“DEE THE HUNTAH! DEE THE HUNTAH!” If you were in a northeast band for a couple of years between 1970 and 1971 or you went to gigs where local bands were playing you would have heard those words shouted hundreds of times. Four musicians; Paul Rodgers, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser and Simon Kirke – collectively known as Free had achieved God-like status in the northeast, in particular in Sunderland. One of their songs, a cover of an Albert King recording called ‘The Hunter’ had become their anthem. So much was the popularity of that song that local northeast bands were encouraged to cover the Free version wherever they played. Audiences didn’t applaud local bands between songs – they just shouted “Dee the huntah! Dee the huntah!”.
It’s difficult to describe the buzz that Free created in Sunderland early in their career. I would imagine it was something like the atmosphere in Liverpool at the start of the Beatles ascent to fame. Although Free began their phenomenal rise in Sunderland, they had no previous connection to the town. Guitarist Paul Kossoff, son of the actor David Kossoff, and bassist Andy Fraser were both Londoners. Simon Kirke, Free’s drummer, came from Shropshire. The only member of Free with a northeast connection was vocalist Paul Rodgers. He was from Middlesbrough on Teesside.
As a young teenager between 1964 and 1966, Paul Rogers played in a four-piece band from Middlesbrough called the Roadrunners. In spite of their relatively young age compared with other Teesside bands on the gig circuit at that time, the Road Runners became popular at dances and clubs in the Middlesbrough area. Paul Rodgers, along with the rest of the Roadrunners spent a lot of time at a club in Middlesbrough called Mister McCoys listening to some of the country’s best bands; the likes of the Who, Spencer Davis, Geno Washington, Steam Packet (with Rod Stewart). In 1966, DJs were playing mostly soul and Motown records in clubs and the Roadrunners were heavily influenced by this type of music. Soul music undoubtedly shaped Paul Rodgers vocal style over the next few years. The bands he saw at McCoys would have fired his ambition to become a professional musician and head for London.
Although it’s only thirty miles from Sunderland to Middlesbrough, as far as most Sunderland people are concerned Middlesbrough might as well be in a different country. Paul Rogers did serve his musical apprenticeship in the northeast but I think it’s fair to say that Free’s popularity in Sunderland had nothing to do with his roots and everything to do with Free’s dynamic stage presence and the quality of the music.The four members of Free got together in the spring of 1968 in Battersea, London. The veteran blues man, Alexis Korner, saw them at their first rehearsals and was so impressed that, as well as fixing them up with an agent who got them out on the road straight away, he also used Free as an opening act for his own band’s roadshows. Later on Alexis Korner introduced the band to Chris Blackwell of Islands Records, the first stage in Free’s recording career.
During 1968 and into 1969, Free were slowly building up a following, mostly by playing at small clubs throughout the country. Their first gig in Sunderland was at the Bay Hotel on the seafront at Whitburn on 13th January 1969. Promoter Geoff Docherty, who had just started to stage gigs featuring national bands at the Bay, booked them following a recommendation by a musician friend. That first Free gig in Sunderland was poorly attended because, at that point, few people in the northeast had heard of them. However, Geoff Docherty realised their potential and decided to keep them in his pocket for a later date. He planned to put them on as a support group alongside a band that would potentially pull in a good crowd.
The opportunity for Geoff Docherty to rebook Free came five months later in June 1969. Tyrannosaurus Rex, a duo consisting of Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took, were due to appear at the Bay Hotel on 27th June and Geoff wanted Free as the support band. The popular ‘alternative’ DJ, John Peel had been plugging Tyrannosaurus Rex on his underground radio programs and consequently the show was a sellout. By the time Free started their set early in the evening the Bay Hotel was filling up but was by no means crammed. According to Geoff Docherty in his book ‘A Promoter’s Tale’ Free went down reasonably well.
What happened next turned out to be the spark that ignited Freemania in Sunderland and the northeast.
Geoff Docherty received a couple of messages that Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrine were having trouble with their motor and would be very late. By this time the Bay was packed. Most of the audience was sitting on the floor waiting for Tyrannosaurus Rex to perform and people were getting impatient. Geoff, knowing that it would be quite a while before Tyrannosaurus Rex’s arrival had to do something. He persuaded Free to go back on stage and do another set.
