It’s not often that someone get the opportunity to witness history being made. Those that happened to be in the Nag’s Head pub, in Battersea, London on 19 April 1968 saw history being made. They watched as four young men took to the stage for the first time. What some members of the audience noticed was how young the band were.
Two of the band didn’t look old enough to buy a round in the Nag’s Head. Especially the bassist. Andy Fraser was just fifteen. His partner in the rhythm section, drummer Simon Kirke, was eighteen. Lead guitarist Paul Kossoff was just seventeen, while the vocalist Paul Rodgers eighteen. Many of the regulars were veterans gig goers, and weren’t expecting much of the young band. They were in for a pleasant surprise as the young blues rock made their debut. However, nobody present that night what would happen over the next five years.
By November 1968, Alexis Korner had christened the nascent band Free. They would sign to Island Records in 1969, and later that year, recorded their debut album Tons Of Sobs. It would be released in 1970, and the first of six studio albums and one live album Free released between 1969 and 1973. During that period, the band broke up, the lineup changed several times and Free sold twenty-million albums. Sadly, Free split-up in 1973, and that was the end of the road for the hard rock pioneers. Their albums were recently reissued by Island Records, and document the history of Free.
Tons Of Sobs.
Having recently signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, London based blues rockers Free entered the Morgan Studios, in London with producer Guy Stevens. He had been allocated a budget of just £800 to produce what became Tons Of Sobs. This was going to be a challenge.
Free were one of the youngest bands Guy Stevens had worked with. Despite their youth, Free had spent the last few months playing live. This allowed them to hone their sound and set. That set Free would replicate at Morgan Studio.
Free’s set included a number of tracks by lead vocalist Paul Rodgers. He wrote Over the Green Hills (Pt. 1), Worry, Walk in My Shadow, Sweet Toot and Over The Green Hills. Paul Rodgers also cowrote three other tracks. This included Wild Indian Woman and I’m A Mover with Andy Fraser plus Moonshine with Paul Kossoff. The other two tracks were cover versions. They were St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s Goin’ Down Slow and The Hunter which was penned by the Stax Records’ house band by Booker T. and The MGs. This combination of cover versions and new songs would become Free’s debut album Tons Of Sobs.
With such a limited budget, Guy Stevens decided to take a minimalist approach to recording Tons Of Sobs. This he hoped, would allow him to replicate how Free sounded live. Their sets showcased the blues rock sound that was then popular in late-1968.
When Free arrived in the studio, drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke joined bassist and pianist in the rhythm section. Meanwhile, Paul Kossoff switched between lead and rhythm guitar. Paul Rodgers took charge of the lead vocals. As Free played, they were loud, raw and far from polished. That was no surprise given Free’s youthfulness and inexperience. Given time and a bigger budget, Guy Stevens could’ve overcome this.There was a problem though.
Island Records expected all producers to complete an album on time and within budget. It didn’t matter who the artists was, whether they were making their debut or were veterans. Guy Stevens succeeded, and Tons Of Sobs was completed in December 1968. However, given more time and money, Guy Stevens could’ve produced a much slicker, polished album. In a way, this was just as well, as Tons Of Sobs was representative of Free in the early part of their career.
Just three months after the completion of Tons Of Sobs, Island Records were preparing for the release of Free’s debut album. It was scheduled for release on 14th March 1969. The reviews had been mixed.
In Britain, Tons Of Sobs had been well received by critics. They were won over by Free’s raw and raucous blues rock sound. However, across the Atlantic, Rolling Stone magazine weren’t impressed by Tons Of Sobs. This was no surprise. The magazine seemed to dislike any British blues rock band. Free were just the latest to incur the wrath of Rolling Stone. This was disappointing, as it was an influential publication in America, and could affect sales of Tons Of Sobs.
Ironically, when Tons Of Sobs was released on 14th March 1969, the album fared better in America than Britain. Tons Of Sobs failed to chart in Britain, but crept into the US Billboard 200 at a lowly 197. For Free and Island Records, the commercial failure of Tons Of Sobs must have been a huge disappointment. Despite this, Free continued to record their eponymous sophomore album.
