The North East of England has given the world some of the greatest Rock vocalists. Originally a singer/bass player, Paul Rodgers was born in Middlesborough in 1949 this week, he ultimately moved to London with his band The Wildflowers – the band also included Mick Moody future guitarist in Whitesnake and Bruce Thomas future bassist in Elvis Costello And The Attractions. Rodgers formed Free with Andy Fraser, Simon Kirke and Paul Kossoff in 1968. They were a Blues Rock band with a magic chemistry boasting not only Rodgers’ impressive soulful vocals but the underplayed genius of guitarist Paul Kossoff, the steady drumming of Simon Kirke and the creative talents of Andy Fraser with his unique bass playing style, his tone, his choice of notes, his whole approach to the instrument was like no-one else. But Fraser was also a talented songwriter and piano player and he formed a prolific songwriting partnership with Rodgers.
Free released their first album, Tons Of Sobs in 1969, followed by Free in the same year. But it was their third album, the excellent Fire And Water released in 1970 that sent them to the top of the charts in 20 countries due to the inclusion of the infectious Rock Pop single, All Right Now. The hook, Rodgers’ vocal, the beat, the easy lyric, Fraser’s bass playing and Kossoff’s guitar made the song a hit. It was true magic, four musicians decidedly communicating on the same wavelength, each contributing something unique whilst appealing to the masses.
With another album Highway, released in the same year and the first single The Stealer failing to chart in the UK (No.49 in the US) it took a song that didn’t really fit into the band’s repertoire to break into the UK charts for a second time. With the band deteriorating, one of four new tracks were recorded in 1971. It was My Brother Jake with its piano driven backing track, another Fraser/Rodgers classic that reached No.4 in the UK in 1971. It didn’t appear on an album until The Free Story double compilation album was released in 1974. I remember because I bought it, tragically it always jumped on My Brother Jake. Later I picked up the album again, this time the Canadian version with different cover art.
With the band breaking up and reforming, more hits and trouble followed. Free At Last was released in 1972 and featured another gem. Little Bit Of Love reached No.3 on the UK chart. Fraser left in 1973 replaced by Tetsu Yamauchi and Kossoff fell into disarray appearing sporadically on the final album Heartbreaker – and for the fans that’s what it was. Stray Dog’s Snuffy Walden stood in for Kossoff and John Rabbit Bundrick joined on keyboards. (Traffic’s Ghanaian percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah also appeared on congas). The single Wishing Well credited to the whole band gave Free their fourth and final hit reaching No.7 in the UK chart in 1973.
It’s a sad story of early tragedy and mixed success. Rodgers and Kirke went on to form Bad Company with Mott The Hoople’s Mick Ralph’s and King Crimson’s Boz Burrell (I saw Bad Company’s first tour in Liverpool at the Liverpool Stadium in 1974 or 5). One day in a year that I forget, I went to see Ian Hunter in Milton Keynes with my mate Boydy. I knew some of the band members, ex Bongos guitarist James Mastro who I once wrote a song with and keyboardist Andy Burton who I’d played with when I lived in New York. I’d met Ian Hunter before but that night I met Mick Ralphs, I mentioned the Liverpool show to him – like a fan would – he had no memory of it all! Ha Ha.
John Bundrick later joined The Who as their keyboard player. Snuffy Walden became a composer for TV. Tetsu Yamauchi had joined Tetsu, Kirke, Kossoff and Rabbit for a one-off album before joining Free. After Free he joined The Faces before eventually retiring from music altogether. He played on the live album Coast To Coast after Ronnie Lane had left as well as their last single – famously the song with longest title to reach the UK chart (No.12) at Christmas 1974 – oh and the title? You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (Even Take the Dog for a Walk, Mend a Fuse, Fold Away the Ironing Board, or Any Other Domestic Shortcomings).
Other band members and associated musicians have have unfortunately left the planet, Andy Fraser died in March this year. I wrote his obituary at the time:
Reebop Kwaku Baah died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1983 here in Sweden, apparently during a performance. He had also played in one of my favourite bands CAN. Another of my favourite bands is Pre Belew King Crimson. Boz Burrell played on the 1971 album Islands as well as on the classic live album Earthbound released in 1972 shortly after this line-up had broken up. Sadly Burrell died of a heart attack in Spain in 2006, he was just 60 years old. Last but not least the tragic genius of Paul Kossoff destroyed by drugs, he died of a heart attack on a plane in 1976, he was just 25 years old.