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Formed in London in spring 1968, influential Brit-blues heavy rock band FREE predated their contemporaries LED ZEPPELIN by a matter of a few months while still in their late teens. Not too dissimilar in grounding, grooming and groove, messrs Paul Rodgers (on vocals) and Paul Kossoff (on guitars) unified their talents from Brown Sugar and Black Cat Bones respectively, recruiting drummer Simon Kirke (also from BCB) and 16-years-old BLUESBREAKERS bassist Andy Fraser along the way. With this precocious line-up complete, FREE adopted their simple moniker at the suggestion of blues-revival granddaddy ALEXIS KORNER; the same man also tipped off Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell. After resisting an extremely misguided Blackwell in his attempt to rename them The Heavy Metal Kids, the quintessential quartet duly signed to his growing roster and began work on their debut album, TONS OF SOBS (1968) {*7}.
Emerging from the shadow of other blues giants CREAM and HENDRIX, the LP was an impressive set of heavy, organic blues, Kossoff stealing the show with his emotionally charged, liquid-gold guitar style; more or less in full effect on BOOKER T/MGs/JUNIOR WELLS’ `The Hunter’. Rodgers, too, was the emotion-driven frontman other bands could only dream of performing beside, his sole contributions such as `Worry’ and `Sweet Tooth’ confident pieces saddled alongside group compositions such as `Walk In My Shadow’, `I’m A Mover’ and a cover of James Burke Oden’s little-known `Goin’ Down Slow’.
By the rushed release of the eponymous FREE (1969) {*6} album, Rodgers’ soulful voice was developing into one of the best in rock, while Fraser had taken on the role of joint songwriter duties alongside the singer. Frictions were never far from the surface, and with Rodgers and Fraser straining to contain the impetuous Kossoff (Kirke and he were on the verge of bailing out), the set was completed as boss Blackwell took over from original producer Guy Stevens. Still without a hit 45, as set highlights `I’ll Be Creepin’’ and `Broad Daylight’ had flopped miserably, the long-player fared even worse than its predecessor – it seemed there was no room for two LED ZEPPELINs. The er… `Songs Of Yesterday’ (also a track here), were indeed too depressing to connect to a post-psychedelic contingent of fans not quite ready to go deep down under for the likes of `Mourning Sad Morning’ and `Mouthful Of Grass’. But there was potential.
FREE had already a blistering live reputation, a reputation that had built up a sizeable following by the time `All Right Now’ was released and reaching Top 5 all around the globe. Its gritty R&B stomp paved the way for the band’s magnum opus third set, FIRE AND WATER (1970) {*8}, a Top 3 LP that boasted such enduring fare as the introspective ballads `Oh I Wept’ and `Heavy Load’, while Rodgers’ wonderfully subdued vocals lent `Remember’ a mellow resonance. That aside, the undoubted high spots derived from FREE signature classics such as `Mr. Big’, the full-length 5-minute single and the opening title track. That summer, cresting the wave of their popularity, the band played to over half a million people at the Isle Of Wight festival.
With pressure to come up with a successful follow-up to the loan hit, FREE were confident that `The Stealer’ would do the business. When it mystifyingly stiffed, things started to go seriously awry, especially when `The Highway Song’ performed ditto. The band’s fourth album HIGHWAY (1970) {*5} received a similarly lukewarm reception, and there were a number of reasons: mainly Kossoff’s understandable downer from friend JIMI HENDRIX’s drug-related death, FREE’s softer countrified-rock vibe (somewhat akin to The BAND’s `Music From Big Pink’) and basically the weakness of a handful of the tracks; with the exception of `Be My Friend’, `Soon I Will Be Gone and the aforementioned `The Stealer’.
This relative commercial failure increased tensions (the album only peaked at No.41) in what was already a perilously fraught intra-band relationship, the group deciding to call it a day after fulfilling touring commitments in Japan and Australia. The split eventually came in May ‘71, ironically almost coinciding with their soon-to-be second biggest hit, `My Brother Jake’, a classy FACES-styled romp that fitted hand-in-glove to an era that produced so many timeless gemstones. FREE LIVE! (1971) {*7} – recorded in Croydon and Sunderland – signed off the group in fine style, there was even space for a tag-on studio track `Get Where I Belong’.
The first chapter was over then. Preoccupations by Rodgers (by way of Peace) and Fraser (through the band Toby) came to little, although PK and SK found themselves under the clumsy but at least blues-driven one-off eponymous album project, `Kossoff Kirke Tetsu Rabbit’ (1972), alongside Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and Texan singer-songwriter/keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick. The merits of these ill-advised recordings were almost immediately brushed under the studio carpet. This was another low point in the Free story.
Kossoff was still relishing the opportunity to realise his ideas outwith the confines of his old bandmates when FREE duly re-grouped early in 1972 to record the FREE AT LAST {*5} album, a welcome but dour effort which at least spawned an upbeat Top 20 hit `Little Bit Of Love’ and a few other high spots in `Travelling Man’ and `Sail On’. While the album made the UK Top 10 (Top 75 in the States), Kossoff was spiralling into serious drug dependence, and following a disastrous American tour, the band’s stability received a further blow when ANDY FRASER departed to join Sharks; he subsequently released a few melodic rock albums in the mid 70s.
With the aforementioned Tetsu and Rabbit filling in, FREE undertook a Japanese tour prior to recording swansong Top 10 album HEARTBREAKER (1973) {*7}. Although Kossoff was too ill to make much of a contribution, the album stands among FREE’s best, boasting Rodgers’ desperate plea to Kossoff through classic rock Top 10 platter `Wishing Well’ (one of two group comps alongside the excellent `Travellin’ In Style’) and the superb Rodgers-penned title track and `Come Together In The Morning’ both; side two was a little underwhelming featuring two decent enough Bundrick contributions via `Muddy Water’ and `Common Mortal Man’.
Following a tour of America with TRAFFIC, FREE split for a final time in summer ‘73, Rodgers and Kirke going on to form BAD COMPANY, while THE FREE STORY (1974) {*9} concurrently secured a near No.1 spot. Subsequent re-issues of `All Right Now’ were re-charting testaments of a truly great ground-breaking outfit. Tragically, at the age of only 25, PAUL KOSSOFF succumbed to heroin addiction, dying in his sleep on the 19th March ‘76.
Long time a solo artist, but fighting an AIDS-related illness, ANDY FRASER passed away on the 16th March 2015.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG/MCS-GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2011-Mar2015

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