The freeing of Freebo

by Mark McDermott
Published November 12, 2009

Freebo was a bass player. Freebo was, in fact, the bass player.
For more than two decades, he was known as one of the finest bass guitarists in the music industry. He played bass with Maria Mulduar on “Midnight at the Oasis” and on more than 100 classic rock records by artists such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, and Aaron Neville. Perhaps most famously, Freebo toured and played with Bonnie Raitt, often as just a duo, and became firmly entrenched in the minds of many music lovers as that silent, frizzy-haired bass player emanating a series of superbly deep grooves.

“I was really quite happy for some time being a bass player, and I defined myself as such,” Freebo said in an interview this week. “I really enjoyed my role, and I think I did it pretty well, supporting these songs.”
But something was missing: his own songs.
“It turns out there was a part of me that really was yearning for self-expression, and it was more than about playing bass,” he said. “I had all these other ideas – I had melodic ideas, rhythmic ideas, philosophical ideas, arrangement ideas…and I really didn’t have a place to put it. I suggested it enough to people, ‘Hey, why you try this? Hey, why don’t you play something like that?’ ‘Well, why don’t you just show up and play the bass?’ So I realized I needed a vehicle to put all these ideas and creativity into, and it turns out that was the song.”

Thus began the reinvention of Freebo. He moved from the side of the stage to front and center, put down his bass, picked up an acoustic guitar, and raised his own voice in song. Three albums and 10 years later, Freebo is an award-winning singer-songwriter who has a small but growing songbook of his own from which he’ll be performing this Wednesday at Club 705’s South Bay Beat Songwriter’s Showcase in Hermosa Beach.
Freebo’s musical journey began in a small Pennsylvania town, where he was born Daniel Friedberg and where he grew up playing football and basketball and dreaming sort of by default of becoming a doctor.

“They said what do you want to do when you grow up, and other than being a railroad engineer, I pretty much came to the conclusion I guess I’d like to be a doctor,” he said. “Because it was the best of the choices given to me.”
He always, however, felt the groove, and was particularly drown to the lower part of the musical register. His favorite record as a child was “Tubby the Tuba.” He played tuba in the high school marching band and sang baritone in choir. His family was musical – the piano was a part of his upbringing, and his father taught him rudimentary ukulele – and music came naturally to him. He actually picked up the acoustic guitar as a high school senior (“it was just a question of adding the two bottom strings to the ukulele”) but music was considered more an avocation than a vocation.
“Before you know it, they tell you what to be and you try to live somebody else’s dream,” he said. “That is something we have to recover from, because music and art we are taught, yes, that’s nice to sort of do on the side but don’t get too serious because…really, being an accountant would be a much more reasonable and practical thing to do.”

And so his collegiate journey took him to a year abroad in Germany where he had a guitar-playing roommate who happened to pick up on Freebo’s affinity for the bass notes in life. Before he knew it, he was in a band, playing a $12 bass guitar in Rx’s in Germany. When he returned to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, he met a singer in Glee Club who likewise wanted to start a band, and the group they founded – the Edison Electric Band – soon became one of the psychedelic rock mainstays of the burgeoning East Coast music scene. It all happened quickly. They signed a record deal with Atlantic and performed high profile gigs, such as opening for Protocol Harem.
Freebo was suddenly free.
“Whatever it was, I happened to wander into this,” Freebo said. “I always loved music, and one day literally under some very heavy psychedelics back in the Edison days I said, ‘You know, I don’t know how I got here, but this is exactly where I am supposed to be. So here it is literally 42 years after that experience, and I am still a musician.”

His life changed one day when a man named Dick Waterman – who managed blues legends such as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup and Mississippi Fred McDowell – showed up at one of his gigs. A young red-haired girl came with Waterman.
“He brought his girlfriend of the time to get her opinion of what she thought of us, an 18-year-old freshman from Radcliffe named Bonnie Raitt, and Bonnie really dug the band and dug the way I played bass and we became friends,” Freebo recalled.
A year later, Edison Electric was breaking up when Raitt called him. He had an offer to join Guy and Wells, but she had another idea – she’d just gotten a record deal with Warner Brothers, and she wanted Freebo as her bass player. Freebo said yes. It was the beginning of a beautiful collaboration that would last more than a decade.
“It was really a wonderful relationship,” Freebo said. “We were a duo for three years, just the two of us, and it gave me a lot of visibility…‘Bonnie and Freebo’ put me to a whole new level of exposure.”

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Freebo’s standing gig with Raitt put him in the epicenter of the singer-songwriter scene, surrounded by the likes of Jackson Browne, John Prine, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. He never wrote a song himself, and it didn’t occur to him until the latter part of the 1990s that he wanted – actually needed – to write his own songs.
And so once again, Freebo broke free. He started writing his own songs, and singing them.
“As it turns out it took more courage than I thought it was going to,” he said. “It is a whole different thing than standing up there playing bass, being cool, and it’s someone else’s gig. But when it’s your baby it’s funny how you feel judged, because you are being judged. That judgment can be a killer — it can really inhibit your energy and creativity.”
He has now firmly established himself as a singer-songwriter. He has released three records – The End of the Beginning in 1999, Dog People in 2002, and Before the Separation in 2006 – and has a fourth on the way. His songs are thoughtful, passionate, and often sweetly philosophical takes on life, love, politics and dogs – in fact, he classifies his songs in exactly those four categories and actually wrote a whole album (Dog People, of course) about the human-canine connection. He possesses a rich musicality, his singing is warm, and altogether what he brings to the listener is an unusual earnestness, honesty, and straightforwardly good intent.

Freebo, the songwriter, is a liberated man.
As he sings in his song “It Goes By Fast”: “I’ve found through the years/Of laughter and tears/You don’t have to do what you’re told/ Life is a game, you take your chance/And you play the best you can.”
In playing the best he can, Freebo has given himself a new lens through which to look at life. He is blooming, in life, and in song. He doesn’t aspire to some kind of rock superstardom, but rather just to keep writing songs.
“I haven’t been doing it since I was 16-years-old,” he said. “It didn’t just come naturally to me. I had to develop it. The other part, the music, did. But now I am just living it. There is nothing like playing a song that you wrote from your heart and have the emotion you write it from touch someone else on an emotional level…and either feel it or see it in their eyes. It’s just an amazing gift.”

Freebo plays at the South Bay Beat Songwriter’s Showcase Nov. 19. The show is from 7:30 to 10:30. No charge. For more information see freebomusic.com and myspace/southbaybeat.com. ER