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Andy Fraser

Image by Hannah Fraser

FREE AT LAST – bassist / musician / composer / singer / producer ANDY FRASER tells all to PETE SARGEANT as they talk about Free, music and musicians and Fraser’s forthcoming autobiography, a no-holds-barred account of creativity, relationships, triumphs and crises

PART ONE

Andy Fraser looks lean and fit as he arrives to accept our lunch invitation – having come through troubled times he is now in a creative nirvana that encompasses helping new artists AND running McTrax his entertainment company. We start our conversation in his mid-teens years…….

PS: Andy, Welcome to Soho my my favourite stamping ground. A lot of the area is familiar to you from your early years of playing. Before we setup to chat you mentioned about circumstances and you felt you were lucky to have to met Alexis Korner, the grandfather of British blues in its early days. Could you expand on that for us please?

AF: Having being thrown out of school, grammar school no less, with good grades for refusing to have my hair cut. I went to Hammersmith College of Further Education to placate my mother. And learnt to roll joints and became very close with Sappho, Alexis Korner’s daughter. I used to hang out at their house a lot and he became a substitute father and you know I was really free to play guitars around the house and there was always blues music playing and he took to me and took me out on some gigs. One day John Mayall called up and said “Alexis, I need a bass player like yesterday”. Alexis said “I’ve got this kid who hangs around the house, playing guitars. Thinks he’s a bass player and you may think so too”. That was the Saturday, Sunday I goes round for an audition which was two blues songs in C. “One, two three four”. Got the gig. Monday quit college, bought me a new bass, went to court where John Mayall swore up and down to the magistrate that being a minor I would be in bed by eight o’clock every night. Tuesday we was in Amsterdam playing our first gig. Me and Micky Taylor were getting ripped on the Amsterdam ganja which you know is good. SO Alexis was really like a substitute father and he couldn’t have done more. He got us our first management. And then when it was no good he got us off and then he got us introduced to Chris Blackwell at Island Records. He had us as an opening act at quite a few of his gigs. He did everything within his power to, like – in fact the very first time we rehearsed together at the famous Nag’s Head, Battersea, it was his birthday and they were throwing a party for him. He found fifteen minutes to run down and hear the closing minutes of us, first date, he said “I christen you “Free”- after my first band “Free at Last”. Nothing was too much for him to do to help us. Like he helped Zeppelin, Small Faces, Stones. Like he let Muddy Waters sleep on his living room floor. He was just, like, a one in a million guy.

PS: A quick interjection here. Not being too insensitive, what about your real father?

AF: A—-hole!! He left when I was about six. And when I was in my late teens. I had that urge to find out who he was. Found him, sought him out in France. Stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Very weird with his new wife. And he wanted, when he came over to England and stayed at my house all he wanted was me to mortgage the house and give him the money. So I had this very sleepless night because I’d been chatting to him and got no kind of good sense out of him. And in the middle of the night I went and woke him up and said “YOU. OUT”. He says “what about the…” “OUT” and I just threw him out. This was like 3 o’clock in the morning. He walked the mile to the local police station who same back, came back, throwing pebbles at my bedroom window and said your father left his wallet under his pillow. I threw it out the window. And that’s the last I’ve heard of him.

PS: OK. Sappho ?

AF: Sappho… she died. She had a hard time. Very beautiful girl. Was one of the first early loves of my life. We had a very close relationship. And it, in fact it got hard to Sappho because she wanted to be a signer, in the realms of a Billie Holiday. And it seemed her father was paying more attention to her boyfriend than her. It was very tough. And at some point she thought to be like Billy Holiday she needed to be a heroin addict. So went through all of that. Never-the-less, died in hospital from a mixed diagnosis. So, Pete – bit of a sad story there.


PS: We get asked this a lot – what was your first bass?

AF: Do you know what, I can’t really remember.

PS: You were playing a Jack Bruce type Gibson SG bass in Free, weren’t you?

AF: It was a Gibson, cherry red, I’ll think of the name in a minute. The first was by about Free, the very first was, I think, a Lucky AirStream Seven. The guitar strings tuned down an octave. There was probably a couple in between but I can’t remember.

Image by Hannah Fraser

PS: Right, so there you are playing with Mayall and Mick Taylor in his touring band. How long did that last?

AF: A few months before Mayall decided to get a jazz rhythym section and so me and Keef Hartley were out and John Hiseman and someone else were in. Speaking of that, last week, me Tobi and Mick Taylor went up to the British Blues Festival.

PS: Where was that?

AF: Newark. And it was great. Having not played with Mick since those days. And he’s got his voice together and it’s very strong. And you know when he’s on, he’s super on.

