Charlie Winton. Courtesy of the artist

Tracing the origins of Charlie Winton’s musical journey could lead all the way back to the mid-1970s scene in Los Angeles when singer/songwriters ruled the roost. Inspired by his talented compatriots but entirely unconvinced that he had the skillset and ambition required to break into the music biz, Winton instead found himself on an alternative path that brought him to Berkeley, where he ended up transforming the world of independent publishing.

Winton’s songwriting ambitions remained dormant during much of his career in the world of books. For years his primary musical outlet was a regular jam session in the Publishers Group West warehouse in Emeryville (a tradition that continued when the company’s headquarters relocated 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 untether his muse in his newly empty nest. 

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

He released his first album on March 17, 2020, at the age of 66, and if it was overshadowed that month by other pressing matters Hold On Tight certainly arrived with a prescient title track that spoke to the unsettling moment. Like his debut effort, his new album The Soul and the Shadow is a collaboration with veteran Mill Valley producer Scott Mathews, a studio craftsman who has worked with pop auteurs such as Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. 

With nine original songs, The Soul and the Shadow features Winton on acoustic guitar and lead vocals accompanied by Mathews on a panoply of instruments, including drums, bass, pump organ, electric guitars, lap steel and pedal steel. Tom Luekens contributes several subtle string arrangements, but this is rootsy, bracing music delivered mostly unsweetened. The songs are sturdy and often memorable, delivered in an unaffected rasp reminiscent of Tom Waits circa The Heart of Saturday Night.

In many ways the music took shape during the process of working with Mathews in his studio, which provided “the big epiphany, the discovery of my voice,” Winton said. “It was a huge thing to go into a studio environment and be able to hear myself. It’s incredibly different that being in the living room playing up against the sliding glass door. I’d start out trying to sing prettier, and when I’d get to the chorus Scott would say, ‘That is your voice. I believe that singer.’”

Before music moved to the foreground, 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 output includes several dozen volumes. Winton’s passion for music was evident in a diverse roster of books by the likes of Dee Dee Ramone, seminal punk rocker Richard Hell, Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys, groundbreaking psychedelic poster and album cover artist Stanley Mouse, and historian Dennis McNally’s 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 published Joel Selvin’s acclaimed biography Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and Winton credits the longtime San Francisco Chronicle music columnist with bringing him and Mathews together. 

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

Sitting down with Mathews over lunch in Mill Valley, Winton was thinking he’d enlist the producer to help him on “a sophisticated demo,” he said. “I wanted to professionalize my compositions, to see what it would be like so it’s not just me on my iPhone memos. Scott said, ‘I don’t do that. If we’re going to work together we’re going to go for it.’ That’s more ambitious than what I was thinking, but it’s been an amazing experience.” 

The path not taken (until recently) started when the newly married Winton and his wife, Barbara Martinelli Winton, moved down to L.A. in the summer of 1975. Her parents had met near London during World War II and reconnected at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where her father was a physicist and her mother was a drafter and technical illustrator. 

“Her family was super cool and her two older brothers both played music,” Winton said. “Her middle brother, Mike, was a chemist with a degree from Yale, and was much more accomplished than I was musically. He was playing in clubs in Venice and L.A. and wrote all his own material. He had a little recording studio in his apartment with a four-track and if we were having a Friday night party we’d record a couple of songs, mostly covers.”

When Charlie and Barbara moved back to Palo Alto and founded Publishers Group West in the fall of 1976 he was still devoting a lot 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 sense of loss that’s palpable on The Soul and the Shadow (particularly on “Sad Song Singing,” which he wrote in 1983).

“When Mike died that was huge,” Winton said. “Even three or four years after he passed, it felt like a big ‘what if?’ What if Mike was here? We could have done something. There was an element of carrying on. I didn’t have the musical versatility to really make something happen. At the same time I always loved playing.”

As he and Barbara had two kids in the mid-80s, Publishers Group West started growing almost despite the free-wheeling company culture (“I like to say that we were having a party and a business broke out,” Winton said). Music continued to recede and then they struck gold in 1989 with John, Sophie and Jesse Javnas’ 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, which sold nearly two million copies. 

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

Some of the songs on The Soul and the Shadow date back decades, while others, notably “Pandemic Blue,” are of recent vintage. The late-blooming recording artist feels like he’s hitting his stride as he closes out his seventh decade. He doesn’t have any plans to perform coming up, but he’s got at least another album of material ready for Mathews’ studio magic.

“I fell into this great thing with Scott that fit what I wanted to do exactly how I wanted to do it,” Winton said. “It was a perfect opportunity with no risk. Where does it go from here? To be determined.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of a musician with whom Winton worked. It was Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys, not the guitarist Bobby Keyes.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....