ANDY FRASER - FINALLY "FREE"

 

 

Top - Andy on Gibson EB-3 through 100 watt Marshall head, Andy backstage on Paul Kossoff's 1959 Gibson Les Paul, Andy lighting up. (Very special thanks to Lucy Piller, who took these photos in 1970)

In the late '60's, Free emerged as a four-piece blues rock powerhouse, a logical bridge of sorts between Cream and Led Zeppelin. Fronted by the incredible voice of Paul Rodgers and the stinging guitar of Paul Kossoff, the group's rhythm section consisted of Andy Fraser on bass and Simon Kirke on guitar. Besides being a principal songwriter for the group, Fraser was an incredibly talented and innovative bassist who (despite his teenager status) had already passed through the ranks of John Mayall's legendary Bluesbreakers. During his time with Free, Andy experienced the extreme ups and downs that come with being in a world class rock and roll band; from the success of his smash single "All Right Now", to the rush of playing at major events including 1969 and 1970 Isle of Wight Festivals, to the ultimate heartbreak of the band's demise due to personnel and drug issues.

Following Free's breakup, Andy concentrated on his development as a singer and songwriter. During this time, his songs were covered by a diverse group of artists including Three Dog Night, Rod Stewart, Wilson Pickett, Chaka Khan, Bob Seger, and among others, Robert Palmer who enjoyed a top 40 hit with "Every Kinda People."

In the early '80s, many Free fans were surprised to see Andy emerge (without a bass!) on MTV with his "Fine, Fine Line" video, which was more akin to modern pop music than his roots with Free. Fraser's musical metamorphosis may have seemed significant, but as we now know, seem miniscule in comparison to the changes he was going through in his personal life. It was during this time, Andy admits, that he began to acknowledge the fact that he was gay, an issue he had suppressed his entire life.

From the mid 1980's, until this year, Andy Fraser seemed to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. There was no public musical offering from him, and little was known of his whereabouts. He was the only surviving member of Free who did not provide input or commentary on the 2001 David Clayton/Todd Smith biography of Free entitled "Heavy Load," and many wondered what happened to him.

In Spring of 2005, a slew of rumors started to emerge on the Internet insinuating that Andy had died of complications due to AIDS. There were even published reports communicating this as fact, coming from otherwise reputable music websites. Finally, on April 25, 2005, the following statement was released from Andy's press agent:

"I have been made aware of recent stories across the media and internet reporting my death last month. This has understandably caused friends and family to make frantic calls, left them shaken, sobbing and in a state of shock.

While many may have considered me dead long ago (artistically or otherwise) and I do confirm I am living with AIDS, I am still very much here, and wish to let my friends and supporters know that I intend to be for quite a while.

Have sensed no malicious intent. Only half-truth's, whispers and rumors snowballing into this story. Let's everybody be cool, and have faith. Andy."

Following this press release, Andy agreed to tell his story to Vintage Guitar magazine's Tom Guerra, as well as details on his new release entitled "Naked…and Finally Free" which he describes as his "coming out - 15 years of finding the nerve to say what I had hidden from myself - most of my life."

Tom Guerra/Vintage Guitar: Hi Andy, to start off, I know you don't do many interviews, so it is an honor to talk with you. Most importantly, how are you feeling these days?

AF: I'm actually feeling very, very good. It's a necessity for me to get my 8 hours of sleep a day, 4 or 5 small meals, 3 hours of exercise…I have to keep it together, and I feel good.

VG: Most people know of you as a world-class bassist, a former child prodigy, but that was actually not your first instrument. Before playing the bass, you actually had classical piano training, correct? Did you feel you grasped music at an early age?

AF: That is true, classical piano was my first instrument. I had piano tuition from about the age of 5 till I was about 11 and I enjoyed having a piano but actually hated the lessons. It was very helpful and it taught me a lot about how music was put together, and helped things make a lot more sense. It definitely helped me connect the dots, and made me realize that all keys, all notes, all majors and minors were all related. And when you've got a lot of this technical stuff out of the way, you can just get on with expressing yourself. Sometimes without the technical stuff, it can prevent you from getting to the real stuff, which is expression. And of course, still even at 11, the piano teacher's not gonna give you much as far as expressing yourself, it was really like extra homework.

VG: Was this about the time you started playing the bass, or was that a bit later?

AF: Well, I sort of went to guitar from there, and figured out the correspondent notes from piano to guitar. I figured I was going to be a guitarist…and probably would have stayed with that, but all the other kids that I wanted to play with wanted to be the guitarist, so I tuned your strings down an octave and made everybody happy.

