the country like Westwood One and ABC Radio to become the radio producer for the ambitious television concert series, The Road, launched by Tribune Entertainment out of Chicago. 

“They had a great idea, but there were some egos that caused enormous cost overruns.  I determined very early on that for the radio show to survive we had to cut costs and stop trying to ride a losing model.  Tribune was staging and filming these grandiose concert events all over the country, and losing a lot of money.  But we started taking a recording truck around to smaller venues and clubs, recording artists doing their own shows.”

The radio formula worked.  In its first year, The Road grew to over 200 affiliates with a Canadian version out of Toronto and one being satellite transmitted out of London into Western Europe.  It, too, went on to be nominated as the best show in national syndication by Billboard.  Tribune cut the television show loose after a multi-million dollar loss, but did not know what to do with the growing radio network.  Winslow went to them and asked to buy it.  An agreement was forged and the new home for The Road Radio Network was Cary, NC, not Chicago, IL. 

“It was a heady time and a scary time, but in all the years our little production company ran these shows, we never missed a feed and we never missed a paycheck.  Well, that sometimes didn’t pertain to me…”

Then, as an industry consolidation began to define the future of the radio business, Winslow sold The Road to Dick Clark’s syndication team in New York, United Stations Radio Networks.  He brought back a tried and true formula for them, blending NASCAR racing with Country music, and Thunder Road was born. After a five year production deal came to an end, Winslow found himself staring at an empty calendar and longing to get back into playing guitar professionally.

“I never really stopped playing.  I just wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to.  Then I got calls from people who knew I had done some production and publishing.  They would ask me to evaluate their material, and, well, anyone who has worked in this business knows the range of material that can come in..."  But a couple of times there were good songs and an opportunity to work with a budding songwriter.  Eventually, a couple of new groups were developed and the limitations of country and rock yielded to the sophistication of jazz and Broadway.  "I was given some fairly advanced material to play, and that was a big challenge.  Doing show tunes by Gershwin or Richard Rogers, or playing 'Stella By Starlight' and 'All The Things You Are' can really mess with a five chord mentality.”

That take-it-on attitude eventually led to a stint with the Raleigh Jazz Orchestra and an offshoot called The Moonlighters. 

“These are big bands and they play very good, very challenging charts.  And I don’t sight read that well, so when people talk about faking it, well, let’s just say I faked it in spades.  And talk about working with good players!  Some of these guys have played with top bands like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, gone to top schools… they read like machines.”

Still, Winslow held his own and found himself not only playing with those musicians, but soon he was singing big band charts while comping Freddie Green rhythms and George Benson inspired solos.  However, there was another side to the man that had been quietly searching for another outlet - songwriting. 

“I always wrote songs.   And I had this little studio where I engineered and produced some things.  There was a Christian group I had come to know through a church band I had been playing with.  The leader is a talented songwriter himself, and I thought I could produce something on them.  I renamed them ‘Living Truth’, and we did a reasonably credible CD called ‘Danger In The Desert.’  It was hard work.  I was arranging on the fly, running the board, playing guitar, producing vocals, mixing.  It was the first time I had done everything.  It just about killed me.”

Virginia Beach

That evening in Cary, Winslow’s friend from Virginia Beach recounted some of the details of his early days there, where the passion for Latin rhythm began.

“Winslow grew up in a fairly non-traditional household.  His father had left his mother with four boys under the age of ten.  He was the youngest, and you can appreciate that there were some tough times.  His mom worked two jobs, but it was still, well, not a lot of income.  I know this because I played bass in his high school band ‘The Chambers,’ and spent time with him in that little house in Oceana, Virginia.   But the guy taught himself guitar, he taught himself how to write songs.   The Chambers actually opened for The Byrds when they came to town to play a concert.  What were we? fifteen, sixteen years old?  Then he gets a football scholarship to Duke.  He could have gone to Princeton, so there were some good genes at work.  His brothers have all gone on to distinguished academic and professional careers. Two PhDs, a federal judge...  And he listened to everything! His mother had some Jackie Gleason and Doris Day records along with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  I remember one of his brothers bringing home Prokofiev and Stravinsky Lps.  There was a ukulele and a beat up six-string acoustic in the house, and Winslow just took to it.”

Then came The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Zombies, Cream, the Motown and Philly sounds. 