PS: At this point let’s talk briefly about someone I first saw opening for The Doors and Jefferson Airplane and he’s Mick Taylor’s best mate. Terry Reid. He was very nearly the singer in Led Zepprlin. It was a very young Terry opening at the Roundhouse. I was spellbound by his voice. The fact he could take a song I already knew, like ‘Bang Bang’ and turn it into something new. Do you know Terry?

AF: We played together recently, well. After each other at the [recent] Isle of Wight Festival.

PS: A tour manager was telling me that he saw you and Terry chatting at the Isle of Wight festival.

AF: I also agree that the young Terry Reid’s voice was unbelievable.

PS: It was actually, almost supernatural. Because he had soaked in that folk mystical thing that Donovan could do so well. But he actually, probably, one of the first British artists to really soak up the soul influence. And filter it into his music, maybe the same way Rod [Stewart] used to do it. But have you ever recorded with Terry? I’d love to hear that.

AF: I may indeed

PS: He did some gigs out in Singapore with Mick Taylor. So how long was it after the Mayall gig, that you met Chris Blackwell?

AF: He was so pleased. Chris [Blackwell] sent a case of champagne round to Alexis

PS: On discovering Free?

AF: Yeah.

PS: What’s this Heavy Metal Kids name that Chris wanted you to have?

AF: I was just going to go there! Very early on, before we’d even signed, Guy Stevens who was the nuttiest genius ever…..he thought it up

PS: Yeah, Ian Hunter told me that

AF: Said, “Oh, they should be called the Heavy Metal Kids”. He’s come up with titles like “Sticky Fingers” and whatever. So Chris calls us up and says we think you should be called “The Heavy Metal Kids” and we’ll manage you. So I we were all round at my mother’s house and we wrote “Free” and “Heavy Metal Kids” on a bit of paper, two columns and stuck it on my mother’s mantlepiece. It was my job to call up Blackwell and say “Nah” and he does his little cough and says “Well, if it’s not the Heavy Metal Kids, I’m not interested. So I said “OK” and slammed down the phone. 5 minutes later he rang back and said “you win”.

PS: We know Paul. I haven’t met Simon and I didn’t ever meet Koss. I saw all the early Free gigs in London when I was about eighteen. And I think Paul was anti Heavy Metal Kids name too.
AF: We all were

PS: So a band decision then. You were the last member of the four to join Free. Did that affect the dynamic of the band?

AF: Completely. They’d been through about 15 bass players when I was hired and we all knew there was a magic here. And right when we got together I’m this really cocky 15 year old saying “I’m the leader” and you could see Rodgers biting his tongue. (laughs) I think what I actually meant by that, because I’d worked with Mayall and seen how things were supposed to work. I was a go between for the band and the record company and the promoters. OK, we pay our sponsors, we put all the money in the bank and I was fairly organised. And the others couldn’t count past 4! So that was what they meant. Their original idea was to have a Jeff Beck type thing. But in comes this guy and says we’re going this way, we’re actually going to be playing songs. And it was hard for Koss. Because his true magic was blues solo playing. When it came to chords, even on Alright Now. It took him ages to learn.

PS: When it comes to Koss, unlike say Jimmy Page, who had come through the Davey Graham /Beurt Jansch crew and people like that. When you’re a young guitar player that age, and believe me I know, those people actually made you interested in chord sequences and artistic playing as opposed to wailing on the electric. If you took both in at an early age, you had the red and the blue. Koss was the blue. Wasn’t he?

AF: Absolutely. Despite having classical guitar tuition he never connected that and blues. Which is very strange. And he didn’t fully understand that if we were playing different chords all he had to do was keep playing the blues. If you threw in a weird chord it would throw him. No, just keep playing the blues! – as the chords move around you.

PS: The best moments of Free was when he completely lost in solos with double stops and every thing else, you actually lean out of the picture and comment on it with bass notes, like a Greek chorus. Your skill, let’s be honest, is that what you don’t play is as important as what you do play.

AF: I agree.

Image by Hannah Fraser

PS: I had a trio where the bass player was really good and I asked him why and he used to hang around the Island offices and you used to give him (Greg Hamilton) the odd bass lesson. You would take time out to help him and that’s why this bloke was a brilliant bass player. It’s weird, you weren’t like any of the acts on Island. And you weren’t like other Blues bands. Because you very early were writing songs which weren’t going to be covered by BB King. But what was the energy behind it?