VG: Ever the diplomat?

AF: That's true!

VG: Do you remember your first real guitar?

AF: Sure, I had my Lucky Airstream III, did I feel chuffed (laughs)!

VG: So when did you actually move over to bass as your main instrument?

AF: Right around when I was 14 or so. At that point, I was playing all across London with various West Indian bands, playing a lot of all-night soul clubs where black people would come out and dance all night to Sam and Dave songs. We used to play about 4 hours worth of covers. To their amusement, there's this little white boy on bass boppin' along. What a good experience though…

VG: Who were some of your early influences musically?

AF: At that stage, I suppose that it was the Otis Redding stuff, the Sam and Dave records. I could listen to just about all of that and play along. The Duck Dunn stuff…I supposed I was very influenced by that being it was a matter of course it was the stuff that I was playing.

VG: Did you get your first real bass around this point and what was it?

AF: Yeah, and I can't remember what it was (laughs), but I'm sure it was a piece of sh*t…but it did the job.

VG: How bout early amps?

AF: Another piece of sh*t I'm sure!

VG: So you played bass for a year or so, and through your connection with Alexis Korner, you were introduced to John Mayall.

AF: Well, when I was 15, after I had been expelled from school for refusing to have my hair cut, I went to college for a few months, and became very close to Alexis' daughter Sappho, and I spent a lot of time hanging around their house, and he was always very open with me despite the fact that I was his daughter's boyfriend. He would always play interesting records that would turn my head quite a lot, and didn't mind me plunking around on his guitars. And John Mayall, who he was very close with and only lived a few streets away, called him and said "Alexis, I need a bass player like yesterday" and Alexis said "there's a kid who hangs around my house who plays my guitar, says he's a bass player, and I'm kind of tempted to think its true." He sent me over there and I sort of plunked along with John Mayall, and that was good enough for him.

VG: That was around the Mick Taylor era, right?

AF: Exactly, and it was very, very quick happening. I auditioned on a Saturday, and on Sunday he had gotten me a new bass and stereo system, and by Monday I had to go and quit school and get court permission to work abroad and promise that I'd be in bed by such and such time… yeah, right! (laughs), because I had already been playing these East End London clubs with the West Indian bands from 2 in the morning to 6. So I was like "right, whatever you say judge!" And we were probably out in Europe, in Germany, by the end of that week.

VG: How long did you stay with Mayall?

AF: I stayed with Mayall just a few months. I can't read John Mayall's mind, but he was forever changing people, and I really don't think me and Keef Hartley as a rhythm section ever really gelled. And maybe John Mayall picked up on that and figured he'd go out and get a new rhythm section, and that sort of happened. I was only still 15 at the time, and the only person in the band I was sort of close to in age was Mick Taylor, who was great even back then.

VG: So not too long after that you hooked up with Free?

AF: Well, after that, Alexis was aware of the goings on in my life, as he was more of like a real father to me than my blood father. Alexis knew that I was looking for other people to play with, and he put me in touch with (producer) Mike Vernon. When I spoke to Mike, he said that he knew of this guitarist named Kossoff that was looking for a bass player, so put us together. Kossoff came over to my mother's house, and we donked around and it felt pretty good and he said "why don't you come down to this pub, the Nag's Head…we've got a singer and a drummer...and let's see what it feels like." And basically, it felt good to everybody.

VG: What memories do you have of your audition with Free?

AF: We played a few half-formed ideas which turned into a couple of the songs on the first Free album (Tons of Sobs), but basically we played the standard type of blues like "Rock Me Baby." Coincidentally, that night was Alexis' birthday, and he was having a bit of a party at his house and said afterwards, he'd run down to the pub and have a listen. He arrived just as we were sort of winding up, and heard a few tunes and said "This is happening, go with it."

VG: "Tons of Sobs" was a rite of passage for many guitarists, myself included, who made their bands learn note for note versions of songs like "The Hunter"…

AF: Oh, well you can say the same for Led Zeppelin (laughs).

VG: What was it like to work with (producer) Guy Stevens? Ian Hunter described him as a "lunatic" in his VG interview …

AF: Guy Stevens was a complete nutter - functioned on 150 octane all the time, was probably on speed, which I hadn't given a thought to at the time, but a really very nice guy, and very supportive of the band. I believe it was Guy who first suggested that we be called "The Heavy Metal Kids", which we totally resisted. It got to the point where Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records, Free's label) said, that if we weren't going to be called 'The Heavy Metal Kids", Island weren't interested. So I said "OK" and slammed down the phone. He called right back and said "OK, you win", and I've always had a great relationship with him ever since - to this day in fact.

