Bobby Freeman, the San Francisco Bay Area’s first bona fide rock’n’roll star, died 23 January 2017 of natural causes. Ace’s Alec Palao remembers the hitmaker famous for ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and ‘C’mon & Swim’ as one of rock’s true gentlemen.
The greatest gift any artist can leave the world is work that will endure. The greatest gift that they can give themselves is the knowledge that said work will live on and continue to touch others. Such is the case with the singer, songwriter and entertainer known as Bobby Freeman.
He is often categorized as an R&B or soul artist – and to be sure, he recorded excellent discs in that genre – but Freeman made his name with one of the signature moments of rock’s emergence, a disc that continues to wield a palpable influence as one of the most engaging expressions of the sheer, unadulterated joy of the art form. Even if Freeman had written nothing else, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ places him amongst the notable architects of pop music’s future path. Its simple yet melodic thrust formed a template that the Beatles and countless others would later draw upon. The song continues to resonate though pop culture, with hundreds of covers over the past fifty years and constant usage in movies and advertisements.
The Freeman sound was refined, thanks to his finely-tuned, almost operatic pipes. Bobby took as much from childhood hero Johnny Mathis as he did from the vocal group R&B he first cut his teeth on. If he’d been based on the East Coast, he might have pursued a nuanced uptown style along the lines of Chuck Jackson or Gene McDaniels, but Bobby’s recording career developed in a different direction, with an energy that went hand in hand with his abilities as a dancer and entertainer. Whether it was the innocent rockers of the Josie period or the frantic rhythms of ‘C’mon & Swim’ and its successors, a Bobby Freeman record invariably conveyed excitement, with vitality jumping from the grooves.
Born Robert Thomas Freeman in the San Francisco Bay Area on 13 June 1940, by his early teens Bobby was not only literally singing on street corners in the city’s Fillmore District but also spending every hour not in school dancing at the Booker T Washington community centre. He got his first taste of the record business as a tenor with a local vocal group led by Alvin Thomas; the Romancers, who made two singles for Dootsie Williams’ Dootone label in 1955. The group cut a further single for the local Bay Tone label (on which Freeman does not appear) before splintering, while Bobby formed another team, the Vocaleers. Having learned piano from Thomas, Freeman also began to write his own material in the mould of Little Richard and Fats Domino.
Itinerant deejay Jim “Specs”Hawthorne caught the group at a football rally at Mission High School in early 1958 and called for an audition at Sound Recorders. The rest of the Vocaleers weren’t interested, and so it was just Freeman and a bongo-playing pal who showed up at Sound Recorders in San Francisco. “Hawthorne asked, do you have any original songs, and I said yeah,” Bobby recounted to me in 2000. “He said OK, when I do this [points], start doing the material. There were some other songs, ‘Follow The Rainbow’, ‘Responsible’, and then we got into ‘Do You Wanna Dance’. Where the break is, the song was over. But Hawthorne wanted to get his money’s worth with whatever he was being charged, so he told me, do some more. That’s why the song starts up again - it wasn’t designed that way. But now, they call that a hook.”
With some overdubs to the original demo, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ would morph into the direct and devastatingly popular classic that hit the American Top Five in May 1958. The song was also the first genuine rock hit to emerge from a northern California-based artist, matched perhaps only by Jimmy McCracklin’s ‘The Walk.’ But rather than seasoned R&B vet McCracklin, it would be the youthful Freeman who grabbed the spotlight as San Francisco’s original, nationally-recognized rock’n’roll act. The teenager was instantly thrown into a whirlwind of recording sessions, TV shows and cross-country appearances, guided by his manager Walt Sommers and a label, Josie, both of whom were anxious to maximise their new discovery’s potential. Although less successful chartwise, Freeman’s second hit ‘Betty Lou’s Got A New Pair Of Shoes’ has remained almost as much a rock standard as its predecessor, covered by the likes of Neil Young.
Bobby recorded a lot of product between 1958 and 1963, not just for Josie but also the King and Parkway labels. As the hits dried up, the singer drew less on original compositions and used tunes by his musical director Bill Massey and others, often under duress (such as the Parkway release “She’s A Hippy”). A lone Top 40 entry in this period was “(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy” on King in June 1960, but the singer remained popular enough to keep working, particular in his native Bay Area, using the bands the Rockateers, (with Eddie Quinteros and Ronny Moellen) or legendary Richmond combo The Untouchables. With Sommers out of the picture, and another minor dance-orientated hit with ‘The Mess Around,’ Bobby attracted the attention of deejays Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell, already at this time popular and powerful figures with top-rated slots on the local powerhouse KYA.
Donahue and Mitchell had established a side operation, Cougar Productions, with which to promote large, multi-act live affairs at San Francisco’s CowPalace, which were hugely successful. They expanded Cougar to encompass recordings and hired a talented and nervy youngster by the name of Sly Stewart to supervise the studio work. Initially the masters were shopped to Warner Brothers, but by the summer of 1963 the deejays decided to start their own imprint, Autumn. Bobby Freeman would be the first release, with ‘Let’s Surf Again,’ a thinly veiled and not particularly inspired version of Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again.’ Sly took matters into hand by fashioning a far more credible and exciting terpsichorean outing for Bobby for the sequel, based on his observations of Freeman’s propulsive stage moves at a Cow Palace show. “I started moving my hips, moving my arms and before I knew it I’m doing this thing, but I didn’t have a name for it. People were just going crazy. And Sly said man, what was that you were doing out there, looked like you were swimming!”
