They don't come more original than Sweet Pie. The 67-year-old is, as far as anyone can tell, the world's only nudist boogie-woogie pianist. The eccentric self-taught musician, born Paul Winer, roamed the country from 1965 through 1990, performing at ski resorts, colleges, and tourist spots all along the East Coast while staying "as naked as the law would allow him to be." His music is equally unique, a distinct style called boogie-woogie, which is an upbeat blues form that paved the way for jump blues and artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Leon Russell.
As you might imagine, Winer says he was a rebellious, nonconformist child. It started when he decided that he would wear as little clothing as possible, making allowances for weather and social context. This translated to a nomadic nudist adulthood, in which he spent 25 years on the road living out of his van.
The man has some stories. Over the course of those years, he was, he claims, the defendant in 68 court cases. This includes a six-month federal case in Vermont, which, he says, involved the ACLU. Six weeks after the case, he says, male strip clubs started opening. He forfeited the monetary settlement he would have received from the government in exchange for a clean slate with the IRS, since he refused to pay taxes as protest during the Vietnam War.
Winer makes other claims, too, many of which are unverifiable. They're so outlandish that you really want to believe they actually happened.
To wit: Though the phrase "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke" has been attributed to many people (including Bette Midler), Sweet Pie claims to have used it first, as the title of an anti-jingoistic anthem he penned. He also said that Count Basie went to see him on three separate occasions in the early '70s, commenting to Sweet Pie that he was one of the only players of that generation with a distinct left-hand playing pattern.
Though he was well suited to the lifestyle of a traveling oddity, the birth of his daughter prompted him to settle in one place. "I didn't want her growing up next to dumpsters and behind hotels," he says.
So Winer did what a lot of people do when they don't have a lot of money and don't know where to go — he moved to Arizona. He recently tapped back in to his alter ego after a nearly 20-year hiatus from his craft.
"It was very inexpensive to live here," he said. "I came here with $35 and a bunch of books, and a lot of T-shirts from a little company that did my cartoon drawings on T-shirts but failed, and we were selling off the stock in the swap meet. One little box of used paperbacks that my mom had finished reading started what's now a 180,000-title year-round bookstore here in Quartzsite. But it's known all over the world as the Naked Man's Bookstore . . . I'm a tourist attraction in the town."
Yup, he's gone full circle, from the road to roadside attraction. He's still naked as a jaybird, though.