In the late 1960s, Free emerged as a four-piece blues rock powerhouse – a bridge 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 drums. Besides being a principal songwriter for the group, Fraser was renowned as a talented and innovative bassist who (despite being in his teens) had already passed through the ranks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
In his time with Free, Fraser experienced the extreme ups and downs of being in a world-class rock and roll band; from the success of “All Right Now” to playing major events including the Isle of Wight Festival, to the heartbreak of the band’s demise.
Following the breakup of Free, Fraser concentrated on his development as a singer and songwriter. During this time, his songs were performed by artists including Rod Stewart, Wilson Pickett, Chaka Khan, Bob Seger, Robert Palmer and others.
In the early 1980s, Fraser emerged (sans bass!) on MTV with his “Fine, Fine Line” video, which was more akin to modern pop music. His musical metamorphosis may have seemed significant, but it was miniscule in comparison to the changes in his personal life. It was during this time that Fraser began to acknowledge the fact that he was gay – an issue he had suppressed his entire life.
From the mid ’80s until this year, little was known of Fraser’s 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 early ’05, Internet rumors said Fraser had died of complications due to AIDS. There were even reports communicating this as fact, coming from otherwise reputable music websites. Then, on April 25, he released a statement saying, in part, “While many 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.”
VG recently spoke with Fraser to separate truth from fiction, and to get details on his new release, 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.”
Vintage Guitar: How are you feeling these days?
Andy Fraser: I’m actually feeling very, very good. It’s a necessity for me to get my eight hours of sleep a day, four or five small meals, three hours of exercise… I have to keep it together, and I feel good.
Most people know of you as a world-class bassist, but you had classical piano training, first, correct?
That’s true, I had piano tuition from about the age of five until I was about 11. And I enjoyed having a piano, but hated the lessons. It was very helpful, and it taught me a lot about how music was put together; it definitely helped me connect the dots, and made me realize that all keys, 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, not having the technical stuff can prevent you from getting to the real stuff, which is expression. And of course, even at 11, the piano teacher’s not gonna give you much as far as expressing yourself, it was really like extra homework.
Was this about the time you started playing the bass?
Well, I went to guitar from there. 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 down an octave and made everybody happy.
Do you remember your first real guitar?
I had my Lucky Airstream III… did I feel chuffed (laughs)!
So when did you actually move to bass?
When I was 14 or so. At that point, I was playing 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 four hours of covers. To their amusement, here was this little white boy on bass, boppin’ along.
Who were some of your early influences?
I suppose it was Otis Redding, the Sam and Dave records. I could listen to just about all of that and play along. The Duck Dunn stuff… I was very influenced by that, as it was a matter of course for what I was playing.
Did you get your first real bass around this point?
Yeah, and I can’t remember what it was (laughs). But it did the job.
So you played bass for a year or so, and through your connection with Alexis Korner, you were introduced to John Mayall.
When I was 15, I was 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 spent a lot of time hanging around their house. Alexis would play records that turned my head quite a lot, and he didn’t mind me plunking around on his guitars. Mayall lived a few streets away, and one day he called and said, “Alexis, I need a bass player.” Alexis said, “There’s a kid who hangs around my house who says he’s a bass player. I’m tempted to think it’s true.” He sent me over and I sort of plunked along with John – and that was good enough for him. I auditioned on a Saturday, and on Sunday he had got me a new bass, and by Monday I’d quit school and got court permission to work abroad and promise that I’d be in bed by such and such time… Yeah, right (laughs)! I had already been playing clubs with the West Indian bands until 6 a.m. So I was like, “Right, whatever you say, judge!” And we were probably in Germany by the end of that week.
How long did you stay with Mayall?
Just a few months. I can’t read 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. Mayall picked up on that. I was only 15, and the only person in the band I was sort of close to in age was Mick Taylor.
And then you hooked up with Free?
After that, Alexis knew I was looking for other people to play with, and he put me in touch with (producer) Mike Vernon, who knew of this guitarist named Kossoff who was looking for a bass player. Kossoff came to my mother’s house, and we donked around and it felt pretty good. He said, “Why don’t you come down to the Nag’s Head… we’ve got a singer and a drummer, and let’s see what it feels like.”
We played a few half-formed ideas that turned into a couple of the songs on the first album (Tons of Sobs), but basically we played the standard type of blues like “Rock Me Baby.” Coincidentally, that night was Alexis’ birthday. He arrived as we were winding up, and heard a few tunes and said, “This is happening. Go with it.”
What was it like to work with producer Guy Stevens?
Guy was a complete nutter – functioned on 150-octane all the time, but a very nice guy – and very supportive of the band. I believe it was Guy who suggested 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 wasn’t interested. I said, “Okay” and slammed down the phone. He called right back and said “Okay, you win,” and we’ve had a great relationship ever since.
You and Paul Rodgers were the principal songwriters in Free. Did you collaborate, or write independently?
Initially it was a 50/50 situation… we needed each other to finish ideas. So it was very creative and very productive. 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.
You were playing mostly Gibson EB-3s through 100-watt Marshalls. What drew you to that combination?
Well, Jack Bruce was a big influence. But to tell the truth, ’cause I’m a little guy and was pretty young, a smaller bass is what I physically needed. And EB-3s allowed me to easily play a lot of high notes. When I tried playing a Fender Precision, I’d feel overwhelmed. As for the Marshalls, we used them in the studio too.
You recorded the archetype rock and roll bass solo on “Mr. Big” (from Fire and Water). How did you develop the approach?
First, I never really considered myself a bass player. My main function in any unit was to do whatever makes the thing work, whether it was piano, tambourine – whatever. 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.