Work began on Fee in January 1969, and the band spent the next six months recording their eponymous sophomore album. This time, Paul Rodgers cowrote most of Free with Andy Fraser.
Their songwriting partnership began on Tons Of Sobs and began to blossom on Free. They penned eight tracks and cowrote Trouble on Double Time with drummer Simon Kirke. These songs were recorded with a new producer.
This time around, Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell decided to produce Free. He joined Free at Morgan Studio and Trident Studio, London. Drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke was joined in the rhythm section by bassist Andy Fraser who also played piano and rhythm guitar. Paul Kossoff playedlead and rhythm guitar, and Paul Rodgers added the lead vocals. When it came to recording Mourning, Sad Mourning, flautist Chris Wood was drafted in. Gradually, the album began to take shape. Eventually, after six months of recording in two studios, Free was complete.
Four months after the completion of Free, the album was released in October 1969. By then, the album had been well received by most critics. They noticed the Free’s music was evolving from their blues rock roots. There’s a move towards classic rock and hard rock. However, on Lying In The Sunshine and Mourning Sad Morning there’s a folk rock influence. Free’s music was changing, and changing fast. Their sophomore album was a much more polished and mature album.
Partly, this was because of the new role that Andy Fraser’s bass played on Free. It was fulfilling the role of a rhythm guitar, helping to drive the arrangements along, before the lead guitar takes over. However, another of Andy Fraser’s actions didn’t go down well with Paul Kossoff.
He had played all the guitar parts on Tons Of Sobs. On Free, Andy Fraser played some of the rhythm guitar parts. He cowrote each of the nine songs on Free, and decided to teach Paul Kossoff the rhythm guitar parts that he had written for him. This didn’t go down well, and the relationship between the two men. Before they released their sophomore album, all wasn’t well within Free.
When Free was released in October 1969, the album reached twenty-two in the UK. Across the Atlantic, Free failed to trouble the charts. While this was a disappointment, at least Free had made inroads into the British charts. Maybe things would improve when they released their third album Fire and Water?
Fire and Water.
Having released Free in October 1969, Free spent much of the remainder of the year touring. They were spending more and more of their time on the road. Indeed, when Free weren’t in the studio, they were on the road. However, by January 1970 the time came for Free to record their third album Fire and Water.
Just like on Free, the Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser songwriting partnership cowrote the majority of the album. They five of the seven tracks, including Fire and Water, Remember, Heavy Load, Don’t Say You Love Me and All Right Now. Mr. Big became the first Free song to be written by the four band members. Oh How I Wept was penned by Paul Rodgers and Pau Kossoff. It became part of Free’s third album, Fire and Water.
For Fire and Water, the changes had been rung. There was no sign of producer Chris Blackwell. Instead, Free co-produced Fire and Water with John Kelly and Roy Thomas Baker. This time around, Free went back to basics. Andy Fraser let Paul Kossoff lay down the rhythm guitar parts. It was back to how it had been on Tons Of Sobs.
Recording took place at Trident Studios and Island Studios. Drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke joined bassist and pianist Andy Fraser in the rhythm section. Meanwhile, Paul Kossoff switched between lead and rhythm guitar. Paul Rodgers took charge of the lead vocals on Fire and Water. Recording of the album took six months, and Fire and Water was completed in June 1970.
Fire and Water was released on 26th June 1970. Critical acclaim accompanied an album that was a mixture of blues rock, classic rock and hard rock. This was Free’s most cohesive album. That was the case from the opening bars of Fire and Water to the closing notes of All Right Now. A number of tracks on Fire and Water stood out. This included the rocky album opener Fire And Water and the ballads Oh I Wept, Heavy Load and Don’t Say You Love Me. However, the song that had hit written large all over it, was the album closer All Right Now. That proved to be the case.
