George Winston, the celebrated solo pianist who sold more than 15 million albums over the course of his career, died Sunday, June 4. He was 73.
Winston’s death was confirmed on his website. He had been battling cancer for 10 years, undergoing a bone marrow transplant in 2013.
Winston rose to prominence in the early Eighties with a trio of records, Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December, all of which were certified platinum in the United States (December even went three times platinum). His music seemed to incorporate elements of classical, jazz, folk, ambient, and New Age music, but as Winston put it in a Q&A for his website, he always called his “melodic style” of play “Folk Piano” or “Rural Folk Piano.”
“It is melodic and not complicated in its approach, like folk guitar picking and folk songs, and has a rural sensibility,” he said, adding: “Any other labels, including anything having to do with anything philosophical, or spiritual, or any beliefs, are also not accurate, as I have no interest in those subjects. I just play the songs the best I can, inspired by the seasons and the topographies and regions, and, occasionally, by sociological elements, and try to improve as a player over time.”
After those three blockbuster albums, Winston partnered with actress Meryl Streep for a special LP, The Velveteen Rabbit, where his piano was accompanied by the actress’ recitation of Margery Williams classic children’s story of the same name. In 1988, Winston provided music for This Is America, Charlie Brown, an eight-part miniseries about American history featuring Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts characters. And in 1994, he won the Grammy for Best New Age album for his LP, Forest.
Throughout his career, Winston found ways to push the boundaries of his playing. While two albums featuring the music of original Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi may have been a smart, straightforward choice for a star of solo piano, Winston also released a full album tribute to the Doors, Night Divides the Day, in 2002. His 2004 album, Montana: A Love Story, included interpretations of songs by Frank Zappa and Sam Cooke; 2019’s Restless Wind featured takes on George Gershwin and Stephen Stills tunes.
Winston frequently used his music to promote charitable causes, too, releasing albums that benefited cancer research, the preservation of the Louisiana Wetlands, and the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. On top of all his solo piano work, he released albums of solo harmonica and acoustic guitar, and ran his own label, Dancing Cat Records, where he released a trove of albums by Hawaiian slack-key guitarists.
Winston continued to write and record even as his health deteriorated, releasing what would be his final album, Night, in May 2022. As always, Winston’s versatility and myriad influences were on display, as he interpreted songs by Allen Toussaint, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro.
Just as his success was singular, Winston’s influence flourished in a wholly unique way. As Rolling Stone reported a few years ago, solo piano music has enjoyed a quiet boom in the streaming era, with people seeking out soothing instrumental music for a variety of reasons. As one pianist, Matthew Mayer, put it, “I kind of look at [Winston] as the godfather of all of this.”
Another pianist, David Nevue, added: “He was the first to be popular enough to where his music got into the culture to where a 17-year-old kid would hear it and be inspired. It was peaceful, it was meditative, all melody-driven — these were songs with verses and choruses and bridges; they weren’t these great, epic sonatas. I can’t play Rachmaninoff, no way, never will happen. But George Winston, I can play like that.”