AF: I think in the early days, Paul and I both had ideas and we needed each other to complete it and make a song. And we discovered something different was happening here. And at that time we weren’t afraid to go anywhere. The horizon was always a beautiful view. And it came a time when we could write songs individually and to an extent we kind of grew apart. And especially when the pressure came in. And Koss would start to get out of it. And it was tough for everybody. Rodgers felt it should be more, just, Bad Company type thing and forget all the like experimentation / going for the horizon stuff. And I was more adamant about it not turning into a two dimensional type thing. So we became unglued.

PS: Quick digression. When you listen to Bad Company, you can hear the good players playing strong songs, but it’s not a band you would have been part of? Is that fair?

AF: No and for many reasons. The two main ones are I didn’t want to be a slice of Free doing what I consider a two dimensional, sort of Rock cut out all of the folk balladeer stuff that Paul was so good at. That was all gone, it was stripped for stadium ready kind of stuff. Plus if I had’ve been there it would’ve felt like Free but there was a different guitarist who didn’t measure up to Koss. Despite the fact that he [Mick RaLphs] was a great songwriter.

PS: Because Ralphs had come from Mott the Hoople. Do you know Mick Ralphs?

AF: Nice guy. I think his strength is song writing. I mean Can’t Get Enough is what got them off the ground.

PS: My idols were Spirit at the time and two of them left to form Jo Jo Gunne. Who were a great rock and roll band but didn’t have this jazz, mystical, folk, spiritual element that Spirit had. They were taking the meat and potatoes and ignoring the starter and dessert. Paul would probably agree, Band Company gave the audience what they wanted to hear. You and I know he’s capable of a lot more. We saw a showcase he did. Funnily enough he played a Free song acoustically. Can you guess which one?

AF: No..tell me

PS: An early Free song. Soon I Will Be Gone.

AF: Ah…..so what was the explanation?

PS: He said it had a feeling that was very strong to him at the time, that had actually lived with him for a long time. The song had an enduring feel to him. Whereas other songs he might be so fond of. By an act that was growing and appealing to him as he got older.

AF: I love it, I’ve always loved it. It’s those kind of things that I miss from Band Company and from where he wanted to take Free. He wanted to cut all that stuff out. To me it was like “oh man!” you can’t do that!

PS: While we’re running along here… the very first Free album was Tons of Sobs. Do you have a favourite track on that? And I’ll tell you what mine is. [PS shows AF the album back cover]

AF: I think I’d have to listen to it again because it’s so long ago. I think that Moonshine seems to bring something to mind.

PS: Over The Green Hills is on it, of course.

AF: Yeah that was clever. The idea of doing it in two parts was Guys Stevens’. Hang on I didn’t see all these up here. ….

PS: There’s an extra track they put on here. And it’s almost like a Black Sabbath without the fuzz tones. It’s called Visions of Hell. What’s the story of that? Visions of Hell,,, it’s quite haunting but it’s got that sort of black magicky troubled feel to it.

AF: I think lyrically it was Paul still being adventurous then and trying different things.

PS: I used to see you at the Toby Jug, Tolworth. And may ever have seen the first ever performance of Alright Now. What I do remember was Koss breaking a string wandering off like a little gnome and the three of you launching into Every Day I Have The Blues but with no guitar. Until Koss stumbled back on. He only had one Les Paul with him and I thought “that’s not an organised band, that’s a band that can save the moment”.

AF: Yeah. We had to improvise quite a lot. I remember after we first broke up and got back together our first gig in the states was Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. Kossoff looked like he had it all together, everything was going to be cool, we may have even done a sound check, he appeared totally normal. By the time it was time to leave the hotel to go to the gig we couldn’t get an answer from his room. We had to get the hotel to break down the bathroom door, he was out of his mind, had to be taken to hospital, we went to the gig as a trio. Apologised up and down to the audience. And Paul played some acoustic guitar. I played piano with the bass pedals. And that was our first gig of the reformed Free. It was …..“oh man” [Fraser shakes his head and sips his water]

PS: OK. Was Koss escaping into drugs from stage fright? What was he escaping from?

AF: The insecurity of feeling that he was not worth the adulation poured upon him. He was being spoken of in terms of Hendrix or Clapton and he just didn’t feel that he measured up. And the band were his support. When the band broke up he had no support. His drug use got worse and worse and I think somewhere in his mind, if he got on stage and he was stoned, that was his excuse for being bad. As opposed to his real fear of being bad when he was straight. It was very mixed up. More stoned you get, the more twisted it gets.