Winslow joined in with growing enthusiasm.  “I couldn’t get enough of rock and blues, yet I was also paying attention to Sergio Mendez and Antonio Carlos Jobim.  They were game changers as far as influences go. Carlos Santana is a fine player.  There is a flemenco guitarist named Manolo Sanlucar who knocked me out.  And Juan Luis Guerra is not only a great singer, but what a terrific writer he is!  The Spanish classical masters like Rodrigo and Villa Lobos.  Jim Hall’s interpretation of ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ is brilliant. Miles Davis’ ‘Sketches of Spain.’  These are just great records.”

The Brazilian music with its bossa feel and haunting harmonies, and the hypnotic syncopations of South American rhythms resonated and a lifelong affair with Latin sound began.

Bogotá, Colombia

I had the opportunity to catch up with Winslow about three years later, when he was in the final stages of producing a CD called “Coffee Colored Eyes.”  Several of the songs on the CD were the result of serendipitous events that led Winslow to Bogotá, Colombia.  Visiting the capital city of that emerging South American powerhouse soon became a fascination for him; and in typical fashion, Winslow decided that if he was going to become a “Bogotano,” he had to find the music scene there.  So one night he went to a local club called Andres Carne de Res.

“They have jazz on Mondays and Tuesdays,” he explained, “so I went up to the piano player and in my rudimentary Spanish said, ‘Señor, por favor, puedo hablar con usted sobre la musica aqui.  Yo quiero encontrar personas de musica en Bogotá.  Soy guitarrista y productor…’  He looked at me and without missing a beat said, "Sure." 

It turns out that the piano player was Oscar Acevedo, a well-known musician and former producer in Bogotá who teaches at one of the several universities there.  He had gone to school at Berkelee in Boston.  He appreciated Winslow’s temerity and invited him to his home where Winslow played a couple of demos he had done.  One song was “I’ll Never Find The Way To Your Heart,” the one I had been so enthusiastic about that night in Cary. Oscar was impressed enough to call his good friend Toño Castillo on the spot, telling him in rapid fire Colombian Spanish that he should meet with the newly arrived Gringo and listen to his material. 

Castillo is an accomplished producer and sound engineer who is the Creative Consultant in Colombia for Peer Music, the largest independent publishing company in the world.  He has over 300 CDs to his credit and mixed the first single hit for Shakira’s Pies Descalzos Cd- “Donde Estas Corazon”.  He has also worked with Latin Salsa great, Cella Cruz, and Colombia’s top romantic balladeer, Andrés Cepeda.  He is a Latin Grammy nominee, so he has chops and ears (www.myspace.com/tonocastillo).

“Toño is an ironic sort of guy,” Winslow declared with uncontained amusement.  “He’s a complete renegade who speaks excellent English.  But he had trouble pronouncing my name.  So, here I am meeting this guy for the first time and he’s stuttering "W,W,W...! What? Was your mother last in line when they gave out names?’  We hit it off immediately.”

“Coffee Colored Eyes”

Toño was enthusiastic about Winslow’s songs and a session was scheduled to produce three of them: “Caribbean Feeling,” “I’ll Never Find The Way To Your Heart,” and a quirky but infectious new composition called, “No Messa Con La Jefa.”

“No Messa” is an interesting story in itself. “I have a good friend who is a Certified Public Accountant,” Winslow explained.  “Her business card in Spanish reads, ‘La Jefa Financera.’  One time she was acting a bit bossy, so I said, ‘Ay, ay, ay, no messa con la jefa.’ It stuck.  There’s a Spanish equivalent, ‘no te mete…,’ but I bastardized it into the Americanization, ‘no messa…’  I even had a desk plaque made for her with that on it.  People would come into her office and crack up, so I decided to write a song using the phrase.  It morphed into a paean about women, you know, a tribute to them, especially because they put up with so much from men.”

The song rocks.  And Toño had said to Winslow, “…You’re so lucky.  My good friend, Alfredo de la Fe is coming to Bogotá, and he’s going to play on your record!” To which Winslow replied, “That’s great.  Who’s Alfredo de la Fe?"  He continued, "Toño looked at me in amazement, as though I were a complete idiot and said, ‘Do you not know anything?’”  Gringo obviously did not…

De la Fe is considered one of the most influential musicians on the Latin scene.  He was born in Cuba and at the age of nine was a heralded violin prodigy.  But Alfredo decided he did not want to take the classical music route and instead opted for the Latin jazz of Tito Puente and the salsa bands spawned from the rich tradition of Cubano music.  He is known for introducing the electric violin to the genre and is a regular performer with The Fania All-Stars, the hot Latin band out of Cuba where his screaming solos and lightening arpeggios are a signature of their sound.

