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The Free Design

The equal of contemporary harmony-based peers in the shape of The 5TH DIMENSION and The ASSOCIATION, The FREE DESIGN nonetheless failed to reap any rewards. Possibly a tad twee and wistful at a time when psychedelia straddled sunshine/bubblegum-pop (The GRASS ROOTS, The TURTLES et al) and the avant-garde (The VELVET UNDERGROUND, ZAPPA etc.), the Dedricks from Delevan, New York were in a world of their very own. Although fairly ignored by the buying public, the group’s gossamer, sugary sound became hugely influential for the throngs of twee and chamber pop combos that sprung up during the 90s; just ask subsequent stars of indie-pop, STEREOLAB and HIGH LLAMAS just how much they are indebted to the “uncool” soft-jazz sounds of the wondrous FREE DESIGN.
In 1966, multi-talented instrumentalist Chris Dedrick, brother Bruce and sister Sandy formed The FREE DESIGN. Their beginnings as a group and a family were steeped in music via their father Art, a respected trombonist and arranger for Vaughn Monroe. Inspired by the impact they made on the city’s folk circuit, the threesome – with the assistance of their dad – made a demo recording which caught the ear of experienced producer and orchestrator, Enoch Light, who subsequently notched them on to his Project 3 label.
Almost immediately, the newly-formed harmony triumvirate released the LP, KITES ARE FUN (1967) {*8}; with its the chirpy title track issued that October. The 7-inch reached No.114 on the Billboard pop lists (although it did breach the Top 40 Adult Contemporary Chart), and incredibly was to be their highest ever chart entry. The album itself showcased the beautiful Baroque pop of The FREE DESIGN, with lovely and adroit string and horn arrangements. As well as including the Chris-penned mini-classics, `Umbrellas’, `Make The Madness Stop’ and `When Love Is Young’, the set also comprised brilliant “yabadaba” takes on such timeless classics as The BEATLES’ `Michelle’ and SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’.
The newly-graduated sister, Ellen, bolstered the group’s vocal sound for The FREE DESIGN’s sophomore set, YOU COULD BE BORN AGAIN (1968) {*8}, which again showcased the Dedrick family’s undoubted musical skills. Highpoints included Chris’s own tunes `A Leaf Has Veins’ (one for the Green Party) and `I Found Love’, plus wonderful readings of pop staples `Eleanor Rigby’, `California Dreamin’, `Happy Together’, Duke Ellington’s `I Like The Sunrise’ and BACHARACH-DAVID’s `The Windows Of The World’.
Unfortunately this offering refused again to give them the chart attention they merited, causing them to write and record the wry `2002 – A Hit Song’ in response to the record-buying public’s snub. This track and its twee B-side, `Hurry Sundown’, were included on their third full-length offering, HEAVEN / EARTH (1969) {*8}, another splendid record featuring no less than three other attempts at chart glory in: “Hair” ditty `Where Do I Go’ (b/w `Girls Alone’), `Dorian Benediction’ (b/w Gershwin’s `Summertime’) and `Now Is The Time’ (b/w TIM HARDIN’s `If I Were A Carpenter’).
Changing their tack, the group aimed themselves towards the children’s market (a la The PARTRIDGE FAMILY) on their fourth album, SING FOR VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE (1970) {*6}; one just might recognise `Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street?’. Thankfully this was not a path they continued, veering back as they did towards the AOR market with their next LP, STARS / TIME / BUBBLES / LOVE {*7}. Issued the same year and cross-pollinating `Bubbles’ with exclusive covers of stage/film/Brill Building staples `Butterflies Are Free’, `Tomorrow Is The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life’, `Howdjadoo’, `Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ and LAURA NYRO’s `Time And Love’, The FREE DESIGN gamboled on ignoring conventional pop and rock.
By the sixth album, ONE BY ONE (1972) {*7}, the family was still in fine musical fettle (despite the absence of Bruce); wandering into new areas exemplified by the funky `Like To Love’, a cool cover of The DOORS’ `Light My Fire’ and the set’s standout `Friendly Man’. Unfortunately though, this was to be the last record for Project 3, who unceremoniously dropped them from their roster. The remaining Dedricks took this as a sign to re-think and relocate to Canada, where things didn’t really improve. CHRIS DEDRICK recorded a solo album, “Be Free” (shelved until 2000), and as a family they put down their seventh full-length offering, THERE IS A SONG (1973) {*6}, for the small Ambrotype label.
The FREE DESIGN split two years later; Chris did continue in the musical field with the formation of the Star Scape Singers, and indeed songwriting; whilst arrangement work for Canadian Brass, as well as a plethora of work in film and television music kept him busy.
By the final decade of the twentieth century, it seemed that the dust had settled on The FREE DESIGN output, although a plethora of name-checking and disciple-type worship by a host of young indie bands, from CORNELIUS to STEREOLAB, meant that the record industry sat up and took notice of them; in the event, a compilation “Kites Are Fun: The Best Of The Free Design” was unveiled in 1998 to a whole new and appreciative audience.
Due to the renewed interest, the original trio of Chris, Sandy and Bruce re-formed; writing and recording new material for COSMIC PEEKABOO (2001) {*6}, which they dedicated to the memory of erstwhile member Stefanie Dedrick, who died from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on April 5, 1999. The set saw them return to their former harmonious best and amusingly featured the sequel to `2002 – A Hit Song’: `The Hook’. The group also made a sterling contribution to The BEACH BOYS tribute LP, `Caroline Now!’ with a fittingly chosen cover of `Endless Harmony’. Sadly, Chris died of cancer on August 6, 2010; he was 62.
© MC Strong/MCS 2003/GI&AD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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