Paul Kossoff

The Story of the Back Street Crawler
The Story of the Back Street Crawler

For a scant few years beginning in the mid 1960s, Great Britain was responsible for producing arguably the finest crop of rock guitarists ever. It began with Eric Clapton, who made rock-and-roll musicianship hip with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then with Cream. The well-chronicled “Clapton is God” years must have truly motivated his peers, because shortly after, a crop of would-be heirs apparent was catching the public’s ears. Jeff Beck shook ’em up with his manic feedback and wonderful phrasing; Peter Green gained admiration for his supernatural blues playing; Mick Taylor excelled on electric slide; Jimmy Page’s composition and layering produced sounds never heard. And Paul Kossoff offered his mastery of the understated, along with his frighteningly expressive vibrato.

Born in London on September 14, 1950, Kossoff studied classical guitar for six years, but had pretty much stopped playing by the time he was a teenager. In the winter of ’65, as the British blues revival was peaking, he saw Clapton with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at The Refectory, in north London. That concert changed his life. From that moment, he wanted to play the same stinging electric blues Clapton played. He soon picked up a ’54 Gibson Les Paul Custom and became a serious music student, immersing himself in learning to play the blues.

After leaving school, the young “Koss” went to work in Selmer’s Music shop in London. One day at Selmer’s he met Jimi Hendrix, who had recently come over from America with Animals bassist Chas Chandler. When Hendrix began playing an early version of “Little Wing” through store equipment, Kossoff was mesmerized. It was another defining moment for the impressionable youth.

By ’67, Koss joined a band called Black Cat Bones (named after the mythological blues talisman). Several months later, the band recruited drummer Simon Kirke and the two struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of the blues. Despite being the year the world went psychedelic, Kossoff and Kirk were determined to develop a style steeped in basic blues. Soon, Black Cat Bones was a regular on the London pub circuit, quickly catching the eye of producer Mike Vernon, who recruited the band to back pianist Champion Jack Dupree on “When You Feel the Feeling.” Despite the exposure this brought, Kossoff and Kirke felt they had taken Black Cat Bones as far as it could go, and began looking for a new group.

One night in The Fickle Pickle, another London pub, Kossoff heard a young vocalist with the band Brown Sugar. During a break, Koss asked if he could sit in for a number. The singer, Paul Rodgers, agreed and the two jammed on several tunes including T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” and Memphis Slim’s “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Both Pauls later said they were instantly drawn to the others’ musicality. Following the set, Koss approached Rodgers about joining his new group. Rodgers agreed and along with Kirke they made plans to pursue their love of blues-based rock and roll.

Free Rollin’
As Kossoff, Kirke, and Rodgers began to rehearse, Vernon suggested (on a tip from British blues legend Alexis Korner) they check out bassist Andy Fraser. The group was impressed with the fact that Fraser had played with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers when he was only 15. Fraser soon joined and Korner christened the new quartet Free. Within a few months, the group had written and road tested several simple-but-effective rock songs that fit their lineup of guitar, drums, bass, and vocals. Playing a late-’50s flametop Les Paul Standard (later immortalized in Tony Bacon and Paul Day’s The Les Paul) through a block-logo Marshall and a homemade cabinet, Kossoff began to find his voice.

To facilitate his aggressive attack, Kossoff utilized heavy picks and heavy strings, and developed the slow and quick vibrato that would one day become his trademark. In describing his technique to the English press, Koss said, “I think my vibrato has taken a long time to sound mature, and it has taken a long time to reach the speed I now have. I use my index to back up the ring finger when I’m using vibrato.”

It was also through Korner that Free was signed to Island Records. Island’s staff producer at the time was Guy Stevens, whose unorthodox production and behavior seemed to get the best out of his groups. Working with Stevens in London’s Morgan studios, the sessions were basically just Free’s live shows with a few overdubs to fill out the sound where necessary. Besides the sunburst Les Paul, Koss was also playing a three-pickup black mid-’50s Les Paul Custom through Marshall and Laney amps. Recorded in just one week, Free’s debut album, Tons of Sobs, was released in late ’68. Tons… was a swaggering collection of bluesy rock tunes with tough titles like “I’m A Mover,” “Walk In My Shadow,” and a version of Albert King’s “The Hunter.” With its release, each member was heralded for their superb performances. While the four-piece band concept was nothing new, Rodgers’ cocksure vocals, Fraser’s incredible bass playing, Kirke’s rock steady drumming, and Kossoff’s tough-but-elegant guitar work made for a truly original sound.

In live shows supporting the album, Koss began using a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead head with dual 4 X 12″ Marshall cabs equipped with bass speakers, which he felt had a more rounded tone. Fraser primarily played his Gibson EB series basses through an old block-logo Marshall guitar setup. Although Free was playing in small clubs at this point, they began to garner rave reviews and acquire a loyal cult following throughout England. With Rodgers as the front man, the diminutive Kossoff became a great foil with his haunting vibrato and lion’s mane of hair as he played with untamed passion.

