Walla Walla's real deal

Guitarist Gary Winston keeps his strings attached to his hometown.

Gary Winston, left, and his band the Real Deal - drummer Kyle Schleede, vocalist Erika Ingersoll and bassist Marquelle Fowler - perform Aug. 11 in the courtyard at Vintage Cellers on Second Avenue in downtown Walla Walla.

Gary Winston, left, and his band the Real Deal - drummer Kyle Schleede, vocalist Erika Ingersoll and bassist Marquelle Fowler - perform Aug. 11 in the courtyard at Vintage Cellers on Second Avenue in downtown Walla Walla. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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WALLA WALLA -- When The Beatles performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, the world changed. Walla Walla-born and raised Gary Winston's life was no exception to that phenomenon when he saw their American debut on TV as an 8-year-old.

And he continued to see signs pointing to his own road.

"Then I saw a clip of Jimi Hendrix on some talk show. I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Winston said.

Winston was 12 when he started playing the guitar, one his parents bought him. Now 56, after performing around the West and even in Asia, there's hardly a week that goes by when he doesn't have a gig or two somewhere in the Valley.

Walk past a downtown Walla Walla night spot or stroll through a street festival, and if you hear a band playing rhythm-and-blues funk with soaring vocal harmonies and tight musicianship, it's a safe bet you're listening to Gary Winston and the Real Deal.

"We are also a praise and worship band at church," Winston said, the church being the Solid Rock Christian Fellowship Center on Wellington Avenue.

"Music is a universal language," he said, adding that it's also part of our memories, our sense of time and place. "It lifts you up when you're feeling down ... You remember exactly what you were doing (when you hear a song again)."

Real Deal is the name of his band, but it also could describe Winston on stage and his own personal life.

He works at Walla Walla High School as campus security, which keeps him in contact with young people and provides the added bonus of having summers off to play music.

Humble about his accomplishments, Winston's free time in the summer benefits area youth. He recently mentored young musicians at the annual Rock 'n' Roll Camp sponsored by local schools, businesses and the Walla Walla Symphony. The camp instructs teens on writing songs, selection, stage presence, instrumentation and marketing.

"We had 50 kids this year," he said.

In his own youth in the 1960s and 1970s there were a number of local venues where a band could play: The Steak Out, The Lamplighter, PeeGees, the Teepee, and Milton-Freewater Supper Club, among others.

Winston said he never had formal music or guitar training but he'd always hit up performers he saw for techniques. "I would just ask these guys, 'Show me how.'"

The '60s and '70s also were times of heightened racial tensions here and around the nation.

"It wasn't blatant [in Walla Walla] but it was there," Winston said. "Music helped me become socially accepted."

As a teenager, it was an emotional release, a way for him to express sentiments that were tough for him to communicate otherwise. "When you're a young person it's hard to say what's on your mind -- maybe this person won't love me anymore," he said. "It's easier to do that through music."

Like most working musicians, Winston put in a lot of time on the road. After he graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1974 and attended Walla Walla Community College, most of 1977 was spent playing music and being "on the road."

"Two weeks here, three weeks there," he said. "Through Washington, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico. We were young, to do that you've got to be up for adventure."

Life on the road made him a stranger in every town he'd and his band would play -- until people heard them.

"Every town you go to you don't know anybody there," Winston said, but the next time they returned they had friends, fans and contacts for the next tour.

But Walla Walla remained home for him, except for a two-year stretch in 1990-92 when he performed at places in Hong Kong with CC Ryders, a Seattle band whose saxophone player was a friend of Winston's. The band needed a guitarist to go overseas with them and Winston was their man.

He said they achieved quite a bit of fame in a Pepsi commercial shown all over Asia and in videos on MTV and VH-1.

They even came close to sparking what he briefly thought could become an international incident. That happened when they left then British-ruled Hong Kong for an engagement communist mainland China.

"You leave the modern city, go to the border, the train stops and the guys with the guns got on," he described the short trip, which brought into stark contrast "all the freedom we have here that we take for granted."

The concerns continued as they began their concert. "We were doing the [Doobie Brothers] song 'Takin' it to the Streets' and that was thought of as revolutionary ... This armored car comes up and the energy was starting to get lower. Then the soldiers ran up, but they started singing with us. The smiles on their faces, they knew the words to the songs."

Which taught him another of life's lessons.

"I realized through all the traveling, we're all the same," he said. "The cultures may be different but people are still people."

He returned to the U.S. for the birth of his son. With the family back in Walla Walla, he worked various day jobs and continued playing music. He started work at the Jubilee Youth Ranch in 2000 and began his job at Wa-Hi in 2008. He continues to mentor youth, often through music.

His advice to novices: "Practice! And don't try to take those short cuts. Learn the most chord structure you can. Practice is your best teacher."

As for his own music, the Real Deal plays original songs, other songs they like and are "constantly searching" for the right mix of songs.

Along with bass player Marquelle Fowler and drummer Kyle Schleede, key to the band is the vocals of Erika Ingersoll, who when singing with Winston bring the strong harmonies that are a hallmark of the band's sound.

"We're an energetic band but not a loud band," he said. "Music doesn't have to be loud to be good."

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com

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