VG: You and Paul Rodgers emerged as the principal songwriters of Free, did you typically collaborate or did you and he write sort of independently?

AF: Initially it was a fifty-fifty situation where we each needed each other to finish off the other's ideas. So from that point of view, it was very creative and very productive. Like in any marriage, you sort of needed each other. I think by the end of the band, he was writing half the songs and I was writing half the songs, and maybe we'd co-write one, and either credit them to the two of us, or as in the case of "Free At Last," credit them to the entire band.

VG: Anything to keep the peace in the band, right?

AF: Well, half the songs were mine and half the songs were Paul's, and we wrote "Little Bit of Love" together, and we were in the studio going through hell, and he suggested it, and since it would have been non-politically correct to say no, I went along with it.

VG: You were playing mostly Gibson EB-3s through 100 watt Marshalls during your time with Free. What was it about this sound that drew you to this combination, was it the Jack Bruce connection?

AF: Well, Jack Bruce was a big influence, and I thought Cream were great. But to tell the truth, cause I'm a little guy and was pretty young, a smaller bass is actually what I physically needed. And a lot of those EB-3s had a high freeboard, which allowed a lot of high notes, so I liked that about it too. Whenever I tried playing a Fender Precision I would always feel overwhelmed by this giant thing, so that was a lot of the reason I went with that. We used the Marshalls in the studio too.

VG: You recorded probably the first, and one of the only, rock and roll bass guitar solos on Free's "Mr. Big" from the Fire and Water lp, which also contained the smash "All Right Now." To this day, the melodic bass lines you played with Free playing were unlike anything that came before or after. How did you develop this approach, and was it necessitated by the fact that there were only two other instruments in the group?

AF: First of all, I never really considered myself a bass player. My main purpose or function in any unit was to do whatever makes the whole thing work. Whether it was with a piano, or tambourine, whatever it took was what I'd do. I was trying to what comes naturally as to anything particular. So, I never had any concept that a bass player has to stay low and play with the kick drum and all that, which probably made life hell for drummers.

VG: But you and Simon (Kirke) always seemed to be locked in incredibly well...

AF: Well, he's an incredibly good timekeeper, so that was no problem.

VG: In 1970, Free was on top of the world, buoyed by the smash success of "All Right Now", and you were playing to the largest audiences in the world, including the mammoth "Isle Of Wight Festival", which you played with Jimi Hendrix, among others…That must have been a life changing experience…

AF: The Isle of Wight festival was quite an experience. If you can imagine looking at 750,000 people I'm told, and not being able to see the back, the end of the sea of faces... the energy required to meet that is incredibly demanding - quite draining. We were on for only 15-20 minutes, gave our all, and probably wouldn't have lasted much longer.

One very memorable moment was Pete Townshend coming up and saying how much he liked the band, wishing us well, in such "the British gentleman's accent", I was taken aback because of the image projected from the Who's stage, doesn't bring that to mind at all. I have always just loved his performance, and acknowledge that the riff in ALL RIGHT NOW was an attempt to sound like him.

Another strange experience was coming into close proximity of Tiny Tim. Before I actually saw him (wandering around back-stage), I was aware of this strange other-worldly vibe - truthfully that guy was on his own planet.

I didn't get to see Jimi Hendrix, one of my all time favorite guitarists, because we were helicoptered out of there shortly after our set. A thrill, our first helicopter ride, and very necessary, so we could collect ourselves after a life changing experience.

VG: Any thoughts on the initial Free breakup, when you formed Toby and Rodgers formed Peace?

AF: I thought our earlier creative time together was just really, really something else, and I would still be there if that creativity, that camaraderie, hadn't died. And there was no other reason to leave, except to face up to reality was the best we could do was just go round playing "All Right Now" every night…and I was like "Oh no, I can't do that."

VG: You got back together to record the fine "Free at Last" album, ultimately your last, including several tunes you wrote or co-wrote with transitional themes, including "Catch A Train," "Travelin' Man" and "Goodbye". Did you know you were going to leave the group when you were writing for the album?

AF: No, I don't know if it was that conscious. I suppose that if you're writing, and you just sort of let things come out, it sort of writes your story and maybe you're more aware of it when you look back with the perspective of time.