“The music should come from the soul and be simple and straightforward so everyone can enjoy it, and this is why we’re going down well,” Kossoff said at the time.
For their second effort, Free released an album simply entitled Free, and a very mellow single called “Broad Daylight.” Although the single flopped, the flipside contained “The Worm,” another satisfying example of Free’s riff rock vaguely reminiscent of Cream’s “Politician.” The new album saw the group growing and developing the styles they pioneered on the debut record. To broaden his sounds, Kossoff began experimenting with different equipment, including his block-neck ’60s Gibson ES-335, and a Fender Tremolux amp. An excellent example of Koss’ guitar layering techniques is “I’ll Be Creepin’,” which features both a clean riff guitar and a wah-wah laden chordal wash. The result is a mysterious and threatening tune, augmented by a beautifully lyrical solo.

In “Woman,” Rodgers boldly sang of love with conditions, with lines like “Marry me today…I’ll give you everything but my guitar…but my guitar and my car.” Listen closely and you’ll hear where Lynyrd Skynyrd got the inspiration for “On the Hunt.” Also worth a mention is the dual-tempo “Songs of Yesterday,” which spotlights two great solos by Koss; the first played through the rhythm pickup for a “woman-esque” tone. Immediately following the first solo, Kossoff switches to the lead pickup to anticipate the tempo change. Free also has a country-influenced tune called “Mouthful of Grass,” which features incredibly restrained chordal touches.

In mid ’69, shortly after the release of the second record, Koss heard that the Rolling Stones and Jethro Tull were looking for new guitarists, and made himself available for the auditions. Although the Stones’ gig went to Mick Taylor, and Martin Barre would eventually join Tull, the 18-year-old Koss was still pleased to have been considered, as it was a sign he was being recognized as a top talent. At about this time, Island Records signed the group on as opener for a U.S. package tour with Blind Faith and the second-billed Delaney and Bonnie. Free continued to impress audiences and musicians alike, including Clapton, who asked Koss to show him his strong vibrato technique. Shortly after this encounter, Clapton gave Koss another prized ’59 sunburst Les Paul in exchange for Koss’s black Les Paul Custom. Koss also picked up several more Les Pauls, including two great-sounding late-’50s PAF models (with the finishes sanded off).

By the time Free went into the studio to record its third effort, Fire and Water, it was musically stronger than ever, but the band knew true success still depended on having a hit record.

Hit and Run
“All Right Now” was that hit and it came about almost by accident, written as a reaction to a slow gig, and intended to fire up quiet audiences. Within a few weeks of its release, an edited version of “All Right Now” shot to the top of the charts in the U.S. and England. This tune has become a quintessential rock classic, and a rite of passage for upstart rock guitarists, much the way “Johnny B. Goode” was years earlier.

The song starts with Koss’ crunchy Les Paul-and-Marshall rhythm, Rodgers wailing vocals, and Kirke’s steady drumming, with Fraser’s blooping bass joining the chorus. In the solo, Koss demonstrates textbook examples of using space and building tension for effect. Starting in a laid back fashion using a lower-register major scale, the intensity builds as he ascends up the neck into repeated blues licks, ending with a long, sustained note. Hollywood recently played testament to its staying power when it was featured in the summer hit movie American Beauty, 29 years after its release. In addition to “All Right Now,” Fire and Water contained other excellent material and was the group’s strongest effort to date. Songs like “Mr. Big” (most recently covered by Gov’t Mule), “Oh I Wept,” and the title track showed the band at its finest. The formula they pioneered a few years earlier was starting to pay off.

The major success of “All Right Now” gained the group headlining status and a slot at the prestigious Isle of Wight festival in 1970, also featuring Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, and Sly and The Family Stone, among others. Having matured as a player through a constant slew of gigs, Koss’ vocabulary now included his patented rock licks (now part of virtually every guitarist’s bag of tricks), a series of very fluid ascending and descending runs, exaggerated bends, lyrical phrasing, and of course his signature vibrato. Despite being barely out of their teens, the raw quartet won over the 500,000 people in attendance. For a brief moment, Free seemed unstoppable.

