Formed: 1968 in London, England
Disbanded:1973 in London
The British blues-rock boom of the 1960s had already begun to wane by the time that the groundbreaking band Free hit the scene. In just five short years, Free mutated the amps-on-eleven blues-rock sound of predecessors like Cream and Taste into something else entirely. Shorn of the need to keep their blues roots on constant display to keep purists happy, Free stripped the band's blues and rock influences down to a primal scream, creating a new guitar-driven pop-rock style that had blues as a stepping stone to bigger melodic hooks and often introspective lyrics. In doing so, they would pave the way for mid-to-late-1970s successes like Foreigner, Foghat, and Rodgers' own Bad Company.
Tons of Sobs
Free was formed in London 1968 by guitarist Paul Kossoff, then a member of Black Cat Bones, and singer Paul Rodgers, then fronting an outfit known as Brown Sugar. Kossoff had seen Rodgers performing with his band and struck up a friendship; when the two decided to form their own band, they recruited bassist Andy Fraser from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and drummer Simon Kirke, Kossoff's bandmate in Black Cat Bones. Alexis Korner, one of the godfathers of British blues, was an early supporter of the band, and even suggested the name Free.
Korner also helped bring the band to the attention of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed them to a deal. The young band – Fraser was but 16 years old, Kossoff was 17, Rodgers and Kirke 18 years old – went into the studio with producer Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople, The Clash) and recorded their 1969 debut, Tons of Sobs, on a miniscule budget around $1,000. The album would be Free's bluesiest effort, featuring several original songs as well as covers of Albert King's Stax hit "The Hunter" and blues standard "Goin' Down Slow."
Fire and Water
Free's self-titled second album was recorded a few short months after the band's debut, with Blackwell himself producing. Months of heavy touring had honed Free's live sound, and the potential of the songwriting team of Rodgers and Fraser hinted at by Tons of Sobs began to take shape on 1969's Free. Friction between the members began to grow as Fraser began to take a larger role in the band, the bassist even going so far as to show Kossoff specific bits to play. The album sold poorly, but the band's audience continued to grow on the strength of its powerful live performances, setting the stage for their breakthrough the following year.
Free's third effort, 1970's Fire and Water, would launch the band to stardom on the strength of the classic Rodgers/Fraser song "All Right Now." Featuring Rodgers' powerful vocals sliding across a now-familiar Kossoff riff, the song married a blues edge with a hard-charging rhythm, launching the single into the top five in the U.S. and the U.K. while the album would chart high in both countries, hitting #2 in the band's homeland. The album's success would earn Free a headline appearance in front of 600,000 fans at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.
Free At Last
Trying to cash in on the band's success with "All Right Now," Island pushed Free into the studio too soon to record a follow-up, the resulting album, Highway, recorded a few months after the band's Isle of Wight appearance. While the album fesatured several good songs, including "Highway Song," "Ride On A Pony," and the first single, "The Stealer," it fared poorly on the charts and had been impacted somewhat by Kossoff's growing dependence on the sedative Mandrax (methaqualone). The creative relationship between Rodgers and Fraser had also begun to suffer, and after the album's poor critical and commercial reception, Free broke-up in early 1971. The 1970 tour in support of Highway would yield the posthumous concert album Free Live! which would take the band back to the top of the U.K. charts.
In the wake of Free's break-up, the members went on to individual projects, Kossoff teaming with drummer Kirke, bassist Tetsu Yamauchi, and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick to record a well-received album as Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit. Rodgers formed the band Peace, and Fraser formed a band named Toby, none of which found any measure of commercial success. Free's original foursome reunited in 1972 as a way to help a deteriorating Kossoff deal with his heroin addiction, recording the album Free At Last. Bluesy, introspective, and often more mellow than the band's hard-rock image would indicate, the album nevertheless became Free's second most successful. Sadly, Kossoff's contributions were minimal, his once-stellar playing erratic.
Touring in support of Free At Last, Kossoff became even more unreliable, often unable to perform even when he showed up for a gig. Fraser would be the first to quit the band, forming Sharks with guitarist Chris Spedding, while Kossoff would take leave to receive treatment for his addictions. Rodgers and Kirke soldiered on, recruiting Yamauchi and Bundrick as replacements for the tour. It is this line-up that would record Heartbreaker, Free's final studio album, with Kossoff listed as an "additional musician" in the credits. While it has long been rumored that session musicians often took Kossoff's place during the recording, it is undeniably the troubled guitarist's playing on the hit single "Wishing Well."
Heartbreaker would become Free's third most successful album, charting in both the U.K. and the United States. But tension between Rodgers and Bundrick would a well-publicized fist-fight between the two men, while Kossoff sunk deeper into addiction. Free finally broke-up for the last time in 1973, Rodgers and Kirke going on the form the successful mid-1970s band Bad Company with guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and bassist Boz Burrell from King Crimson. Kossoff went on the form the band Back Street Crawler, recording two albums before his death in 1976 at just 25 years old. In the years since, Paul Rodgers has become known as one of the finest voices in rock music, and he has found success as both a solo artist and with bands like the Firm and Queen, taking the place of that band's late vocalist Freddie May.
Recommended Albums: Those interested in discovering the point where British blues-rock intersected with 1970s-era hard rock should look no further than Molten Gold: The Anthology, a two-disc set featuring 30 songs including the band's monster hit, "All Right Now." The less adventuresome should consider the compact and budget-priced 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection, which offers 11 red-hot tracks including the hit. As for full-length albums, the band's debut, Tons of Sobs showcases Free at its bluesiest, while Fire and Water, with that song, remains the band's most popular effort.
Free - Select Discography
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- Tons of Sobs (Island Records, 1969)
- Free (Island Records, 1969)
- Fire and Water (Island Records, 1970)
- Highway (Island Records, 1970)
- Free Live! (Island Records, 1971)
- Free At Last (Island Records, 1972)
- Heartbreaker (Island Records, 1972)
- Molten Gold: The Anthology (Island Records, 1993)
- Live At The BBC (Island Records, 2006)