Free took to the stage again, this time to a full house. The return of the band was greeted with a flood of cheers. Free performed another great set to the delight of the audience and went down a storm. In his book Geoff Docherty described the crowd’s reaction as follows: –
“When Free eventually left the stage to a tumultuous roar of appreciation, they were drenched in sweat and drained of every last ounce of energy.”
The eight hundred or so people in the Bay that night must have told others about the gig. Word quickly spread throughout the Sunderland area about a fantastic band called Free. By the time the band did another gig for Geoff Docherty, this time at the Locarno Ballroom (also known as Fillmore North), on 12th September 1969 the town of Sunderland was ready for them. Thousands and thousands of people turned up to see Free that night. Three thousand lucky fans were let into the Locarno whilst many more were turned away because the venue was full to capacity. Geoff Docherty again: “Free stepped on stage to a welcome that was unprecedented in Sunderland. Girls began fainting; having to be hoisted over people’s heads to the safety of the stage. The atmosphere was electric, and I’ve never experienced anything like it since.”
Thereafter, any time that Geoff Docherty booked Free to play at the venues that he promoted – the Locarno and Top Rank Suite in Sunderland and the Mayfair Ballroom in Newcastle, he could be sure that the gigs would be sellouts. Perhaps that was just as well because Free, realizing their popularity in the area compared with elsewhere in the country, hiked up their fees for north east gigs. In effect, they started charging significantly more for their performances in Sunderland and Newcastle than for gigs elsewhere, including London.
At the same time as Paul Rodgers and company were casting their spell over Sunderland, I was playing in a northeast progressive band with a horn section called Sneeze. With that line-up we weren’t very well equipped to cover Free’s guitar based material. Consequently we didn’t do any of the songs played by Free, including ‘The Hunter’. In actually fact the original Albert King recording, which is faster and not as heavy as the Free version, does include a brass section. So had we heard the King version back then the Hunter could have been one of the songs in our set.
Until late 1969 I hadn’t heard any Free material. I only knew of them through word of mouth and from what I’d read in Melody Maker. Then on 3rd July 1970 I came into direct contact with the mighty four. My band, Sneeze, got one of the support spots at a Free gig. Not only did I get to share the stage with Messrs.’ Rogers, Kossoff, Fraser and Kirke, I also got meet them and hang out back stage. At one point I was even mistaken as being a member of Free. Here’s what I remember: –
‘The gig is at Durham University Student’s Union Hall. The building is called Dunelm House and is situated on New Elvet in the city, close to the River Wear. We arrive and park our Transit van in the access road leading to the rear doors. Three bands are performing – Free , ourselves (Sneeze) and another local band called Blondie, which featured Sneeze’s ex-bass player, Tom Hill. We get there early to make sure there is room for our gear on the stage. (Most venues in 1970 don’t have sound systems and sound engineers. Bands are expected to supply all their own equipment including a PA system.) Tonight there will be three lots of equipment crammed onto the stage. The only people at the back door are the team of door stewards consisting of students who are there to make sure nobody except the bands gets in without paying. We persuade the students to let our girlfriends in and then we unload the van. Inside the hall, Free’s equipment is already set up on the stage but the band members aren’t around.
Jimmy (our trumpet player) and I go back out towards the van to make sure everything has been unloaded. Two hippy-type girls approach us. They’re dressed as if they’ve just come back from Woodstock and look too young to be university students. “We haven’t got tickets – can you get us in with your band? We can pretend to be your girlfriends. We’ll be really nice to you until Free goes on stage.” How can we refuse an offer like that? Well, we do refuse because the students guarding the door are watching what’s going on and have already let our real girlfriends through.
The other support band arrive and set up their equipment. We’re told there are to be five sets. The running order is; the first support band; the second support band; Free; then the first support band again followed by the second support band. The spot following Free won’t be too good but neither will the last spot because most people would have left the hall and gone home by then. We draw lots with the other band to decide who does what. We end up with the opening set and the set immediately following Free.
Before we take to the stage for our first set, Rod our vocalist announces that Free have arrived in the building. “Hey – that Paul Kossoff is a right worky-ticket. Nobody was there to unlock the back door and let him in so he was hammering away with his guitar case. I thought he was going to break the plate glass!”