PS: With the dynamic of Free…The bubbliness of your bass playing. There’s a spring in it. It’s one of the things that makes you very distinctive as a player. It’s that against the solemn guitar that gave you the dynamic that the James Gang or whatever didn’t have. And I’m not sure how. When you play with other guitar players do you adjust your style? Are you aware of the dynamic that Free had?

AF: Not in such specific terms. There’s got to be a groove there for me and one way or another I will find it.

PS: At this point, Andy, we talk about Glenn Hughes, who we adore. God knows how he’s still alive.

AF: And singing so well!

Glenn Hughes – Image by Mike Prior

PS: You and he are the people who understood the American soul bass groove. He’s from Brum you’re from South London. When did you first meet? Early in your careers ?

AF: Only very recently.

PS: You didn’t know him in Purple days?

AF: No. We played a lot of gigs with Purple. [Mark 1 or 2, pre-Hughes - PS]

PS: Trapeze?

AF: They opened for us, we probably had words. He heard my bass, his own words…. Well maybe you should read them because there’s a bass guitar front cover thing magazine coming out next week

PS: We got his book when we met him some months ago. He told me there won’t be a Hughes / Thrall 2 because he can’t get hold of Pat Thrall. Hughes/Thrall is THE greatest rock record, for singing you can possibly get. But there won’t be a follow up. He’s a kind thoughtful bloke. He could see I was a bit disappointed that there won’t be a sequel album. He said their paths don’t cross these days. He played with Stevie Wonder and people like that. I would say, they current way he plays, that wouldn’t have happened without hearing you. Which must make you feel fantastic.

AF: That’s well put in its place when I hear him sing. (laughs). I think he’s an amazing singer. I can’t believe I was unaware of his singing until few months ago when we met he sent me these tracks and I was like “oh my god”

PS: He sounds like he’s singing at the top of a mountain. It’s this fresh air in his voice.

AF: He’s like Ron Isley or something. Surrounded by sometimes just dirge. And he has this song which I think is a total smash. And I said to him “Give me a vocal and a couple of things and I’ll make that a hit”. He never got back to me about it. There may be some politics or something.

PS: Do you not plan to meet up at this Marshall Tribute thing?

AF: We’re playing together, Pete. We’re doing Mr Big together.

PS: And Mr Big – to have a band name itself after your song. That’s quite a compliment isn’t it really?

AF: Yeah [Fraser sits back and considers this compliment from a major group]

PS: Mr Big is a frightening performance. I’ve got several live versions of it. I think the best one I heard is… can I take you down memory lane for two seconds? [PS finds details of the HollyWood Music Festival, Newcastle Under Lyne, May 23rd-24th 1970. It featured Family, Traffic, Grateful Dead, Jose Feliciano, Black Sabbath and Free among others]. I went up to that. My mates and I were discussing whether we should go a festival, There was one in Newcastle, we though “Oh, we can’t stand Geordies” then we realised it was Newcastle Under Lyne which is in the Midlands. So we went up. We saw you, Lord Sutch and there was a jug band playing called Mungo Jerry. That cost me two and a half pounds

AF: You can’t even park for that, these days….

PS: Steve Winwood. You did jam with him at one point. But I got the impression you were intimidated by his cool or whatever you call it.

AF: Yeah. He is super intelligent and quite quiet. And he he’s not the kind of guy that would argue with anyone. He’d just freeze you into oblivion with silence. I’m not saying me, but he’s that kind of individual. He’s super talented. I think Traffic had by then broken up and I went round to his house and we jammed a bit. To me it was quite difficult because he wouldn’t sing and I’d play the songs. Tell me what the song was and I’ll do the right thing. But if there’s no song there’s nothing for me to do. You know …he was playing jazz piano. I think it was for the better because he didn’t know what he wanted to do anyway.

PS: At that point

AF: Yes

PS: I’ve a feeling, I think Dave Mason was a bigger part of Traffic than anyone realised.

AF: I would fully agree with that. I always thought he was great. I saw him again quite recently.

PS: He looks well doesn’t he?

AF: Yeah and singing and playing great. I saw him in Los Angeles a couple of months ago.

PS: He’s got some prodigious talent. Probably the most underrated British musician of that era.

AF: Yeah. It was probably the tension between them [Traffic] that made them so great. Which is well, I know, quite difficult to live with. I think they have mostly a negative relationship between them as me and Paul do now.

Image by Hannah Fraser

- In Part 2, Andy Fraser discusses Free albums, Sharks, songwriting, Robert Palmer, family, coming out and where he’s headed and living life now

- GO TO WWW.MCTRAX.COM for details of the autobiography, the new solo album and Fraser’s work with young artist Tobi

Pete Sargeant
www.fairhearing.co.uk

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