The result was the discotheque smash ‘C’mon & Swim,’ which barrelled to the top of the US hit parade in the summer of 1964, at the height of the San Francisco-based topless dancer controversy. After several years of Twist, Watusi and Mashed Potatoes, as well as the recent onslaught of the British Invasion, the American record-buying public would normally have rejected yet another stale dance fad, but the infectious sound of the disc ensured it became another monster Top Five entry - not to mention Bobby’s third gold record after ‘Dance’ and ‘Betty Lou.’ Just as important, ‘C’mon & Swim’ was also the chart debut for the man soon to be known as Sly Stone.
While his subsequent Autumn releases were less successful, artistically they saw the singer riding a crest, and the collaboration with Sly resulted in some of the best moments in his catalogue, showcased on great singles sides like ‘Cross My Heart,’ ‘That Little Old Heartbreaker Me’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ and the “C’mon & Swim With Bobby Freeman” long-player from late 1964. When Autumn imploded in early 1966, Bobby shifted to Warner Brothers and ended up on their recently-founded R&B-orientated subsidiary Loma. A&R honcho Russ Regan produced his Loma debut ‘The Shadow Of Your Love,’ and it was the most majestic that Freeman would ever get on record. “The pipes I had then, I was at the top of my game,” he recalled. “My octaves went up, no strain.” When Jerry Ragovoy took over Loma’s A&R, he produced several strong sides on Bobby in New York, including ‘I Got A Good Thing,’ but their association was to sadly prove short-lived.
The singer’s next stop was Hal Winn and Joe Hooven’s Double Shot imprint in 1969, which resulted in four singles in the enjoyable bubblegum soul mode with which Brenton Wood had made his name. While the producers failed to deliver him a hit, Freeman had Hal Winn to thank for helping him later recover the publishing income to ‘Do You Wanna Dance.’ Since its original release, Bobby’s little demo had become a true rock standard, starting in the 1960s (Cliff Richard, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas) and 1970s (T.Rex, Ramones, John Lennon). Interestingly, the singer’s own favourite cover was the one that appeared on Bette Midler’s debut album in 1972.
After Double Shot, Bobby Freeman was to only record sporadically. There were a couple of single releases on Avco as RB Freeman, and 1973’s clav-driven ‘Midnight Snack’ is a funky gem. But he maintained a busy schedule as a performer, moving from his guaranteed headline slot in San Francisco’s North Beach to the more glamorous environs of Vegas and beyond. With his not insignificant writers residuals, Bobby was able to sidestep the nostalgia circuit that many of his 50s contemporaries had been forced to endure in order to survive, and was able to entertain only whenever he felt like it. He did make an as-yet unissued album in the 1980s, “Lessons In Love,” but in truth, at the time of his passing, Bobby Freeman had not worked for almost two decades – purely by his own choice.
That he made this decision would not come as any surprise to anyone who knew him. Bobby Freeman was a very private individual, who preferred to stay something of an enigma rather than become a predictable oldies act, although he remained intensely gratified by his achievements in music. At the height of his fame, while others might be wildly partying after the show, Bobby would have been happiest with room service and the TV.
The man himself was a class act, courteous and thoughtful, as I discovered when I got to know him. The occasion was my work on resuscitating his fabulous Autumn recordings for Ace Records, and I was struck by how humble this veritable superstar – in my eyes – seemed, waxing lyrical over his times in the studio with Sly, and confessing that his favourite singers were those who operated “where the air is rare” – the likes of Streisand or Celine Dion, although Michael Jackson was also someone he greatly admired. We had a great time putting that package together, and a few years later repeated the experience for the ‘Give My Heart A Break’ collection of the early 60s King sides. But Bobby always stayed in touch, and once in a while we’d get together at Joe’s of Westlake near his home in South San Francisco. He’d drive up in his vintage 70s Cadillac – candy apple red, of course – slim, and dressed in leather from head to toe, and while he rarely ate, Bobby always took care of the bill. The stories were always great, but I got the sense that he only needed to return to the past when appropriate. I am thus eternally grateful I was amongst the lucky few to hear him muse upon an amazing career.
Bobby Freeman left a daughter and two sons. The love of his life however was Michele Ellen, his true soulmate, who had first met Bobby in the Autumn days. He described her glowingly as his “lady” and in later years, Michele would become both his business manager and his fiancée, and someone with whom I often spoke on behalf of Bobby. She mentioned how he, having lost a wife to cancer, quietly donated on a regular basis to charities working against the disease. Our love and condolences thus go out to Michele and the family with the departure of this great man, a prince amongst rock’n’roll’s premier wave. And we can be assured that right at this moment, someone, somewhere, is playing, listening – or indeed dancing – to ‘Do You Wanna Dance.’ Thanks for the gift, Bobby.