Jewish Blues Musician Elly Wininger Proves It’s Never Too Late

PG:  How many 16-year old high school students get offered a recording contract? Tell me how it happened to you.

EW: I saw this little classified in the Village Voice that said Wanted, Blues Singers. I thought, well, let me go test my mettle.

PG: You went to the audition by yourself in 1966?

EW: Right. I went up there to the end of the line in the Bronx. I was the only white person around, with my pointy glasses and braces. I finally found the place, and the woman sitting on the couch looked at me with hairy eyeballs, but she said, okay, show me what you’ve got. So I played “Rock Me Baby” on guitar which I’d copied from Artie Traum, and she was very surprised and called her assistant in. “Look what this little white girl can do.” I did it again, and she said, “You got anything else?” I played “Key to the Highway” and a couple of other songs. They gave me a contract. This was Red Robin Records.

PG: On the spot?

EW: Yes. They said take this home, look at it, and sign it. I said, “Well I’m only 16,” and they said, “Have your parents sign it.” But my mother wouldn’t. She was afraid I’d drop out of high school. Part of me was definitely crushed, but I had to go to school the next day, take my SATs, life had to go on.

PG: You continued to play. Did you formally study guitar?

EW: Yes, with David Bromberg. He wasn’t a star then, he was an ethnomusicology student at Columbia, looking to make some money.

PG: Was he a good teacher?

EW: He was a great teacher. The first lesson, I remember this very clearly: I was good at taking songs off of records, and he said, okay, for the next lesson, make up your own version of a song. I worked really hard at it, and I really enjoyed it, and he was, like, “Okay, she can do this!” He made me do things that I never do anymore, such as flatpick and ragtime. He gave me a very broad knowledge of American styles. 

PG: You’ve been self-releasing your music. Now you’re 70, and you’ve just gotten signed to the venerable independent label Adelphi Records. 

It’s pretty funny, isn’t it? I have spent so much time and energy yearning for some sort of recognition and now all that energy is freed up. I’m still getting used to it. At one point I just wanted to go out and yell into the sky, “I told you I was good!” 

PG: How did the new contract come about? 

EW: Early this year I went to a Folk Alliance International showcase in Montreal. Andy Cohen, another Blue Jew—one of the most amazing blues musicians I’ve ever met—was there. And he became a friend and ally. It was at his showcase that the president of Adelphi Records heard me and had the same reaction as Andy. He chased me out of the room after I did my three little songs, and he asked. “What can I do for you?” And I immediately said, “Would you like to release my next record?” And he said yes.

PG: A mere 54 years in the making.

EW: I have to also give a hat’s off here to Kari Estrin. Kari is an imaging consultant and radio promoter who understands our little business. Not too long ago, I said to myself, ‘You know, you need help.’ I realized that I’m doing a lot of things right, but there’s something I’m not quite getting. I went through a process with her. It was not easy and not cheap. But she helped me identify my strengths and come up with a way to present them. I have no doubt that the work I did with her was instrumental. We did a lot of psychological work. That’s when I first started talking about my original lost contract. So between her and Andy Cohen I got the help I needed. I wish I could tell this to 20- or 30-year-old artists. Don’t wait to get help. And you don’t get help by sitting there waiting to be discovered, you get help by paying for it. 

PG: You recently composed “Alabama Blues.” Do you feel a connection to the sorrow in Blues music as a Jewish person?

EW: You know, I did this high school appearance in Kansas and the kids asked me “Why are you singing the blues? What does this have to do with you? And so I played “Wade in the Water,” and said, ‘Does this sound familiar? Jews have been slaves, Jews have had their human rights taken from them. Their history is one of oppression and mass slaughter. If that’s not a good reason to sing the blues, what is?’ 


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