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.
"I could probably make a guess as to why," muses Freeman, doubtless alluding to Barton's well-known love for the bottle and other, less legal, distractions. "Since everyone had already quit their bands, we backed Lou Ann for a few months, but decided not to continue with that."
He got more mileage from the band sans Lou Ann. Continuing as the Heartbeats (with saxist Joe Sublett and drummer Doyle Bramhall), they played well-reviewed dates in and around Austin, and Freeman got lots of bread-and-butter gigs backing the blues stars who played at Antone's, the famed Austin blues club. He also played for the Antone's label, appearing on albums by Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli in 1987 and '88 respectively. He did two albums of his own--Blues Cruise and Out Of The Blue--for Amazing Records, both of which were reprised on a single Amazing CD, but all of them are hard to get since Amazing went belly-up.
In 1989 ailing family members necessitated Freeman's return to Dallas. While here, he was in the Doyle Bramhall Band, and while it was excellent, the guitarist felt he'd gone about as far as he could in Texas. One day he just packed his stuff in his '81 Cadillac and split for L.A.
"It didn't take long for me to start gigging out here," said Freeman from his North Hollywood home. "You can't make a living playing blues in clubs here any more than you can anywhere else, but it's a way to meet people and get exposure."
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Juke Logan calls Freeman "the John Coltrane of guitar," a plaudit likely to come in handy, given Logan's ties to the TV industry. As for the Taj Mahal gig, it's a good one not only for the solvency it provides, but also because Taj--now teamed with producer John Porter (Buddy Guy, Otis Rush)--has been doing hard blues and R&B chestnuts like "Oo Poo Pah Do" and "Mr. Pitiful"; guitarists of Freeman's vintage love playing such soulful classics. Throw in the '94 tour with Vaughan, and Freeman had enough money to finance his self-produced CD.
A Tone For My Sins is that rare sort of album that's all over the place (guitar-wise) but still focused. Freeman plays some blues and some Crusaders-like funk, and tosses in a dab of psychedelia along with the kitchen sink, using the tactful but compelling guitar vocabulary he's crafted over the years. He shopped the tape around--he even got a lucrative offer from a big indie up East--but if there's one thing Freeman has not gotten better at over the years, it's waiting. When the eastern indie dithered, Freeman yanked his tape, got up from the table, and threw in his lot with Chuck Nevitt's Dallas Blues Society label.
"It's a smaller outfit, but there's no funny business, and no secret delays," says Freeman, speaking with the tone of one who knows funny business all too well but--thanks to his gutsy move to L.A.--has reason to believe that, at long last, he no longer has to put up with it.
Denny Freeman will be playing guitar with Taj Mahal when Mahal comes to Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams Tuesday, September 16.