It’s a new chapter for Charlie Winton, book publisher turned rock ‘n’ roller

Charlie Winton. Courtesy of the artist

Tracing the origins of Charlie Winton’s musical journey could be traced back to the scene in mid-1970s Los Angeles, when singer-songwriters reigned supreme. Inspired by his talented compatriots but not at all convinced that he had the skills and ambition required to break into the music business, Winton instead found himself on an alternate path that took him to Berkeley, where he ended up transforming the world of independent publishing.

Winton’s songwriting ambitions lay dormant for much of her career in the world of books. For years, his main musical outlet was a regular jam session at the Publishers Group West warehouse in Emeryville (a tradition that continued when the company’s headquarters moved to Berkeley’s Fourth Street in 1998). But in 2003, as a series of sales and acquisitions led to the consolidation of the Counterpoint Press empire, he purchased a beautiful Santa Cruz Orchestra Model #1695 acoustic guitar that seemed to release his muse into its newly empty nest.

“My kids went to college at UC Santa Cruz and UCLA and I started writing songs. And I kept writing,” said Winton, who cites Tom Petty and Bob Dylan as major influences.

He released his debut album on March 17, 2020, aged 66, and if he was overshadowed that month by other pressing issues Hold on certainly arrived with a prescient title track that spoke of the unsettling moment. Like his first effort, his new album soul and shadow is a collaboration with veteran Mill Valley producer Scott Mathews, a studio craftsman who has worked with pop songwriters such as Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt.

With nine original songs, soul and shadow features Winton on acoustic guitar and vocals accompanied by Mathews on an array of instruments, including drums, bass, pump organ, electric guitars, lap steel and pedal steel. Tom Luekens contributes several subtle string arrangements, but it’s racy and invigorating music, delivered mostly without the sugar. The songs are robust and often memorable, delivered in an unaffected rasp reminiscent of Tom Waits verses Saturday night heart.

In many ways, the music took shape during the process of working with Mathews in his studio, which provided “the great epiphany, the discovery of my voice,” Winton said. “It was huge to come into a studio environment and be able to hear myself. It’s incredibly different to be in the living room playing against the sliding glass door. I was starting to try and sing more beautifully, and when I was getting to the chorus, Scott was saying, ‘That is your voice. I think that singer.'”

Before music came to the fore, Winton oversaw an impressive portfolio as an editor and publisher, including works by writers such as Gore Vidal, Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet, novelist and essayist whose Counterpoint production includes several dozen volumes. Winton’s passion for music was evident in a varied list of books written by Dee Dee Ramone, founding punk rocker Richard Hell, roots guitar master Bobby Keyes, revolutionary artist of psychedelic posters and album covers. Stanley Mouse album and historian Dennis McNally. On Highway 61.

The Publishers Group West Halloween party in 1983. Charlie Winton is on guitar in the foreground; Bob Dresser is on sax. Courtesy of the artist

Counterpoint also released the acclaimed biography of Joel Selvin Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Bluesand Winton credits the longtime San Francisco Chronicle music columnist with bringing him together with Mathews.

“I said to Joel, I have all these songs and I’m not computer savvy enough to record them,” Winton recalled. “In order to build the songs, I need to be with someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Sitting with Mathews over lunch at Mill Valley, Winton thought he’d ask the producer to help him on “a fancy demo,” he said. “I wanted to professionalize my compositions, to see what it would look like so that it wasn’t just me on my iPhone memos. Scott said: ‘I don’t do that. If we’re going to work together, we’ll go for it. It’s more ambitious than I thought, but it’s been an amazing experience.

The path not taken (until recently) began when newlywed Winton and his wife, Barbara Martinelli Winton, moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1975. His parents had met near London during World War II. and reconnected at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where his father was a physicist and his mother a draftsman and technical illustrator.

“His family was super cool and his two older brothers both played music,” Winton said. “His younger brother, Mike, was a Yale-educated chemist and was far more musically accomplished than me. He played clubs in Venice and LA and wrote all his own material. He had a small recording studio in his apartment with a four-track and if we had a party on Friday nights we would record a few songs, mostly covers.

When Charlie and Barbara returned to Palo Alto and founded Publishers Group West in the fall of 1976, he was still devoting much of his creative energy to songwriting. Mike’s death at the age of 27 in 1979 cast a shadow over Winton’s musical pursuits, a palpable sense of loss over soul and shadow (especially on “Sad Song Singing”, which he wrote in 1983).

“When Mike died, it was huge,” Winton said. “Even three or four years after he died, it felt like a big ‘what if? What if Mike was there? We could have done something. There was an element of pursuit. I didn’t have the musical versatility to really shake things up. At the same time, I always liked to play.

As he and Barbara had two children in the mid-1980s, Publishers Group West began to grow almost despite the freewheeling corporate culture (“I like to say we had a party and a business broke “, said Winton). The music continued to decline, and then they struck gold in 1989 with John, Sophie and Jesse Javnas. 50 simple things you can do to save the Earthwhich has sold nearly two million copies.

“On the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, it was a moment in the zeitgeist that transformed our business in terms of revenue,” Winton said. “Once that happened, my songwriting was put on the back burner. But I always played. We had Halloween parties and jam sessions in the warehouse. But I never really shared the original material I had.

Some of the songs on soul and shadow date back several decades, while others, notably “Pandemic Blue”, are of recent vintage. The late-blooming recording artist feels like he’s hitting his stride as he wraps up his seventh decade. He has no plans to perform anytime soon, but he has at least one more album of material ready for Mathews’ studio magic.

“I fell into this big thing with Scott that was exactly what I wanted to do the way I wanted to do it,” Winton said. “It was a perfect opportunity without any risk. Where does he go from here? To be determined.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture journalist who has been contributing to Berkeleyside since 2011.