VG: After you left Free, you worked with a variety of groups, from "Toby, "The Andy Fraser Band" to "The Sharks" which also featured Chris Spedding. You also started writing a lot for other people including Rod Stewart, Wilson Picket, Robert Palmer, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger and many more cover your material. Care to share anything about this time?

AF: By then, I felt pretty comfortable as a songwriter, what seemed more important to me was to develop my experience and confidence as a singer. That was my main function with these groups. With Toby and the beginning of Sharks, the idea was to develop vocally.

Sharks may have worked if it hadn't been intercepted by the arrival of Snips (singer Steve Parsons). It started off as just me, Chris Spedding and (drummer) Marty Simon, and then before I knew it, Snips was there, and I found myself in a situation with, to tell you the truth, a kind of average singer, not really advancing myself vocally….and, me and Snips could never really get on the same page, to tell the truth. So I felt it better that I go and do what I need to do, and let them go in another direction, and I think we were both better for it.

VG: I think a lot of Free fans were surprised and possibly shocked to see you emerge on MTV in 1984 with the video for "Fine, Fine Line" where you didn't even have a bass in your hand. Was that a conscious decision to get away from the "bass player" tag and be positioned as more of a "Robert Palmer" type of lead singer?

AF: I wasn't sure how people would take that, but it was another step in developing my confidence as a singer. In terms of not having a bass, that decision really had been specific. I mean, one only has 100% to give, and if you sing AND play bass or anything else, you have to divide your energies. I felt it was important to make the singing as good as possible, and I was quite happy to let someone else play the bass.

As far as the video, that was kind of like a cold shower. A musician suddenly getting in the theatric world is really a head turner and one needs to wrap your head around that to get that down.

VG: According to your bio, it was also at this time that you sunk into a deep depression. Would you care to discuss this?

AF: I've always been an incredibly completely open person, and that's the whole purpose of releasing my new album at this time. It was probably around that time first of all, that my marriage was sort of crumbling, although that was well on its way. Ri (Andy's ex-wife), who is the best mother you can imagine, and in incredible artist…we've had great times together… had been taken with Eastern meditation, which I couldn't get into because I wasn't buying what the gurus were selling (laughs). And I was just starting to quit denying that I was gay. I had been compartmentalizing it in the back of my mind from way, way back, and just totally didn't deal with it at all. So, these two things had us going in two totally different directions. And it was about at the time of "Fine, Fine Line" that it all came to a head, and it was necessary for me to come to terms with it…

VG: In terms of being honest to yourself?

AF: Right. I've always been up front with people, and this totally didn't fit in the picture. Plus, when one stands on stage, one must be willing to be "naked" and must be comfortable in one's own skin. You can't hide anything, or you'll be found out. And when you see yourself through thousands of other peoples' eyes, you're sort of made aware of many of your shortcomings, and you either have to change them, or accept them, or some people try to drown them and that never worked for me. So I really could not see how I can be outwardly gay, and publicly gay…it was really quite a mountain. I remember at school, the way "faggots" were treated was not a good thing, and it was nothing that I wanted to be treated like. So that helped with the self-denial. I do believe things have gotten better for gays, but we still need to get to the point where it's not even thought about and I think part of my mission is to present a normalcy. Some people I've sensed have felt a need to maybe "camp it up" and I definitely don't want to be pressured to go there…just live as normal so no one needs to think about it. So that's somewhat part of my mission.

VG: For the past twenty or so years, many music fans have wondered what you have been up to. Besides the announcement of your new record, and your revelations about your sexuality, you also revealed other news that you are suffering from AIDS. It was incredibly brave to come out with this news. What finally was the catalyst for you to make this announcement?

AF: Well, I've been working towards announcing it… I guess that's what these last 15 years or so I've been working towards (laughs). A lot of the songs that I've written were, in a sense, a way for myself to come to terms with everything, and to just get it out there. And the announcement seems to have come around very suddenly, because all of these rumors (i.e. a slew of untrue death rumors about Andy which circulated online), we were sort of caught with our pants down, and had to get the website up quick. And there is no denying it. I was like, let's put it all out there, and let's get ahead of this.

VG: Have you read David Clayton's Free biography "Heavy Load"?