When Fire and Water was released on 26th June 1970, the album reached number two in the UK and seventeen on the US Billboard 200. When All Right Now was released as a single, it reached number two in the UK and four on the US Billboard 100. The promoters of one of the major British music festivals were taking note.
After the success of All Right Now, Free were asked to appear at five day Isle of Wight Festival between Wednesday the 26th of August to Sunday the 30th of August 1970. Given their recent success, Free played on the Sunday.
Free opened their set with Ride On A Pony. It gave way to Mr. Big, Woman, The Stealer and Be My Friend. As 600,000 people watched on expectantly, Free played Fire and Water and then I’m A Mover, a cover of The Hunter and their recent hit single All Right Now. However, closing their set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was a cover of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. It allowed Free to pay tribute to one of the artists who had inspired them to form a band. This band Free, was on its way to becoming one of the biggest in the world.
After the Isle of Wight Festival, Free began work on their fourth album Highway. Again, Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser wrote seven of the nine songs on Highway. They penned The Highway Song, On My Way, Be My Friend, Sunny Day, Ride On A Pony, Brodie and Soon I Will Be Gone. Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser also cowrote The Stealer with Paul Kossoff, while Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke wrote Love You So. These songs were recorded at Island Studios, in London.
When work began on Highway, there someone missing, a producer. For the first time, Free were producing an album. They had co-produced Fire and Water. This was the next natural step. However, there was a problem.
All of sudden the spotlight was shawn on Free. They were finding it hard to cope with the newfound success. Especially guitarist Paul Kossoff, whose drug addiction was worsening. He had taken the death of Jimi Hendrix badly. Paul Kossoff idolised Jimi Hendrix, and his death just added to the pressure he was feeling. He wasn’t alone.
Although they were financially secure, the members of Free felt under pressure to produce another hit single that followed in the footsteps of All Right Now. Similarly, it wasn’t going to be easy to replicate the success of Fire and Water. However, Free were determined to try and do so.
Free stuck to the same formula as on Fire and Water. Highway was a mixture of blues rock, classic rock and the hard rock style that Free had been pioneering. To do this, drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke joined bassist and pianist Andy Fraser in the rhythm section. Paul Kossoff played lead and rhythm guitar, while Paul Rodgers took charge of the lead vocals on Highway. The album was recorded during September 1970 at Island Studios.
Three months later, later and Highway released by December 1970. The reviews of the album had been disappointing. To make matter worse, Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell wasn’t convinced by Free’s choice for the lead single, The Stealer. He preferred Ride On A Pony and felt it had more chance of giving Free another hit single. However, Chris Blackwell allowed Free to have the last word, and The Stealer would be released as a single.
When The Stealer was released as a single, it failed to chart in the UK, but reached number forty-nine in the UK. For the followup, Ride A Pony was chosen. However, it failed to chart on both sides of the Atlantic. This was a huge disappointment.
So was the performance of Highway, when it was released in December 1970. It stalled at forty-one in the UK and 190 in the US Billboard 200. Free weren’t so much disappointed, as shocked at how badly Highway had been received by critics and record buyers. Everyone had a theory on the failure of Highway.
Engineer Andy Johns placed the blame on Highway’s album cover. It didn’t display Free’s name prominently enough he believed. That’s not so far fetched. Nowhere on Highway’s album cover is the word Free. This may have cost Free dearly.
Soon, the post mortem into the failure of Highway began. By then, the relationship between Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser reached an all-time low. Paul Kossoff’s drug addiction continued to spiral out of control. It was alleged that he had become addicted to Mandrax. Meanwhile, drummer Simon Kirke tried to keep Free from tearing itself apart. This wasn’t easy.
In early 1971, Free returned to the studio, and recorded four more songs. This included My Brother Jake. However, the relationships and problems within the band had worsened. After recording four songs, Free decided to split-up.
Before that, Free had to fulfil the live dates that had been booked. If they hadn’t, the various promoters would’ve sued Free. So they decided to play the remaining live dates, before calling time on Free in April 1971.
