The bassist/tubist/singer-songwriter Freebo, former Bonnie Raitt sideman, was speaking about his life as a musician when his stream of consciousness led him to John Lennon. “Music has been my life, and I’ve always been good at it, and always loved it, but I never considered it as a career, not until it actually happened that way,” he says. “Which brings me back to John Lennon, because one of my favorite expressions is a Lennon expression. He says, ‘Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ That’s exactly what happened to me.”
Freebo, longtime bassist for Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, Maria Muldaur, Van Morrison, and an assortment of other rock, pop, and jazz luminaries, will perform in his role as singer-songwriter — just him and his guitar — on Saturday, December 4, at the John Lennon tribute at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville. Other performers include the Kennedys, Rex Fowler of Aztec Two-Step and Tom Dean of Devonsquare, Chris Thompson, and Liz Longley.
The program includes songs written by Lennon as well as songs written with Paul McCartney. Each performer presents one or two of their own Lennon-influenced compositions. Also music from “Imagined: The John Lennon Song Project,” a CD released in October in celebration of Lennon’s 70th birthday.
“I feel really grateful that life has blown me in that direction, and here I am many years later, and I am enjoying it more than ever. In that process, I think I really found myself,” says Freebo, who just goes by the one name.
Freebo, 66, was born Daniel Friedberg in Mahanoy City, a small city in the coal regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. His parents met as students at the University of Pennsylvania. His father was an attorney (“I like to call him ‘the last honest lawyer,” says Freebo) and his mother stayed at home, despite her Ivy League education, to raise Friedberg and his older brother. “She was very much a hands-on mother, and I’m very grateful for that.
‘I was born and raised there, in a small town, with a small-town mentality,” Freebo says. “I played football and basketball, and I played the tuba in the high school band when I wasn’t playing football and basketball.” Friedberg’s mom emphasized the arts with her sons. He began playing piano as a child — “that is the background of my musicality,” he says. Later, his father began teaching him the ukulele. He fell in love with the tuba after seeing “Tubby the Tuba,” the children’s story with narrative.
At Swarthmore College on the Philadelphia Main Line in the early 1960s Freebo began his transformation from straitlaced conservative kid to counterculture young adult. And it was there that he began playing the bass in earnest. “I had gone there on a strict pre-med track,” he says. “Calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. I didn’t do very well at it.”
He got into music, moved to Europe for a while, came back to Philadelphia, and enrolled at UPenn. But he was playing bass more than ever and joined a band after jamming with one of its musicians at a club.
He left Penn and started playing chiefly in Philadelphia and California. That’s also about the time that the name Freebo came into existence. “It came from an acid trip in 1967,” he says. The Afro-wearing musician’s nickname evolved from “Fro” to “Frobee” to “Freebo,” and that fit his newly evolving personality perfectly.
The band, as well, was evolving into the Edison Electric Band, whose 1970 album, “Bless You, Dr. Woodward,” turned out to be the only record by the band. Released by Atlantic/Cotillion Records, the record was a freely-constructed but precisely produced (by the esteemed Joel Dorn) piece of blues-jazz-pop-rock that the critics loved. “We were a funky, funky, psychedelic blues-rock band,” Freebo says.
One day in 1967, the band was playing at the Electric Factory as the opening act for Procol Harum, and one of the band’s managers brought his girlfriend to see Edison Electric. That girlfriend was an 18-year-old Bonnie Raitt, who happened to be attending Radcliffe at the time. “He wanted to get her opinion of what she thought of the band, and she loved it,” he says.
“We became friends, and I went to one of her first gigs. She apologized because she didn’t think she did well. A couple years after that, I saw that she was much more seasoned. She gave me a call and said she had heard my band was breaking up.” Raitt told him that she had a record deal and that she could make the record anywhere she wanted. She asked Freebo to come up to Boston and play on a couple of her tunes as well as in gigs beforehand. “Edison broke up in ’71, and that began my 10 years with Bonnie Raitt. I made the first seven records with her; for the first three years together we were a duo — Bonnie and Freebo, and just being with her took me to another level and put me on the national map as a bass player with a national reputation.”
Freebo always had a singer-songwriter side to him. “As much as I enjoyed playing bass, helping to shape other people’s music, I had a lot of ideas — bassline ideas, rhythmic, arranging, melodic, philosophic, lyrical, harmony, so basically what I had to do to get these ideas out was to create this, to make it happen,” he says. “So a lot of those years were just about formulating that (approach) and beginning to write songs. In the ’80s I slowly began to write songs, to conceptualize myself as a singer-songwriter. I was playing with zydeco bands, the Blues Breakers, a ska band, lots of different settings. I went back and paid a lot of dues that I really hadn’t before, and I was able to fill in a lot of gaps.”
Freebo began releasing records in the late ’90s. “That is when I began thinking of myself as a singer-songwriter, a solo artist, rather than just a bass player.” That does change the way a musician relates both to the music and to the audience, Freebo says. “It’s all the difference in the world. When you’re a bass player, playing with someone else’s band, you really don’t have a lot of contact with an audience. You pretty much stay in the background. Whatever (the leaders) say defines you. But when I play as a solo act, I can say what I want, do what I want, and act how I want, and I love the freedom of that.” And after shows, there is more one-on-one contact, more chance to meet audience members, more of a chance to make friends, Freebo adds.
Nevertheless, he continues to play bass and tuba.
Freebo now lives in Los Angeles, a city he calls “the best of the best, and the worst of the worst,” with his wife and two golden retrievers, and is the father of a grown son. He considers himself a dog person, to the degree that he actually cut a CD, “Dog People,” dedicated to the relationship he has with his dogs and with the canine persuasion in general. “Dogs are beautiful creatures, and they offer you unconditional love. It’s hard not to love something that loves you and accepts you as you are at all times. Dogs have an affinity with human beings, and I have always enjoyed those relationships.”
Music and Legacy of John Lennon, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville. Saturday, December 4, 7:30 p.m. The Kennedys, Freebo from Bonnie Raitt’s band, Rex Fowler of Aztec Two-Step, Tom Dean of Devonsquare, Chris and Meredith Thompson, and Liz Longley. $25. 609-510-6278 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.