“We had finished laying down tracks on the three songs,” Winslow recalled, “when in walks this whirlwind of energy with dreadlocks down his back.  Toño’s studio lit up.  Alfredo was in the house!  He plugged in and just went at the songs with so much skill and sensitivity, yet when it was time to wail, he wailed!”

The infusion of de la Fe’s handiwork has given “Caribbean Feeling” and “No Messa Con La Jefa” a decidedly Latin feel, but the thing that stands out is the blend of American songcraft with Cuban and Colombian musical sensibilities. 

“Coffee Colored Eyes” is soon to be released.   The lush harmonies, dazzling solos and pizzicatos of Alfredo de la Fe are complemented by a solid cadre of Bogotá’s best musicians.

The rhythmic anchor is Jose Luis Escobar on percussion whose rock steady work on el cajon peruano, conga and bongo provide an authentic South American foundation, while his subtle use of instruments like guiro, whistle, rainstick and tambourine are featured throughout.  Juan Pablo Rentería brings a sensitive and plaintive jazz touch to the sessions with his Keith Jarrett inspired piano lines and harmonies.  Paul Rodriguez funks out the rockers on bass and Diego Valdez plays fretless with a touch reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius.  Trumpet is coolly covered by Batanga.  Sergio Chaplé plays a brilliant sax.  Oscar Acevedo makes a fine cameo appearance on electric piano.  Mauricio Montenegro plays a powerful track on drums. Backing vocals by Sacha Hidalgo and Nacho provide texture and compliment Winslow’s vocals as though they are sung by next of kin.  Winslow’s guitar work is rhythmic and inspired.

But the success of the tracks is as much a product of Toño Castillo’s masterful studio work and direction as it is the songs, themselves.

“Toño is a genius,” Winslow pronounced unequivocally. “His skill and intuition are remarkable.  He grasps each song and brings each of them to life without compromising the composition.  He makes you work your tail off, but he’s always supportive, and he’s incredibly inventive.  Where there is a drum track that needs to be brought in, Toño plays it.  He fills in keyboard parts.  He edits songs to their essentials and leaves the fluff and unnecessary repetitions out.  And his mixes are clean, spacious and powerful.”

This is why “Coffee Colored Eyes” is such a successful collaboration.  Winslow’s compositions are unique and interesting, and they lend themselves to this cross-cultural interpretation.  Toño Castillo has captured each of them, letting the blend of the Americano and Latino characterize the songs.   Michael Buble or Diana Krall could easily record them, but so could Andrés Cepeda or Roberto Carlos.  They reflect universal themes, but those ideas are framed in chord progressions and melodies that are timeless.

I’ll Never Find The Way To Your Heart” has been translated and recorded in Portuguese in a nod to the Brazilian influences of Winslow’s formative years.  The Portuguese version is entitled, “Não Há Entrada Em Teu Coração.”

Gone” is a beautiful song that may well find its way into the American standard songbook.

No Messa Con La Jefa” reflects Winslow’s range as a writer and his willingness to tackle a difficult subject with humor and wit.

Caribbean Feeling” is the first single release and was co-written with hit Nashville songwriter, Steve Dean, and has already become a favorite in Bogotá. 

Blue Over You,” with lyrics co-written by Laurie Gartland, is an offbeat combination of blues and reggae.

 And “Jilda” may be the surprise hit of the bunch with its Latin Pop feel and tuneful chorus.

"Bella Bogotana" features Sergio Chaplé playing an inspired soprano sax, and is a rhythmic but tender tribute to Colombia.

"Someone's Taken My Place" is a funk rocker and another Nashville composition brought to life in Bogotá. Mauricio Montenegro on drums and Paul Rodriguez on bass with Toño's Hammond B-4 work help propel this powerful track.

This is a fine debut by a man who writes with skill and performs with an understated intensity, and who seems to be quite comfortable gazing into those “Coffee Colored Eyes.” 

 


 

JJ Thompson