But you and Simon (Kirke) always seemed to be locked in…
Well, he’s an incredibly good timekeeper, so that was no problem.
In 1970, Free was playing to the largest audiences in the world, including at the Isle Of Wight Festival. That must have been a life changing experience…
Isle of Wight was quite an experience. Imagine looking at 750,000 people – I’m told – and not being able to see the end of the sea of faces… the energy required to meet that is incredibly demanding. We were on for only 15 to 20 minutes, gave our all, and probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
One 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 the image projected from the Who’s stage didn’t bring that to mind at all. I’ve always loved his performance, and acknowledge that the riff in “All Right Now” was an attempt to sound like him.
Another strange experience was coming in close proximity to Tiny Tim. Before I actually saw him, I was aware of this strange otherworldly 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 shortly after our set.
Any thoughts on the initial Free breakup?
I thought our earlier time together was really something else. And there was no other reason to leave except to face that in reality, the best we could do was play “All Right Now” every night.
You got back together to record Free at Last. Did you know you were going to leave the group as you were writing the album?
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.
After you left Free, you worked with a variety of groups – Toby, The Andy Fraser Band, The Sharks. You also started writing for other people including Rod Stewart, Robert Palmer, and Bob Seger. Care to share anything about this time?
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, but before I knew it, Snips was there, and I found myself not advancing vocally… And me and Snips could never really get on the same page. So I felt it better that I let them go in another direction. And I think we were both better for it.
Free fans were probably surprised to see you on MTV in 1984 with the video for “Fine, Fine Line” where you didn’t even have a bass in your hand. Was it a conscious decision to get away from the “bass player” tag and position yourself as more of a Robert Palmer-type lead singer?
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 percent to give, and if you sing and play bass, 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 bass.
The video was kind of like a cold shower. A musician suddenly getting into the theatrical world is really a head turner, and one needs to wrap your head around that to get it down.
Also at this time, you sunk into a deep depression.
It was probably around that time that my marriage was sort of crumbling – though that was well on its way. Ri (Fraser’s ex-wife) had been taken with Eastern meditation, and I was just starting to quit denying that I was gay. I’d been compartmentalizing it in the back of my mind from way, way back, and just didn’t deal with it. So, these two things had us going in totally different directions. And it was about the time of “Fine, Fine Line” that it all came to a head, and I had to come to terms with it.
In terms of being honest to yourself?
Right. I’ve always been up front with people, which didn’t fit in the picture. Plus, when one stands onstage, one 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 made aware of many of your shortcomings and you either have to change them, accept them, or 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 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 part of my mission.
Besides the new record and the revelations about your sexuality, you’ve also revealed that you are suffering from AIDS. What was the catalyst for this announcement?
Well, I’ve been working toward announcing it… I guess that’s what these last 15 years or so I’ve been working towards (laughs)! A lot of the songs I’ve written were, in a sense, a way for myself to come to terms with everything – just get it out there. And the announcement came about very suddenly because there were rumors. We had to get the website up quickly. And there is no denying it. I was like, “Let’s put it all out there and get ahead of this.”
Have you read David Clayton’s Free biography Heavy Load?
I was aware that he was writing it, but 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 it too seriously. It’s just another perspective from a person 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. But I’m still quite amazed when I see something on the web, for instance, that there is a long-lasting, deep-rooted affection for the band. And that’s great – I have it, too… believe me. If I hadn’t fully believed that our creative period was over, I’d still be there.
Your new record doesn’t seem so concerned with sounding “pop,” per se, but its lyrics are deep and the music has great texture. It’s very accessible.
Well, the songs are very personal. I try to be as honest as possible, and it helps you deliver them if you can get behind them. Overall, I’m very at home with the direction of the album. 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’m on the right track now. Even with “Fine, Fine Line,” I thought there were still things pulling me in different directions. I think my attitude toward myself, my AIDS status, everything, made me want to put it out there. Life is too hard, and hiding things makes it harder. So get in front of it and see where it goes.
I’m feeling better than ever, and one of the things about a serious sickness, if you can get past the fact that it is very serious, is that there is no option when it comes to exercising and keeping it together, so I’m unbelievably disciplined about that, and am so fortunate that I can spend three to four hours a day exercising. Most people don’t have the will to exercise; they just don’t have time. So my diet, exercise, sleep regimen, and drug program is very, very disciplined. Some people complain about the taking the drugs – I think, “No big deal, only have to swallow.” The big problem is some of the side effects, and I need to take additional drugs to combat the FX, some of which have done permanent nerve damage. For example, peripheral neuropathy, which for a period had me thinking that playing an instrument was gonna be past tense. But thankfully, we’ve found a program that works like a charm.
I am thrilled to have worked with my daughters, who directed the video and designed my website. They really know what they’re doing. If you can imagine telling your kids that you are gay and you have AIDS, and it only created a tighter bond. 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.
Will you be touring to promote the record?
I want to. We hope to make it available for purchase online in June and get it on the radio at the same 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.
Which instrument do you play the most these days, and how do you typically go about songwriting?
Mostly, I’m singing. I either write with just 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 I don’t play much guitar. The other day, I was laying 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.
Do you still have any of your instruments from the Free days?
(Sadly) They were all stolen… Currently, I have three basses – a Tobias, a Warwick five-string, and a Peavey Cyberbass, which I find very cool because, for a long time I’d dreamt about getting that electronic kind of Moog sound on bass, and now it’s possible.
As for amps, I don’t bother 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 tube preamp, which I’ve been happy with. I don’t have any guitars… I let others play them ’cause they play much better (laughs)!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.