Jesse Winchester, Musician And Muse To Icons, Dies At 69

Play associated audio

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who made a name for himself in the 1970s, and counted among his fans everyone from Bob Dylan to Jimmy Buffett, died this morning at his home in Charlottesville, Va., following a battle with cancer. He was 69 years old.

Winchester was born in Louisiana and grew up on a farm in Memphis, Tenn. After college he planned to become a lawyer. In 1967, however, he got his draft notice. Instead of going to war in Vietnam, he fled to Canada.

In Montreal, Winchester, who played guitar and listened to R&B and doo-wop, began writing music and singing, always looking back to his roots in the American South.

In exile, Winchester released his first album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. Music critics hailed him as the next Dylan, but he was not able to perform in the U.S. because he was labeled a draft dodger.

He told NPR in 1986 that he was always somewhat ambivalent about performing anyway.

"I have more a writer's personality than I do a performer's personality," Winchester said. "I like to be by myself and that kind of thing. You have to love being onstage and preening and prancing and posing. That's kept me from being a real big star. This is above and beyond any limitations my talent might have, and in that respect, we'd have to blame God, which I'd be more than happy to do."

"From just a pure visceral level, his voice was gentle and beautiful and powerful," says Memphis music critic Bob Mehr, who considered Winchester very much a Southern writer. "There was a kind of nostalgic quality to what he wrote, but also a kind of presence. Rodney Crowell, who was a friend and admirer of his, said Jesse's songs combined the gravity of William Faulker and the levity of Flannery O'Conner. There was a kind of Southernness, a humor and wistfulness, all the sort of great elements of what we consider Southern writing in his work."

Winchester's songs were revered and recorded by the likes of by Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Joan Baez and Dylan. He told NPR that when he finally moved back to the U.S., he performed in hockey rinks and arenas, but he preferred to have others perform his music.

"I'd rather have someone else be pop star," said Winchester. "My work in life is very happy, but it's not a barn-burning kind of thing. It's low-key."

His music enjoyed a revival in more recent years. When Winchester was first diagnosed with cancer, Jimmy Buffett put together a tribute album for him. In one of his last performances on TV, he sang a soulful rendition of "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding," his tribute to the old doo-wop songs he loved.

Winchester brought the audience and the show's host, Elvis Costello, to tears.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Verdine White On 45 Years With Earth, Wind & Fire

Forty-five years ago, the band “Earth, Wind and Fire” introduced audiences to a new kind of funk--one that fused soul, jazz, Latin and pop. Bassist Verdine White talks to guest host Derek McGinty about breaking racial boundaries in music and how the band is still evolving.

NPR

The Case Against The Shirley Temple (The Drink)

Author and cocktail enthusiast Wayne Curtis wrote an article called "Shirley Temples Are Destroying America's Youth." He talks about why he hates Shirley Temples — the drink, not the person.
WAMU 88.5

What's Ahead At The Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention gets underway in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton will accept the presidential nomination.

NPR

Experimental Plane Sets Off On Final Leg Of Its Round-The-World Journey

It's the first time for a solar-powered plane to circumnavigate the globe. Now it's en route to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — and you can watch the journey in a live video from the cockpit.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.