By the time Free split-up, My Brother Jake had reached number four in the UK. Record buyers it seemed, hadn’t lost interest in Free. Far from it. Instead, there was a resurgence in interest in Free. Partly, this was because of the success of My Brother Jake and the publicity caused by Free splitting-up. Island Records decided to rush release a live album, Free Live!
Island Records had obviously been planning on releasing a live album. They had sent a mobile recording studio and engineer Andy Johns to two of the towns where Free were especially popular, Sunderland and Croydon. The recordings took place in Sunderland in January 1970 and in Croydon in September 1970.
Eventually, only two tracks from the concert in Sunderland were used, All Right Now and The Hunter. The other four songs, I’m A Mover, Be My Friend, Fire and Water, Ride On Pony and Mr. Big were recorded in Croydon. Tagged on at the end of Free Live! was an acoustic rendition of Get Where I Belong. This was a Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser song that had been recorded during the recording sessions before Free split-up. It was added as a bonus track to Free Live!, on its release.
Five months after Free had split-up, Free Live! was scheduled to be released in September 1971. Before that, critics had their say on the album. It was well received by critics, who were won over by what was an unusual setlist.Apart from All Right Now, the rest of the songs were album tracks. Free had eschewed the familiar, and dug deeper into their back-catalogue. Free Live! featured spirited performances by a tight, talented and versatile band. They seemed to put their problems aside when they stepped onto the stage. That had been, and would be the case throughout Free’s career. Free seemed happiest as they constantly toured and played live in front of huge, adoring audiences.
When Free Live! wash released in September 1971, it reached number four in the UK. Despite splitting up five months earlier, Free were still a hugely popular band. Across the Atlantic, Free Live! reached just eighty-nine in the US Billboard 200. That seemed like a disappointing way for Free to end their career.
Free At Last.
Although Free had split-up in April 1971, the band decided to reform in early 1972. Unlike many bands, monetary gain wasn’t the reason behind the reunion.
Instead, Andy Fraser, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke were determined to save their comrade in arms Paul Kossoff from himself. His drug usage was worsening, and spiralling out of control. Mandrax was Paul Kossoff’s drug of choice, and his addiction had worsened since the demise of Free. When the other three members of Free realised that, they decided to reunite in a last gasp attempt to save Paul Kossoff from himself.
Before work began on Free At Last, the members of Free decided that when it came to songwriting credits, every member of the band would be credited. For Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser, Free’s principal songwriters, this was a generous and potentially, costly gesture. This however, was part of their attempt to help Paul Kossoff turn his life around.
His drug addiction was proving costly, and he was burning through the money he had made. Paul Kossoff didn’t write many songs, so didn’t have the same income from royalties as Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser. If the album they were about to record proved successful, this could be lucrative for Paul Kossoff and afford him some financial security.
Recording of Free At Last took place at Island Studios, in London in February 1972. Again, Free decided to produce Free At Last. This was a big risk, as the first album Free produced had been their least successful. However, they were older and more experienced. They had learned from their mistakes as they began work on the nine songs Free had penned.
At Island Studios, drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke joined bassist and pianist in the rhythm section. Meanwhile, Paul Kossoff switched between lead and rhythm guitar. Paul Rodgers took charge of the lead vocals and played piano. The recording sessions went well. Paul Rodgers, Andy Fraser and Simon Kirke were determined that the sessions would run smoothly for the sake of their friend, Paul Kossoff. That proved to be the case, and Free At Last was completed by March 1972.
Once Free At Last was completed, the album was delivered to Chris Blackwell at Island Records. He scheduled the release of Free At Last for June 1972. Before that, critics were sent a copy of Free’s comeback album, Free At Last.
The critics discovered a very different album to Free’s previous albums. The songs were slower, but gradually quickly. Mostly, the songs had a wistful quality. They also had an introspective quality that invited reflection. Given the wistful sound and the lyrics, many critics immediately concluded that that they were about troubled Free guitarist Paul Kossoff? His problems were worsening as the release date approached.
