Denny Freeman returns
For 32 years this story has been pounding inside me, begging to come out.
It started simply enough, in 1979, when I decided to write a feature for the Austin Sun called "Fifty Fingers." I'd chosen five local guitarists who flew somewhat under the radar, but always managed to paint the sky red whenever they took the bandstand.
Denny Freeman, Ike Ritter, Bill Campbell, Johnny Richardson, and John Reed never failed to reach that summit. They were hardwired to mesmerize us by the power of what two hands can do with just a piece of wood and six metal strings.
I began by interviewing Freeman at the bar of Abel Moses on 24th Street and Rio Grande. The site had been the home of Bevo's Westside Tap Room, a strange blend of fraternity bar on one side and total bohemian enclave on the other. Out back was a biergarten where singers and bands were beginning to carve out a space for themselves in the shadow of the University of Texas Tower.
At that juncture, the city was crawling with guitar players, and several were already starting to make major-league names. Still, my five were always the ones who were never less than thrilling for me, no matter what planet they were playing on during any given night. Each held a secret treasure, and the way they'd share it with listeners felt like they were passing on something that couldn't stay bottled up inside them. There were moments of mind-jolting revelations that continually poured from those players, and it made life a constant source of discovery following them around town.
The first time I heard Denny Freeman glows as bright inside me today as the night it happened. He was playing with Chuck and Julie Joyce, a married couple who also performed with country roots pioneer Kenneth Threadgill. This night they were on their own at the One Knite, ground zero for Austin clubs. The small room was located Downtown only a couple of blocks from police headquarters. It was around 1972, and the city was yet to discover its future destiny as the live music capital of the world. This night, the streets were sleepy and the dozen people sitting in the rickety chairs felt like a small cult of the deeply devoted.
Julie Joyce, sitting behind a beautiful mahogany kit, started singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," one of the great Southern anthems Robbie Robertson had written for the Band. This version belonged to Joyce. You could feel the pain of someone who had not only lost a relative or two, but also a war. When it came time for Freeman to solo, he first looked at the audience to see if anyone was there. The guitarist had a tentative feeling, like he wasn't sure if this was the proper time or place to do what was coming next.
Turning the treble knob on his instrument, Freeman started slow, building a few gorgeous chords that sounded like the wind blowing through a deserted cemetery. At the point where the music was settling in, the guitarist began hitting stinging single notes that were rifle shots mowing down a row of soldiers. Anger took over the tone, and it looked like Freeman himself had worked up a fever. Minutes later he switched to the orchestral and a denouement to all that fury. A gorgeous sonic cloud hung over the One Knite. Two people started screaming. Freeman gave off a sheepish look of surprise at what had just happened.
Bo Diddley's From Mars
There are moments in life that become crystallized inside us. If we're lucky, they grow into a series of stepping stones that move life forward. Music has given me so many of those moments they've become an unending soundtrack.
On "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Freeman created something that lives forever there. I got sidetracked on the "Fifty Fingers" story and moved to Los Angeles instead, but for me there's an aura surrounding Freeman to this day. He went on to become a foundation of Austin music, playing in Storm with Jimmie Vaughan, forming the Cobras with Paul Ray (an early vehicle for Stevie Ray Vaughan), and being featured in groups with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton before moving to California to work with Taj Mahal's Phantom Blues Band and then five years playing lead guitar in Bob Dylan's group. He's lived a life that mostly eluded the big spotlight, but make no mistake: Denny Freeman has earned himself a place among the greats.
Freeman was born in an Army hospital in Florida, but his family moved to Hillsboro, Texas, almost right away. From there they relocated to Dallas when he was 8. Rock & roll hadn't found its way out of deep pockets in the South quite yet, but all that would change when the young boy heard the Don Hosek Trio in the community room of a shopping center in Dallas.
"We'd go listen to the music and watch the folks dance the Lowlife, which was something unique to our part of town," recalls Freeman. "The guitar player in the band didn't sing. He just stood there looking like Elvis – playing a Fender Stratocaster. It was such a powerful image. I turned to my friend and said, 'We have to learn how to do that!'"
All previous bets were off as the teenager turned to the guitar. His mother took him to Elm Street, where the pawnshops were, and he walked out with a Stratocaster.
"Unbelievable," Freeman laughs today. "The coolest guitar ever made, and I had one, even if it was beat up a little and missing a couple of knobs. It must have been a sacrifice. We didn't have much money, so it's hard to believe she would do that."
His die was cast. As rock & roll grew, so did the blues in a young man's heart.
"In Dallas, blues was part of the landscape. It was on the radio," says Freeman. "I could tell the difference between blues and rock & roll, but it was all mixed up. I'll never forget the first time I heard Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed in the record store. Bo Diddley sounded like he was from Mars, and Jimmy Reed. I thought, 'Wait a minute, is that a harmonica, like at a campfire?' I thought, 'This is magical.'
"I saw Elvis Presley at the Cotton Bowl in 1956 and a big show at the Sportatorium when I was in seventh grade, where all I remember is Smiley Lewis. We were kids, barely 12 years old."
American music was making mountains from all these incredible artists, and for young players like Freeman the call was undeniable. There would be detours through college and trying not to be drafted into the Army, but once he discovered Austin in 1969, the plot was set. Austin was an embryo of what it was to become, but it was an embryo with a huge heart and an open door. Ask any musician within 1,000 miles in any direction in 1970 where the sound was growing, and they'd answer in a heartbeat: Austin.
