Major Van Winkle 1994–2020

Major Van Winkle

There are people in this world who simply glow — radiating talent and charm and, if they are truly blessed, love. Major Van Winkle, the Philadelphia-based hip hop artist and songwriter, was one of these rare people. With his infectious gap-toothed smile, amazed eyes, dancing hands, and spellbinding wordplay, he touched the brains and hearts of a multitude of people in his 26 years.

Whether performing in clubs, on sports radio (WIP invited him in-studio to rap before every Eagles game), or in creative and engaging videos, Major stunned people whenever he opened his mouth. He had a rapper’s rhythm and a poetry slammer’s precision but, most important, a blue-eyed soul singer’s heart. Timeless ideas, ingenious pop culture references and tuneful refrains just pinballed out of him. When he stopped, people were too dazzled to do anything but applaud.

Three years ago, when he lost his mother at the age of 66, the priest at the funeral asked if any family members had anything to say. By the time Major was done, the mourners gave him a standing ovation.

“After the speech,” recalled his father, “the priest asked him if he wanted a job. But this is what he was like: a beautiful shooting star of a man who left us a lifetime of love.”

Major was born on July 27, 1994, into an extraordinary family. His mother, Kathy McDonnell, was a career Philadelphia assistant district attorney and Penn Law counselor who influenced generations of lawyers. His father, Don Lee Van Winkle, a nimble guitarist, singer and songwriter, has been a fixture on the Philly music scene since 1970 when his band, The American Dream, released its debut produced by Todd Rundgren. His grandfather, and namesake, was Phillies pitcher and pitching coach “Maje” McDonnell, one of the legendary “Whiz Kids” whose team went to the 1950 World Series.

Major was raised and influenced by an entire village of aunts and uncles — some blood relatives, others close family friends — outstanding in the law, sports, politics and music. The extended musical family included the Soul Survivors (whose co-leader is married to Major’s aunt), and the Hooters. Major grew up on so many backstages, clearly destined to be on stage himself. He and his parents lived in a cozy home near the Italian Market. They spent summers with extended family in Sea Isle City, NJ, where Major had an entire other life, with fiercely loyal shore friends he remained close with throughout his life.

He absorbed music from birth, first learning to play the drums. One of his earliest performances was sitting in on the drum kit, at the age of 13, for an all-star band including his father, members of the Hooters and the Soul Survivors at a big backyard birthday dance party. But while he was influenced by R&B and rock, Major found himself captivated by rap and poetry. He was all about the beats, and the rhythm and pure power of words.

Major moved from playing drums to designing beats — complex rhythm structures that he sold for others to rap over. Then he started writing his own raps and songs, always making videos that were deeply autobiographical and far too professional-looking to have been shot, edited and multi-tracked on his beat-up iPhone. In May, 2014 he opened for fellow Friends Select students turned rappers OCD Moosh & Twist at the TLA, and the next month was an opening act at the Roots Picnic on Penn’s Landing, where he attacked the stage like Mick Jagger’s kid brother; at the end of the set, someone threw an American flag onto the stage, and he just wrapped himself in it and posed. He was soon signed to a three-city tour, opening for rapper Currensy in New York, Baltimore and Washington. His earliest well-known rap songs and videos included “C’est le Vie,” “Vibes (featuring Guy Harrison),” “Young and Famous” and “Bikini Bottom.” But soon his music was becoming more soulful and he was singing as much as rapping, as in “Love in a Loop,” “Back Home” and “Bars are Easy, Songs Are Not.”

A big sports fan, he was invited in 2016 to start doing weekly pre-game raps regaling the Philadelphia Eagles (and trash-talking their opponents) for sports talk radio station WIP. The Eagles raps became a phenomenon — like the team itself — during the 2017–18 Super Bowl year.

Major’s day job was at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where he served as a court officer working with juries. His extraordinary ability to connect with people resonated not only among his court colleagues, but the public as well. It was not uncommon for jury panels, after finishing their deliberations, to let Major know how much they appreciated his spirit and engagement. On more than one occasion, trials ended with the judge thanking the jury, and then jurors giving Major a round of applause.

Charlie Ingui, Major Wan Winkle, Don Van Winkle

But his main passion was his music and his videos, which he worked on during every other waking hour — and posted versions on Facebook and Instagram. He did solo gigs, as well as several emotional sets with his father: one at the memorial concert for Soul Survivors singer Richie Ingui; another at the wake for his mother; and most recently at Frankie Bradley’s when Winkle debuted the album he had made in Nashville in memory of his late wife, “Great Unknown.”

Major Van Winkle & Don Van Winkle

Major had been planning his next major recording release and tour for 2020 when Covid hit. So the new songs — smarter, more thoughtful and more musical than ever — were released primarily online as the LP collection “Selfish Presley.” Some of the strongest tracks were “Self Worth,” “Long List,” and “Drunk Off Hope” — and a short, moving video he made in late July, “Sacred.”

With the record release, Major also posted a video on Instagram in late June that he admitted was “a little more personal than is usually on my page, but fuck it.” He explained how he “struggles with mental health every day of my life. I’ve been suicidal, I’ve been out there in the ether … but I just want to tell anyone out there you are not alone … life is always worth it, and you’ve got to put your mental health first, in a loving way.” His message was one he was struggling with himself.

Major left us on September 15, 2020; his death was ruled a suicide. He is survived by his father; his aunts Reenie McDonnell, Millie McDonnell (Charlie Ingui) and Gloria Van Winkle; his sister Linda Cylc (David Cylc) and cousins Jamie McDonnell, and Jaiden and Jesse Cylc. He also left “so many friends, who met so many friends through him, that we’ll never be alone missing and remembering him,” said his buddy and video producer Dale Weed.

Reading his quotes don’t really do them justice, you have to hear him. But this is one his father keeps thinking of: “One of the most powerful things you can do is truly be yourself, because when you are truly yourself, you subconsciously allow others to be themselves. That’s how you beat the game.” And he also just keeps hearing Major’s favorite sign-off:

“Be easy.”

Burial for Major Van Winkle was private. A memorial celebration of his life and work will soon be announced. Donations in his memory can be made to the charity of your choice; to support mental health care, consider donating to Hall Mercer Community Mental Health Center or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Stephen Fried

Author: Rush; Appetite for America, Thing of Beauty, The New Rabbi, Bitter Pills, Husbandry; teach at Columbia & UPenn; lecturer, editorial consultant