AF: I was aware that he was writing it, and have actually haven't read it. I was told though that it was one of the better rock books. I probably wouldn't read it. I tend not to read stuff, or take that too seriously, it's still just from another person's perspective who wasn't there. The fact that it's been so well received is very positive, but even if it wasn't, I wouldn't pay it any mind. However, I am still quite amazed at when I come across something on the web for instance, that there is still a long lasting, deep rooted affection for the band. And that's a great thing. And I have it too…believe me, if I hadn't fully believed that our creative period was over, I'd still be there.

VG: Tell us what we can expect on your new record…

AF: Have you heard the sound samples on the website (www.andyfraser.com)?

VG: Yes, I have…I didn't know what to expect though…

AF: Was it not what you expected (laugh)?

VG: Well the last thing I heard from you was "Fine, Fine Line" which I thought at the time was a very '80's sounding record. This doesn't seem to be as concerned with sounding "pop" per se, but these lyrics are quite deep and the music has great texture and is very accessible.

AF: Yeah, they are very personal, and I try to be as honest and up front as possible, and it certainly helps when you have to deliver them if you can get behind them. Overall, I'm very, very at home with the direction. I don't feel for example, like I did even after "Fine, Fine Line," which was I thought was my best thing of that period, that feeling of "I'm on the wrong track." I really believe I am on the right track now. Even with "Fine, Fine Line" I thought there were still things pulling me in different directions, it hadn't quite zoned in yet.

I think also my whole attitude towards myself, my AIDS status, everything, made me just want to put it out there. We all know that life is way too hard, period, and hiding things just makes them harder. So its like, get it out there, get in front of it and see where it goes.

I am feeling better than I ever have…And one of the things about a serious sickness, if you can get past the fact that it is very serious, is there is no option about exercising and keeping it together, so I'm unbelievably disciplined about that and am so fortunate that I can spend 3-4 hours a day exercising. Most people's problem is not that they don't have the will to exercise; they just don't have the time. So my diet, exercise, sleep regimen, and drug program is very, very disciplined. Some people complain about the actual taking of the drugs - I think no big deal, only have to swallow... and anyway, people shovel food into their mouths all the time. The big problem, is some of the side-effects, and at times I have wondered "hey, maybe dying would be better", and need to take additional drugs to combat the FX, some of which have done permanent nerve-damage, i.e. peripheral neuropathy - which for a period had me thinking playing an instrument was gonna be past tense - but thankfully have found a current drug program that works like a charm.

I am thrilled to have worked with my daughters on the record; they directed the video and designed the website. They really know what they are doing. If you can imagine telling your kids that you are gay and you have AIDS, and it only created a tighter bond, it's totally no secrets. They both have inherited their mother's sense of visual art. She could draw like Michelangelo… So visually, it's allowing the world to see me through their eyes.

VG: Will you be touring to promote the record?

AF: I want to tour behind it. We hope to have the purchasable download links by June '05, and get it on the radio at that time. We'll then follow it up with the album, and then, depending on what type of noise we can make, follow that up live wise.

VG: Which instrument do you play the most these days and how do you typically go about songwriting?

AF: Mostly I'm singing mainly. I either write with just the bass, or keyboards, and record everything in the computer. Sometimes when you wake up, and you've just dreamt up a whole song, turning on the bloody computer can take forever (laughs). And that's a weird one… I don't actually play much guitar. The other day, I was laying out in the sun, and a song just came to me, so I just went to the computer and laid the lyrics down, then later put some bass to get the root notes against it so there's a basic tune there, and then fill in the rest later. But I try and start with the lyrics or a concept, and a melody. It makes filling everything else later much easier.

VG: Do you still have any of your instruments from the Free days? Do you collect guitars and amps, and if so, what do have in your collection?

AF: (Sadly) They were all stolen…yeah….currently, and I had to go and check cause I thought you may ask this (laughs), I have three basses. One being a Tobias, and a Warrick 5 string, and a Peavey Cyberbass, which I find very cool because for a long time, I've always dreamt getting that kind of electronic kind of Moog sound but playing the bass, and now it's possible. As far as amps, I don't bother too much with them in the studio, and when we go out live, I'll have someone else worry about it. I typically record the bass direct into an Avalon vacuum tube preamp which I've been happy with. I don't have any guitars…I tend to let others play them cause they play much better (laughs).

VG: Well Andy, thank you for your time and your music, and we thank you for you time and wish you good health and success with the new record.

AF: It was good talking to you, thank you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Guerra recently released his third album with Mambo Sons entitled "Racket of Three"on Guitar 9 Records. For more info, see www.MamboSons.com 

 

 

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