Paul Winer, the boogie-woogie piano player and singer who entertained Deerfield Valley residents as Sweet Pie, will perform at Wilmington’s Memorial Hall at 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday, August 12 and 13. From 3 to 5 pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, August 11 to 13, the Village Pub, which is sponsoring the Memorial Hall performances, will host a meet-and-greet with Winer.
At the informal Village Pub sessions, Winer says he’s looking forward to reuniting with old friends and fans from his Fat City days, and playing a few of his trademark boogie-woogie tunes.
The Village Pub gathering is free, and tickets for the Memorial Hall performances are $10 each, on sale at the Village Pub and the Old Red Mill in downtown Wilmington, Local Motor Motorcar Services on Route 100 North, and the Coffee House at the intersection of routes 9 and 100 South.
Winer says he got his start in the music business at the age of 9 as a reporter for the youth-staffed Hep Cat magazine. “It was a magazine for tweenagers,” he says. “Basically, it printed reviews of records kids liked and shows they went to. It was all written by teen readers, and you could get a press pass. I used my Hep Cat press pass to get backstage at one of Fats Domino’s famous one-night stands.”
After that night, Winer dreamed of performing, not Fats Domino’s music, but his own songs with his own style. He played songs by bluesmen like Ivory Joe Hunter. “The first song I wrote was a horrible boogie-woogie song. I played it at a talent show in Nashua, NH. I lost. Came in last.”
But Winer’s next performance, at a talent show assembly at his own school, got a tremendous audience response. He didn’t win, having been disqualified for a last-minute change in song content, and he says that’s been the story of his life since then.
Years later, after he attended Goddard College in Springfield, Winer moved to Burlington where he performed his Sweet Pie act in the area bars. Sweet Pie, Winer’s stage name during his decades performing around the Northeast and in Canada, was (and still is) a bearded, nearly naked, boogie-woogie piano player who often sings bawdy lyrics.
Winer moved to Stowe to perform in a theater that was being run as an arts collective. “I lived in the costume room,” Winer says. “I played there for a good, full year.”
It was during that time that Winer first met Jay Leno, who at the time was a fresh-faced young comedian who did improv with a group called Fresh Fruit Salad.
“As the guest, he got to choose when he’d go on, and he chose to go on last,” Winer recalls. “I was the emcee and the middle act. I finished my act with my song “F..k ‘em if they can’t take a joke” and had the audience laughing so hard they were holding their stomachs. When Leno came on, the last thing they wanted to do was listen to a comedian whose schtick was to ask the audience for improv ideas. He bombed.”
Winer’s Sweet Pie act stuck in Leno’s mind, and a few years ago, he contacted Winer to discuss a reunion performance on Leno’s show. Winer says he turned it down at that point, because he was no longer performing. Now that he’s back behind the keyboard, Leno has left the show. But Winer still hopes to talk to Leno about a performance at Jay Leno’s Garage.
But some of the locals, at least at that time, weren’t particularly tolerant toward a dirty-singing nudist who took to walking around town in a mini skirt.
“This was a town with the likes of the Kennedys and Von Trapps,” Winer says. “And there I was, dressed like Tina Turner. It was quite a controversy.”
Winer says he left after he was shot at while walking along a road in Stowe. “A station wagon full of guys were shooting up in the air as they passed me by. They were trying to scare me out of town. And they did.”
Soon after, Winer made his way to Wilmington, and the Fat City nightclub, where he lived for a short time, and performed for a long time. In the Deerfield Valley, his act was in demand, and he played gigs from the White House of Wilmington to the Norway Lodge.
During that time, he also performed around the Northeast, particularly in Salisbury Beach, MA – another stop on his reunion tour for this year.
Winer performed as Sweet Pie in the area for several years. But in the late 1970s, state liquor authorities closed down the White House of Wilmington for presenting his act, calling his act obscene, rude, and indecent. The liquor commission sought to end his career, or at least chase him out of the state by issuing a standing order to immediately withdraw the liquor license of any establishment that presented Sweet Pie’s act.
The ensuing legal battle, in which Winer was aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, ended with a victory in the state Supreme Court. Winer says the case is still cited as a precedent for “physical freedom of speech.”
Since then, Winer has, except for a small covering over his genitals, lived naked. “I’ve lived naked in public longer than any other white man in history,” he claims. “That’s kind of unique, a postscript for the ‘70s pop culture.”
But by the time the case was over, Winer had moved on from Wilmingon, and from Vermont. He toured Canada, met and married his wife Joanne, and finally settled in Quartzsite, AZ.
In Quartzsite, a major winter “snowbird” destination, Winer quit performing and opened a bookstore.
But after a 16-year hiatus, he began performing again when he received a call in 2010 from someone in Salisbury Beach asking him to perform at a ‘70s reunion concert. “I relearned 25 songs, flew East for the first time in my life, and I’ve been performing ever since.”
Winer has performed in his adopted home town of Quartzsite, and in New York City. This year will mark his first return to Wilmington since he left following the White House of Wilmington incident.
Winer’s hand-drawn cartoon advertising for his act in the early 1970s was a weekly feature in the Mount Snow Valley News in the early 1970s.
After a story on Winer and his advertising art was published in The Deerfield Valley News for the newspaper’s 50th anniversary in December 2016, Winer says he started receiving phone calls from valley residents thrilled to re-establish contact.
The calls eventually led to plans for a reunion concert in Wilmington and, as interest ballooned, he expanded from one performance to two, and from a solo act to his full band.
“It’s such a compliment to be remembered,” Winer says. “One of the things I discovered at the concert in Salisbury Beach is that people who hadn’t seen me in 45 years remembered me, remembered nights with me, requested songs I never recorded, but they can sing along with 45 years later. All of the craziness of being Sweet Pie had value. I was one of the things they remembered for a lifetime. Now I’m committed again to my original goal of being Sweet Pie forever.”