Unfortunately, with chart success comes the pressure to stay on top, and the touring and stress associated with having a top 10 international hit began to take its toll. Highway, the follow-up to Fire and Water, did not sell well, though two of its better songs, “The Stealer” and “The Highway Song,” would emerge years later on several greatest hits packages. Tensions began to mount regarding the band’s direction; Fraser and Rodgers wanted to branch into more diverse material, but Kirke and Kossoff did not want to deviate from their hard-driving blues. As a result, the group decided to disband in mid ’71 and Island Records pulled together Free Live! to capitalize on what might have been the group’s last gasp. Free Live! features strong performances, including a great version of “Mr. Big” complete with a Fraser bass solo that reaches the boiling point. Also noteworthy is “Ride On Pony” (which demonstrates Koss’ use of dynamics as he weaves in and out of blues and major scales) and one of the finest versions of “The Hunter” ever recorded.

In the days following the split, band members experimented with different groups. Fraser formed Toby, Rodgers formed Peace, and Kossoff and Kirke teamed up with Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (later of The Who) on keyboards and released Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu, Rabbit. The album featured a diverse array of tunes including Kirke’s original version of “Anna,” which would later end up on the second Bad Company album. Playing with keyboards forever changed Koss’ style, making it less aggressive while opening up the sound a bit. Unfortunately, none of the ex-Free members’ new projects were met with much fanfare. To make matters worse, Kossoff had become depressed following the death of Hendrix, and his health began to suffer from his increasing use of powerful barbiturates.

Because the split didn’t seem to be doing anyone any good, the group decided to get back together in early ’72. After a few gigs to dust off the older tunes, Free hit the studios to recapture their place in modern rock. In addition to his Les Pauls, and influenced by Hendrix’s passing, Koss’ studio setup now included a white ’57 Fender Stratocaster he played through two full Marshall stacks! These sessions ultimately produced the Free At Last album, which contained several strong tunes including “Catch a Train” and the hit “Little Bit of Love.”

Kossoff was also starting to record tunes for a solo album eventually released under the title Back Street Crawler, and featuring Yes drummer Alan White, among others. One of the standout tracks from these sessions is a guitar duet with British songwriter John Martyn called “Time Away,” which was actually a jam clocking in at close to 20 minutes. “Time Away” featured Koss playing his Strat through a Marshall-powered Leslie cab for a very liquid, ethereal sound. Eventually, only the last few sections of “Time Away” would be used for Back Street Crawler, a fine example of a loose, blues-based rock jam. “Molten Gold,” another soulful song from the session, would later wind up as the title track of A&M’s excellent Free double-disc compilation, released in ’93.

Unfortunately, Koss’ drug problems were starting to impact his reliability, and on Free’s ’72 U.S. tour, his inability to make gigs, combined with earlier personality clashes, resulted in Fraser leaving the group. Back at Island Studios, the group began work on what would become its swan song, the aptly titled Heartbreaker album. Joining the band were Tetsu on bass and Rabbit on keyboards. By all accounts, the sessions were strained and because of Kossoff’s problems, his contribution was minimal. The resulting album is the sound of a band going through a lot of pain. In the title track, Rodgers sings, “I’m wasting my whole life trying to make a brand new start,” and you get the feeling he really means it. “Wishing Well” is another song about struggle, played uptempo with a sense of urgency.

To fill in for the ailing Koss, Rodgers and Snuffy Walden (who would later write the theme for “The Wonder Years”) contributed guitar work, and the album was completed and released. Heartbreaker was supported with another U.S. tour, which didn’t even include the Kossoff, who was replaced by Wendell Richardson. Following the trip home, Free disbanded, this time permanently.

After Free, Rodgers and Kirke went on to great success with Bad Company. Fraser played with several less successful acts before scoring an MTV hit in ’84 with “Fine, Fine Line.” And Kossoff formed a group named after his solo album, Back Street Crawler, and recorded The Band Plays On. Although a decent effort, Kossoff never again enjoyed the level of success he achieved with Free, and the drugs continued to take their toll. In ’75, while in a London rehab, Koss’ heart stopped for 30 minutes before he was revived. Sessions for Back Street Crawler’s followup, Second Street, began in Los Angeles in early ’76, but Koss’ health continued to deteriorate.

Tragically, on March 19, Kossoff died on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. He was 25. Although the coroner listed the official cause of death as, “…cerebral and pulmonary edema,” there’s no doubt that young guitarist’s previous health problems were contributing factors to his premature passing.

In the years following his death, several top rock guitarists including Robin Trower, Gary Rossington, Warren Haynes, Angus Young, Pat Travers, and Audley Freed of the Black Crowes have expressed their admiration for Koss’ playing. And although many players have studied his techniques, few have been able to match his crying vibrato or capture the simple elegance of his playing.

Over the next few months, look for a five disc Free boxed set called Songs of Yesterday, and a biography of the band by David Clayton and Todd Smith, entitled Heavy Load – The Story Of Free, which contains substantial input from the surviving band members.

Thanks to David Clayton and Sandhe Kossoff Givens.

Photo courtesy of the Sandhe Givens collection. Paul Kossoff at his last gig with Free, 1972.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s May. ’00 issue.

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