On May 26, 1973, the #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group.
Edgar Holland Winter was born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1946. His older brother is the legendary blues guitarist, Johnny Winter. Playing musical instruments was encouraged and nurtured by their parents, and Edgar is as proficient on saxophone and percussion as he is on keyboards (during “Frankenstein,” Winter showcases his skill on all three).
By the time they were teens, the Winter brothers were regularly performing locally. An early gig for the brothers, when they were 10 and 8, was at a local TV station, where they performed Everly Brothers songs (with Johnny on ukulele).
Edgar played on brother Johnny’s The Progressive Blues Experiment album in 1968, became a member of the band, and performed at rock festivals across the country, including Woodstock (Edgar once claimed that a pre-synthesizer version of “Frankenstein” was played at the “3 Days of Peace & Music” festival).
By 1970, Edgar had a recording contract and assembled his own backup band, White Trash. Edgar Winter’s White Trash recorded two albums and had a minor hit with “Keep Playin’ that Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In 1972, the Edgar Winter Group was formed with Dan Hartman on bass, Chuck Ruff on drums and Ronnie Montrose on guitar and mandolin (Montrose had played on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey LP). The group began work on what would become the album They Only Come Out at Night. Rick Derringer, a member of White Trash, acted as the record’s producer, but also played bass and guitar on some of the tracks.
The song “Frankenstein” was never intended to appear on the album. Winter saw it as a live song because its improvisational nature. He merely referred to it as “the instrumental” and the band used the riff as a jam session to warm up before recording, but Derringer always had tape rolling. After accumulating four different jam sessions (of 20-30 minutes in length), Derringer suggested that there was enough material on the reels of tape to edit down into a song. Winter agreed to sift through the multiple jams and mix a final piece. The working title for the track was “The Double Drum Song” because of the dual solos with Ruff on drums and Winter on timbales. As Winter and Derringer cut sections of recording tape, draped them about the studio and pieced segments together with splicing tape, Ruff made the comment, ” … it’s like Frankenstein.” The allusion stuck and became the song’s title.
They Only Come Out at Night was released in November 1972. Its opening track, “Hangin’ Around,” was selected as the first single with “Frankenstein” designated for the B-side. But, as so often happens in pop music history, the B-side was the song that radio listeners in the US and Canada requested DJ’s to play again and again. The label quickly reversed the song order on future pressings, and “Frankenstein” became the official single from the album.
After 12 weeks on Billboard‘s singles chart, the song hit #1 and became a rarity in pop music — an instrumental at the top of the charts. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, it was uncommon for an instrumental to reach #1 and, when they did, it was typically from an orchestra or a movie theme. However, The Champs had deviated from the norm with “Tequila” in 1958 and The Tornadoes did it with “Telestar” in 1962.
It’s not as if pop instrumentals never made it into the Top 40. In the year preceding the success of “Frankenstein,” Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” and Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” both reached #9, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” topped out at #7, and Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space” got to #2. In the year following “Frankenstein,” instrumental #1 hits were more common, with songs from The Love Unlimited Orchestra, MFSB, The Average White Band and Van McCoy all reaching the top spot.
Edgar Winter is credited as being the first person to hook a guitar strap to a keyboard and perform with it on stage. Winter played the ARP 2600, which featured a keyboard that was not built into the synthesizer’s control mechanism. Instead, the relatively light keyboard connected to the synthesizer controls with a cable. Winter explained years later, “I thought, ‘Wow, looks like you could just pick this thing up, put a strap on it and play it like a guitar!’ I was the first person to have the idea of playing the keyboard in that fashion. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m free! I’m not stuck behind this bank of keyboards, where I can’t move and people can’t see what I’m doing.'”
“Frankenstein” would remain at #1 for only one week and get knocked to #3 by Paul McCartney & Wing’s “My Love” (Elton John’s “Daniel” jumped from #3 to #2). The Edgar Winter Group also released “Free Ride” as a single from the album and it would peak at #14.
A new generation of music fans are discovering “Frankenstein” after the Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl mentioned in his 2013 SXSW keynote address that “Frankenstein” was the inspiration for him to pick up an instrument and pursue a career in music.