"The first day I was here I knew I had to live here," he says. "It seemed to offer everything I was looking for. The main things, anyway; it was such a nice, beautiful place, with lots of long-haired folks, in a quiet little college town with people living in funky old houses and beautiful girls everywhere. There was music, fun, parties, and a sense of community in the air that was for real."
Strange Pleasures & Phantom Blues
Denny Freeman and Paul Ray had always wanted to start a band together, and in the Cobras both found their calling. On any given night, the group's energy and excitement level could have turned the county morgue into a dance hall. Slowly their reputation filtered through the city limits and beyond. With a set list that knew few boundaries, an incendiary rhythm section, and blasting horns, Paul Ray & the Cobras rose fast.
"We finally had our band," Freeman says. "It was a blues band of sorts, but we covered a lot of ground. It was school for us, and I think we learned a lot. We were fearless musically."
Walking into Soap Creek Saloon for a Cobra Club Tuesday night celebration around 1975 was to feel the power of rhythm & blues straight from the source. The low-ceilinged music room had a bandstand barely removed from the crowd, and the loose-hipped dancers often looked like they were going to crash into the players.
Denny Freeman and Stevie Ray Vaughan would be pushing the guitarstrionics past the human limit, while saxophonist Joe Sublett stayed busy inventing a new chapter for Texas tenors. Singer Paul Ray had clearly listened to Bobby Bland and Johnnie Taylor for inspiration, but had a unique style of his own. And drummer Rodney Craig maintained the momentum like an inspired athlete, joining in on vocals with the sure hand of a designated hitter. When they won the Austin Sun Band of the Year award in 1976, no one blinked.
On the November night in 1979 when the Cobras recorded a live album at Armadillo World Headquarters, all indications looked like it was time for the band to go national. They'd done sporadic touring throughout America, but an actual recording for sale would move them up a notch. When the release got shelved, Freeman felt somewhat defeated.
"It was sad to leave the band, but I'd given it eight years," he explains. "Lou Ann Barton asked me to join her touring band to support her new album Old Enough in '82. But the joke was on me, because after we had all quit our bands, [her] tour support was yanked."
The 1980s would wind around in a lot of different directions, including some family commitments in Dallas caring for his ailing mother. Freeman played with Doyle Bramhall some and his son Doyle II, but by 1992 he moved to Los Angeles and stayed 13 years.
"Everybody wants to get something going there. That's why you go there. And even though I didn't have a real plan, I thought I'd be okay," he says. "I played locally, went to Europe a few times with friends on club tours, and though I'm not really a songwriter except for instrumentals, I got with some folks to write hoping someone would record one.
"Not much luck with that, except for one I co-wrote with Deborah Harry and one for Percy Sledge. Then I played piano with Jimmie Vaughan on his Strange Pleasure tour in the mid-1990s, so that was good. From there I went to Taj Mahal and played with his band, the Phantom Blues Band, for about seven years."
California had been good to Denny Freeman, but he always knew it wasn't home. Los Angeles has a sense of impermanence that can be unsettling, especially for someone who always puts the music first.
"The music business was never easy for me, but with all the technical changes that were coming in the last several years I was there, things got even harder," Freeman explains. "The business was confused and seemed like it couldn't keep up with what was happening. Some of my friends have continued to do well, but things have gotten harder for many. Plus my dad needed me, so I came home in '04.
"When he died in December, I moved to Austin. I don't know of any other place I should be. I lived here for nearly 20 years, and then left for about 20, now I'm back."
Being one of the least self-promoting people on the planet keeps Denny Freeman from mentioning one of his most notable résumé entries: five years in Bob Dylan's band.
Some of the best guitarists ever have filled that slot, from Michael Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson on up to Charlie Sexton. The ease with which Freeman stepped into the role says a lot about his ability and self-awareness.
"We'd rehearse, have set lists, have arrangements for songs, but each song would have its own dynamic," says Freeman. "Some were usually the same each time, but most weren't within the arrangement. There was much room to react to his singing, and to whatever he was playing on the keyboard. Things were always changing, except when they weren't. It was really exciting when it all worked, but also dangerous and completely unpredictable.
"That's how excitement can occur."
Freeman played more than 500 shows with Dylan, and it's the intensity that stays with him.
"I'd be playing 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' or 'Highway 61' or 'Masters of War' or any of the others, and I'd look over and think, 'Gosh, that's Bob Dylan over there singing.' That was really something.
"Recording Modern Times with him was very hard and intense, but when it was all over with me still on it, that was very heavy."
The guitarist is living in Austin full time again and recording an album of Bob Dylan songs as instrumentals, plus another LP of new things he's written, and generally getting his life back. Like so many endeavors, it feels like a full circle but also one that's constantly being reinvented.
"In the late Sixties and all through the Seventies, some of my friends and I were in sort of a purist place regarding blues. At least what we wanted to play and learn about. But back in the Eighties sometime, I decided that I was really just a guitar player."
The Cobras – Paul Ray, Denny Freeman, Rodney Craig, and Larry Lange – celebrate the long-overdue release Live & Deadly at Antone's Records on Saturday, Dec. 3, 3pm.