By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Guitars used to be less giving than they are now.
Today, stacked amps and store-bought effects can help you make a great and passionate din, while in olden times you actually had to know how to play one in order to do that. Those were the days that forged Denny Freeman.
The consummate Texas musician, Freeman had been a long-term mainstay of Austin's blues scene. Five years ago he moved to Los Angeles, which he describes as big and "not very nice," although he's had no trouble making contacts there. He's recorded and twice toured France with Juke Logan (harp blower on the Roseanne theme and scads of ads) and presently tours with Taj Mahal. Perennially troubled about being perceived as just a sideman, he took bucks earned from a recent tour he did with Jimmie Vaughan and self-financed an album of his own. It'll see release as an all-instrumental CD, A Tone For My Sins, on the Dallas Blues Society label in late September.
Born in 1944, Freeman started playing in Dallas where there were fewer rock or blues or country bands than there were just plain old bands, expected to be able to play whatever was popular. Freeman's favorite guitarists were bluesmen, but he also studied mini-textbooks on the counterpointing of dynamics and tact that has marked Freeman's work ever since. He won't even discuss the Dallas bands he was in. He was older than another Dallasite, Jimmie Vaughan, but was more adventuresome, going so far as to drop out of school for the music life.
A military dilemma soon distracted Freeman, who'd started ducking the draft before he'd even heard of Vietnam. What freaked Freeman about the military was the thought of sleeping in a barracks with a million squares, getting up before dawn, and not having access to dancing, cars, guitars, and record shops. He'd soon used up all his active-duty deferments, so he went into the Naval Air Reserve; after three years of reserve meetings, however, he was fed up. With two years yet to go, Freeman just stopped going and left town.
"You can't just stop going to reserve meetings," Freeman points out. "But I did stop. I sent 'em a letter and just put it in their hands, said, 'If you want me, come get me in Austin.'"
Rather to his surprise, no one did. In two years, his discharge papers came in the mail.
There was a blues scene of sorts in predominantly black east Austin in the '50s and '60s, but it was gone by the time Freeman moved there in 1970. He says that in those days, it seemed to be all Dallasites who held the blues torch in Austin. Jimmie Vaughan moved there a month after he did; Stevie Vaughan soon joined the fray, as did Doyle Bramhall and Paul Ray.
"Jimmie'd been in a popular Dallas rock band, the Chessmen, and had switched to blues," remembers Freeman. "He moved to Austin, and we started playing [in Storm] almost immediately. At this time he's 18 or 19, and to me he was already like, heavy! I thought, I'm playing with Jimmie Vaughan, and we're gonna tear this town apart. Well, we didn't."
He continues: "I thought everyone was gonna freak out and love us, but it didn't happen. See, when we moved there, there were beautiful girls everywhere and it was safe to have long hair. It was paradise! But not only wasn't there a blues scene, there wasn't a music scene; it was just--a scene!"
The version of Storm that Freeman was in lasted all of six months. Then he was in Southern Feeling with Lubbock-born singer Angela Strehli and W.C. Clark (a bassist and singer who was one of the few Austin bluesniks actually born in Austin). After a year and a half or so, Freeman left to form the Cobras with Doyle Bramhall and Paul Ray in 1974; in '75 Stevie Vaughan joined and stayed for about two years before forming his landmark band the Triple Threat Revue.
"That's the first band where Stevie was out there being Stevie," says Freeman. "With us, he was basically a guitar player. I don't think he was singing [Larry Davis'] 'Texas Flood' yet, but I know he was singing the flipside, 'I Tried.' I know because the little bastard borrowed my 45 of it and broke it," says Freeman affectionately.
Freeman quit the Cobras in 1982 to form the Heartbeats, a backup band for Lou Ann Barton. At the time Barton was touted as big-time bound because she'd been plucked from the ranks by legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler, who was famous and everything. Never mind that he'd of late produced utter bombs by Kim Carnes, Ronee Blakely, Delaney & Bonnie, and Lulu. Never mind that he'd plucked Maggie Bell and Dusty Springfield the same way and they hadn't made it. Basking in write-ups from Penthouse and Rolling Stone, Barton cut Old Enough (Asylum '84). Everyone figured she'd tour nationwide in support of the album, but she didn't: Elektra/Asylum--undergoing corporate reorganization--pulled the plug on her tour support, and Barton's shot at the major leagues was a misfire.