Island Records wanted Free to tour Free At Last. However, Paul Kossoff’s drug addiction continued to worsen. He was struggling to cope and function as a musician. This didn’t auger well for Free At Last tour.
Before that, Free At Last was released in June 1972, and reached number nine in the UK. In America, Free At Last reached sixty-nine. This was Free’s most successful album since Fire and Water. The success continued when Little Bit Of Love was released as a single, and reached number thirteen in the UK. However, the success of Free At Last was overshadowed by the Free At Last tour.
During the Free At Last tour, Paul Kossoff started to miss concerts. Other times, he turned up and was unable to play his guitar. He was struggling to function as a person, never mind a musician. Members of the audience were distraught at the sight of Paul Kossoff. Some openly wept, distressed at what they saw unfolding in front of their eyes. The person who was affected most was Andy Fraser.
He couldn’t bear to watch the events continue to unfold before his eyes. His friend was slowly destroying himself. Andy Fraser decided to leave Free permanently. He was only twenty.
Following in the footsteps of Andy Fraser was Paul Kossiff. The press and public were told he was seeking treatment for his drug addition, and would return to the Free fold.
Meanwhile, the departure of Andy Fraser left a huge void within Free. The search began for a replacement. This was found in the band that Paul Kissoff and Simon Kirke had cofounded after Free split-up in April 1971, Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit.
Bassist Tetsu Yamauchi joined Free. So did keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick. They made their Free debut during the Free At Last tour. After the tour, the pair would join an extended lineup of Free.
Following the Free At Last tour, the newly expanded lineup of Free began work on their sixth studio album. It was a very different band that headed to Island Studios, in London.
Free had brought bassist Tetsu Yamauchi in to replace Andy Fraser. He was now a full-time member of Free. So was keyboardist John “Rabbit” Burdock. Many fans were puzzled by the decision to bring him onboard.
John “Rabbit” Burdock had been brought to compensate for, and augment Paul Rodgers. He had played keyboards on Free At Last. Since then, he was becoming unreliable. Fearing a repeat of the situation with Paul Kossoff, a replacement was brought onboard for the recording of Heartbreaker. This wasn’t the only change.
Although it was alleged that Paul Rodgers was becoming unreliable, he still played a huge part in the writing of Heartbreaker. In total, Paul Rodgers wrote four of the eight tracks and cowrote two more songs. It seemed that Paul Rodgers was Free’s songwriter-in-chief. Come Together In The Morning, Heartbreaker, Easy On My Soul and Seven Angels were all penned by Paul Rodgers. He wrote Wishing Well and Travellin’ in Style with Paul Kossoff, Simon Kirke, Tetsu Yamauchi and John “Rabbit” Burdock. The new keyboardist contributed Muddy Waters and Common Mortal Man. These two songs, like the rest of Heartbreaker were recorded in the familiar surroundings of Island Studios.
The sessions for Heartbreaker began in October 1972. Just like their two previous albums, Free produced Heartbreaker with Andy Johns. Free whose lineup now numbered five, were joined by a few friends.
As the session began, drummer and percussionist Simon Kirke played rhythm guitar on Muddy Water. He was joined in the rhythm section by bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and Snuffy Walden, who made a guest appearance on three tracks. Meanwhile, vocalist Paul Rodgers played rhythm guitar on four tracks, played lead guitar on two tracks and played piano on Easy On My Soul. Paul Kossoff played lead guitar on just four tracks. The other guest artist was percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. He made a brief appearance on Wishing Well. That was his only contribution to Heartbreaker, which took two months to record. By November 1972, Heartbreaker was complete.
There was a problem though. Chris Blackwell didn’t like Free’s mix of Heartbreaker. So much so, that he drafted in Andy Johns to remix Heartbreaker. This resulted in him receiving a credit as co-producer. Now somewhat belatedly, Heartbreaker was ready for release.
