George Winston, Pianist With a Soothing ‘New Age' Sound, Dies at 74

Will Ackerman is an American musician and producer.

George Winston, Pianist With a Soothing ‘New Age' Sound, Dies at 74

George Winston, a musician who became a top-selling artist during decades in which pop and rock dominated, by playing soothing instrumentals on the piano in a style he called "rural folk piano" but was described as a new age. He died in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday. He was 74.

Jesse Cutler said that cancer was the cause. Mr. Winston had been battling cancer for many years in the Bay Area. He continued to perform and record while undergoing treatment. Mr. Cutler stated that he was staying near his tour manager's home in Williamsport.

Mr. Winston's career was launched by his 1980 album, Autumn, released on the fledgling Windham Hill record label in Palo Alto (California). The album consisted of seven piano solo compositions, which, like the majority of Winston's music, were inspired by nature. The titles were simple -- "Sea," "Moon," and "Woods" -- but they hit a chord with many listeners. The sales soared to hundreds of thousands.

Lee Underwood, in a DownBeat review, wrote: 'By focusing his emotions on the serenity and order of nature, rather than the frenetic and violent tones of the contemporary cityscape, Winston provides us with the perfect aural antidote for the urban madness.

Mr. Winston carried on the theme of calendars with two albums in 1982, 'December,' and a third, titled 'Winter Into Spring', and again in 1991 with 'Summer. His 1994 album, "Forest," won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album -- a relatively new category at the time. He was also nominated on four other occasions.



These nominations show the breadth of his musical tastes. The nominations for "Plains" (1999) for the best new age album and "Montana: A love story" (2004) for the best children's album (with Meryl Streep as the narrator) were also impressive. He was nominated in the categories of best recording for kids for the 1984 film 'The Velveteen Rabbit,' and best pop instrumental album (2002) for the album 'Night Divides the Day: The music of the Doors.

Mr. Winston recorded 2 albums of Vince Guaraldi's music, the jazz piano player best known for his music composed for animated "Peanuts" television specials. In 2012 he released "George Winston: Harmonica solos" and in 1983, he founded his own record label, Dancing Cat Records to record Hawaiian slack key guitar practitioners, a style he admired.

He was never bothered by attempts of critics or others to pigeonhole him, his music, or musical interests.

He told United Press International that 'putting a label to music is the least useful endeavor', except for putting an official name on religion.

George Otis Winston III, son of George and Mary (Bohannon) Winston, was born in Hart, Mich. on February 11, 1949. His mother was an executive secretary, while his father was a geoscientist.

He was born in Mississippi and grew up there, as well as Florida. He said his time in Montana was instrumental in instilling a deep appreciation for nature and changing seasons, which later inspired his musical style. He returned to Montana to re-energize himself even after moving to other places including the West Coast.

In 'Montana Song', an essay from 1989, he said: 'I'm very grateful to have spent a great deal of time growing in this beautiful state. I've managed to reach a modest level, both musically as well as spiritually. But it wouldn't have been possible without my Montana memories and the inspirations I've gotten from the state.

Mr. Winston began taking piano lessons when he was a youngster, but he never continued. The Doors' 1967 debut album rekindled his interest in music.

In a 2004 interview, he stated that 'When I first heard the song on Side One 'Break On Through', I thought it was the best piece of music ever.'

Ray Manzarek's playing inspired him to learn the organ. He played it with fellow students from Stetson University, Florida, in a group known as the Tapioca Ballroom Band. In 1971, he was captivated by the recordings of Fats waller from 1920s and 1930s. He decided to pursue piano.

He is largely self-taught. However, he did study for a while with James Casale in Miami, a jazz piano player.

In 2005, Mr. Winston said to The Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia, "He taught me chords, theory of music, and the basics."


Mr. Winston said that he had also been influenced by two New Orleans pianists: Professor Longhair and James Booker. All his influences were merged into a style he named rural folk piano. He coined the term to describe music that was'melodic and not complex in its approach', similar to folk guitar picking, folk songs and had a rural sense.

His piano work was sometimes criticized as being repetitive or uninspiring, but he still sold millions of records and attracted enthusiastic audiences everywhere he performed. He usually included a charity component in his concerts, such as food banks or another cause.

Mr. Winston was aware that his music wasn't suitable for everyone and he made fun of himself about it.

He told The Santa Cruz Sentinel of California that in 1982, 'one person's punk is another's singing "Om" or playing the harp. It's valid for everyone to follow their own path. I don't think anyone would want to listen to me for the rest of their lives.

Jay Gabler summarized Mr. Winston’s appeal and talent in a piece he wrote for the website Your Classical, 2013.

He wrote: 'Love him (or hate him),' "George Winston is a kind of artist that shows what fertile ground is available in the vast spaces between musical genres."