WHEN Free played their first gig, at a pub in South London, only two of them were old enough to order a pint. Singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke were 18, guitarist Paul Kossoff was 17 and bass player Andy Fraser, incredibly, just 15 years old and already a graduate of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It was 1968 and, over the next five years, Free would become one of the hardest-working and exciting live acts in the country while their biggest hit, All Right Now, would go on to achieve more than two million radio plays in the UK alone. Not bad for a song knocked off in ten minutes after the band died a death in Durham.
Paul Bernard Rodgers was born in Middlesbrough in December 1949. As a teenager he sang in a band called the Roadrunners, which later changed its name to the Wildflowers. Also in the group were bassist Bruce Thomas, later of Elvis Costello’s backing group the Attractions, and guitarist Micky Moody, who would become a member of Whitesnake. After heading to London, Rodgers teamed up with a group named Brown Sugar and was singing with them when Paul Kossoff saw him at a club called the Fickle Pickle. Kossoff, whose father David was a film and TV actor, asked if he could join them on stage and impressed Rodgers with his fluent guitar skills.
Kossoff had played with fellow Londoner Simon Kirke in a blues group named Black Cat Bones, backing the pianist Champion Jack Dupree. The pair decided to join forces with Rodgers and started looking for a bass player. Andy Fraser, who started out playing in East End West Indian clubs, had met a girl named Sappho at Hammersmith College of Further Education. She introduced him to her father, the broadcaster and blues musician Alexis Korner, who took Fraser under his wing. When John Mayall asked him to recommend a bass player, Korner named the 15-year-old Andy and he had a brief spell with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before Korner suggested he join Rodgers, Kirke and Kossoff. It was Korner who supplied the name Free.
After a brief period of rehearsal the band played the Nag’s Head in Battersea on April 19, 1968. They were quickly snapped up by Island Records, on the ball as ever, and by the end of the year had recorded their debut album, Tons of Sobs. This comprised mainly original songs such as Walk in My Shadow and I’m a Mover along with two covers, James Burke Oden’s Goin’ Down Slow and Booker T’s The Hunter.
The sound is raw and basic, probably because the recording budget was a mere £800. Producer was Guy Stevens, later responsible for the Clash album London Calling. I think it’s fair to say this is a pretty generic late Sixties blues/rock album but it does have its moments, particularly courtesy of Kossoff, and several of the songs would become staples of Free’s live act.
Tons of Sobs came out in 1969 to little fanfare, as did album No 2, Free. This time the head honcho of Island, Chris Blackwell, took on production duties and the budget was bigger. The result was a more sophisticated sound in which Fraser’s bass was much more prominent, probably because he co-wrote eight of the nine tracks with Rodgers. I think he was chiefly responsible for the sense of space in Free’s music even during the loudest passages. His increasing influence caused tension with Kossoff, who was a natural improviser and resented being told what to do by a 16-year-old. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the LP was the cover design of a woman made from stars striding through the sky with the word Free in tiny letters above her outstretched hand. The work of Ron Raffaelli, from The Visual Thing Inc, it was included in the book 100 Best Album Covers. Free is a great improvement on its predecessor with the group now developing their own sound based on superb musical interplay topped by Rodgers’s macho growl. There are delicate tracks such as Mouthful of Grass and Mourning Sad Morning but the highlights are rockers including I’ll Be Creepin’ and the excellent Woman.
While promoting the record, Free had an anti-climactic night in Durham. According to Kirke, ‘We finished our show and walked off the stage to the sound of our own footsteps. The applause had died before I had even left the drum riser. It was obvious that we needed a rocker to close our shows. All of a sudden inspiration struck Fraser and he started bopping around singing “All Right Now”. He sat down and wrote it right there in the dressing room. It couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes.’
All Right Now turned Free from also-rans to superstars who would be among the headline acts at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in front of up to 600,000 fans. It reached No 2 in the UK singles charts, No 4 in the US, and was a hit around the world. The album whence it came, Fire and Water, was in the British LP charts for 18 weeks with a high point of No 2 and reached the US Top 20. And a very strong piece of work it is too.
The opening title track is a brooding rocker showing the band at their best – all the right notes, not too many of them and plenty of space in between. The mournful Oh I Wept is one of my favourite Free tracks. Remember keeps the strong vibe going and then Heavy Load, with Fraser on piano, calms things down.