With Heartbreaker complete, Island Records scheduled the release for January 1972. This left little time to promote Heartbreaker. Copies were sent out to critics, who hailed Free’s sixth studio album, Heartbreaker as one of their finest. The newly expanded lineup was responsible for what was Free’s finest album since Fire and Water. One track stood out, Wishing Well and was released as a single.
Wishing Well was released as the lead single from Heartbreaker, and reached number seven in the UK. Then in January 1973, Heartbreaker was released to widespread critical acclaim. It reached number nine in the UK, and became Free’s third top ten album in their home country. Across the Atlantic, in the lucrative American market, Heartbreaker reached forty-seven in the US Billboard 200. This was an improvement on Free At Last, and became Free’s most successful album since Fire and Water. However, all this meant nothing to one member of Free.
Two words on the album cover of Heartbreaker resulted in Paul Kossoff reaching his lowest ebb. He was listed as an additional musician. After six studio albums and one live albums, one of the founding members of Free was reduced to the status of sideman. Paul Kossoff was distraught. This was the ultimate betrayal. The question that has to be asked, is who was responsible for this betrayal?
Someone within Free’s camp must have known that Paul Kossoff was going to be listed as an additional musician. The band’s management would’ve been aware of who was being credited for what on Heartbreaker? Indeed, bands are usually asked about credits. Whoever was responsible for this ultimate betrayal sent Paul Kossoff’s life on a downward spiral.
Paul Kossoff was so badly affected that he was unable to travel to America for the forthcoming tour. Free found a replacement in Wendell Richardson from Osibisa. He was nowhere as good a guitarist as Paul Kossoff. Paul Rodgers wasn’t sure Free had recruited the right guitarist.
They hadn’t. Wendell Richardson was the wrong choice. He wasn’t suited to the role. Osibisa were an Afro-pop band. Free were a rock band, whose music ranged from blues rock, to classic rock and heavy rock. Free’s newest recruit was in the wrong movie. Once the American tour was over, Free called time on their career.
This time, it was for good. They had released six studios albums and one live album during the five years they were together. During that period, there had been highs and lows. There had also been bust ups and betrayals, and triumph and tragedy. Free had split-up once before, and the lineup had changed. However, the one constant had been the music.
Free’s music evolved throughout the five years they were together. They began as a blues rock band, before the music began to evolve. Briefly, Free’s music moved towards folk rock. Mostly, though, their albums showcased classic rock, folk rock or hard rock. However, Free never quite turned their back on their early blues rock sound. Sometimes, Free eschewed their hard rocking sound for heartfelt balladry. This showed another side to one of the pioneers of hard rock, Free. Their music found a wide and appreciative audience.
Over the five years Free were together, they hardly stopped touring. That was apart to record six studio albums. Free seemed happiest as they toured the world, playing live. They played 700 arena concerts and festivals. The classic lineup of Free, drummer Simon Kirkem bassist, guitarist Paul Kossoff and vocalist Paul Rodgers were one of the hardest working bands. They’re also one of the most successful.
By the time Free called time on their career, they sold twenty million copes of Tons Of Sobs, Free, Fire and Water, Highway, Free Live!, Free At Last and Heartbreaker. These albums were recently remastered and rereleased by Island Records. They’re one of the greatest British rock groups of the late-sixties and early seventies.
Sadly, though, sometimes, Free are overlooked in favour of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or Deep Purple. However, they enjoyed much longer careers than Free. They seem to have slipped under the radar, and nowadays, most people remember only two of their biggest hits, All Right Now and Wishing Well. That however, is just a tantalising taste of the music Free released between 1969 and 1973.
During that four year period, Free achieved more than most. After all, how many bands sell twenty-million albums during a four year period? Free managed to do so during a period where the competition was fierce. They were up against some of the biggest names in rock. Despite this, Free become one of the biggest and most successful British rock bands, and left behind a rich musical legacy that has stood the test of time.