Jesse Winchester, Revered Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 69
"You can't talk about the best songwriters and not include him," Bob Dylan reputedly said of the honey-voiced tunesmith
Jesse Winchester, a highly esteemed singer and songwriter with roots in Memphis, Tennessee, has died at age 69. He passed away at home in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a bout with cancer, his wife Cindy Winchester confirmed to Memphis’ Commercial Appeal.
Winchester had success as a solo artist with songs like 1981’s “Say What” and 1970’s “Yankee Lady.” His biggest renown likely came from his work as a songwriter, and the list of artists performing his tunes is long: Wilson Pickett and Elvis Costello, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Waylon Jennings, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia and Jimmy Buffett. Stoney Edwards took Winchester’s “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind,” to the country top 20 in 1975. George Strait, Gary Allan, and other country singers have covered his “A Showman’s Life.”
Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying of Winchester, “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.”
The Band’s Robbie Roberston produced Winchester’s 1970 debut album. Todd Rundgren and Willie Mitchell also each produced for Winchester. But because he had fled to Canada in protest of the Vietnam War, Winchester wasn’t able to tour in the United States until after a presidential pardon in 1977, limiting the size of his potential fan base.
Though often tagged as part of the ’70s singer-songwriter trend or occasionally as a folk singer, Winchester saw himself as writing pure popular songs. He told the Commercial Appeal, “I’ve always thought of myself as a pop person, though I can see why some folks thought, ‘Oh, here comes another bearded white guy with a guitar.'”
Winchester’s pace of work slowed down in the ’80s and ’90s, though he did put out Humor Me in 1988 and Gentleman of Leisure in 1999. He returned in 2009 with Love Filling Station, making an appearance on Costello’s TV show Spectacle. Winchester got a diagnosis of esophageal cancer three years ago and was prematurely reported dead earlier in April, but this time, sadly, it’s true.
Singer-songwriter Janis Ian, responding ot the earlier reports, wrote on Facebook: “RIP Jesse Winchester. As underrated a singer as Chet Baker. As underrated a guitarist as Willie Nelson. A man who held the audience in the palm of his hand without moving an inch. One of the best songwriters on earth.”
Watch Winchester’s gorgeous Spectacle performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding,” with Neko Case seated at his side.