Another great thing about Free is the number of slow songs they played while still sounding ‘heavy’, as we used to say. Here’s the Isle of Wight version of the next song, Mr Big, followed by Don’t Say You Love Me, which could almost pass for soul music. And then the final track. What can I say about All Right Now except that fifty years on it still brings out the goosebumps.
The percussive opening chords from Kossoff, the brilliant bass and drums, and Rodgers on top swashbuckling form. One of the greatest records of all time. I remember seeing this on Top of the Pops and vowing never again to call it a rubbish programme. Here’s the Isle of Wight performance for good measure.
Fire and Water was released in June 1970. After the Isle of Wight in August, it was straight back into the studio for album number four, Highway, released in December. This is a fairly low-key record which failed to impress the critics and did not even make the UK top 40, but I like it a lot. First track is the jaunty The Highway Song followed by The Stealer, which was released as a single yet inexplicably failed to sell. On My Way, Be My Friend, Ride on a Pony, Soon I Will Be Gone, all great tracks. Highway’s lack of success was a major disappointment to Kossoff, who was in a fragile state having been a heavy user of Mandrax since the age of 15. He was also devastated by the death of his idol Jimi Hendrix during the recording of the album. With friction growing between Rodgers and Fraser – the former accusing the latter of ignoring his ideas – Free began to fall apart. That did not prevent them continuing to tour assiduously and in February 1971 they appeared at my local venue, the Imperial Ballroom in Nelson. Sadly a cash-flow crisis prevented my attendance. I had lost all my funds playing three-card brag; my Ten Jack Queen on the bounce beaten by a Prile of Sixes. Funny how these things stick in the memory. Well, tragic really. I begged my mum for a quid to go and see Free but she declined, with the stern warning: ‘Let that be a lesson to you not to lose all your money gambling.’ A former colleague who watched Free at roughly the same time in his native Middlesbrough described it as the greatest gig of his life.
Later that year the band broke up and Island was forced to rely mainly on concert recordings for album five, Free Live, whose songs had all been previously released apart from the concluding studio track Get Where I Belong.
The guitarist and drummer teamed up with Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and American keyboard player John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick to make the studio album Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit, notable for a decent track named Hold On.
In 1972, with Kossoff by now in desperate thrall to Mandrax, the three other members of Free tried to save his life by getting him back working with them in the studio and on the road. They recorded Free at Last, which supplied the hit single Little Bit of Love.
It is a melancholy album, reflecting the crisis in the guitarist’s life. Sadly, a tour proved a disaster for Paul, who was simply not up to performing, and the gigs descended into chaos. Fraser later said: ‘You could see people in the audience crying for him, longing for him to be all right.’
Unable to cope with the onstage disorder, Fraser, still only 20, quit the group and Kossoff went off to rehab. They were replaced by Tetsu and Rabbit.
That line-up recorded Free’s last album, Heartbreaker, with Kossoff able to help out on several tracks including Wishing Well, which reached number seven in the singles chart. The LP was also a commercial success in the UK and US. An American tour followed with Wendell Richardson, the former Osibisa guitarist, filling in for Kossoff. However soon afterwards came the final break-up.
Fraser had formed a band named Sharks, with the great Chris Spedding on guitar. I saw them supporting Roxy Music at Preston Guild Hall in April 1973. The playing was great but they suffered from a lack of decent material, Fraser clearly missing his songwriting partner Rodgers. The band didn’t last long.
Rodgers and Kirke went off to form Bad Company with Boz Burrell from King Crimson and Mick Ralphs of Mott the Hoople. I saw their first UK gig, at Newcastle City Hall in March 1974, and they were colossal. An encore of The Stealer was almost too much to bear. The ticket, which cost 90p, bore the legend: ‘Paul Rogers (sic), Mike (sic) Ralphs, Simone (sic) Kirke, Boz are Bad Company.’
As for Kossoff, he appeared to rally healthwise and released an album called Back Street Crawler. He was touring the US with a group named after that record in 1976 when he died from a pulmonary embolism on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. He was 25.
Although Kossoff’s life was short, his legacy is immense. All those great moments with Free, while a ‘deluxe’ 2008 reissue of the Back Street Crawler album features a 38-minute version of Time Away, a guitar jam with John Martyn, backed by Simon Kirke and Tetsu Yamauchi. Pour yourself a large one, turn off the lights, close your eyes and let it wash over you.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Rodgers and Kirke are still going strong but Fraser is no longer with us, dying of heart trouble at his Californian home in 2015, aged 62. Paul and Andy, two brilliant musicians. RIP the both of them.