We play the opening set of the night to a growing crowd who are clearly excited about Free’s forthcoming performance in just over an hour’s time. At the end of the set Jimmy and I find a spot to the left of the stage where we can watch the other bands. The other local band have recently been formed by Sneeze’s ex-bassist, Tom Hill. Before they go on stage, two familiar figures come rushing over to us. It’s the two hippy chicks that had asked us to get them into the gig. “You thought you were so big not letting us come in with you, didn’t you. Well guess what? We got in with Free. They’re not stuck up like you two f****ers. They’re better musicians and nicer people than you’ll ever be. You thought you were so clever didn’t you?…….” The tirade goes on and on with no sign of abating – a clear case of ‘concert rage’.
There isn’t much Jimmy and I can say so we beat a hasty retreat and go to the band’s ‘green room’. This is, in fact, a cafeteria with a sizeable dining area, which has been put off limits to the general public for the evening. There are quite a lot of people in the room – some of Sneeze, some student-types, other hangers-on and, of course, the four members of Free. At one stage Jimmy and I are sitting at a table with Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke. A middle-aged man approaches and addresses Jimmy and me. “ Hi there – I’ve got a record shop in the city and wondered how you’d feel about coming down tomorrow morning to sign a few LPs and …..”. Jimmy interjects; “I think you should be talking to the two guys on the other side of the table. They’re in Free. We’re just the support group.” Embarrassing pause. “Oh no. It would be great if your group could come as well.” Smirks all round and a red faced record shop owner backs away.
After Tom Hill’s set, Free take to the stage and live up to their reputation. After they finish, Sneeze has to do the ‘tough act to follow’ bit and play another set. The crowd’s reaction isn’t as bad as we’d anticipated and there are no ‘boos’ or cries of “Dee the Huntah!” In fact, there are still a lot of people around the stage during our set. One of the benefits of having a good looking vocalist with a great image.”
Sneeze’s gig with Free had a positive effect on our band. We were all very impressed with their musicianship and, in particular, their stage presence. Over the next few months our bass player (Stodge) and drummer (Brian Gibson) became a lot tighter as a unit; Stodge started to emulate Andy Fraser’s stage movements and some of our songs were slowed right down to become a lot heavier and beatier. After our dressing down, Jimmy and I pledged that we would let any female who asked into a gig by the back door. (It still puzzles me why those two girls hunted us down for that ear-bashing. After all, they’d achieved their aim of getting in to see Free with the added bonus of meeting a couple of their idols in the process.)
Actually, there are a couple of urban myths about Free gigs at Dunelm. The first involves Free’s mega-hit ‘All Right Now’. In various interviews Simon Kirke has said that ‘All Right Now’ was written in the dressing room after Free’s 1969 performance at Dunelm House. “At that particular Durham gig we were a bit flat. We left the stage to the sound of our own feet and we didn’t like that because the fans would normally be screaming for more. We decided there and then we needed an up-tempo song to put that right. Andy soon had the riffs worked out and Paul came up with the words. That song changed our lives.” Other members of Free disagree with Simon Kirke’s version of events. According to Andy Fraser, the bad gig at which the song was written was in Manchester. In a 1996 interview, Paul Rodgers refutes Simon and Andy’s version of things saying that the band never have any bad gigs. However, he didn’t suggest that Simon Kirke was wrong about the location at which the song was written. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Paul Rodgers claimed the song was written in on a street in London while he and Andy Fraser were waiting to be picked up by their van.
The second myth concerns a riot that broke out at the July 1970 gig involving thousands of people inside the hall and thousands more outside trying to gain access. The atmosphere in and around Dunelm House was said to be explosive. Free were late on taking to the stage and an impatient crowd was reacting badly. A riot broke out both inside and out and the police were called. Well, I have to say that I can’t remember anything like that happening but I suppose I was in the backstage room for a lot of the time. A couple of years ago I was talking to Keith Fisher (Beckett’s ex-drummer) who was also in the support band, Blondie at the Free Dunelm gig. He told me that on that he clearly remembered the riot and things got a bit hairy at times. After my conversation with Keith I did a bit of research and found out a riot involving thousand of Free fans and the police had been reported. But the so called ‘riot’ is something that clearly passed me by. I don’t recall thousands of people outside trying to get in; only the two hippy chicks who wanted a Free meal ticket (excuse the pun). One person who was at that gig and has a clear memory of the events is John Jobling. John told me – “There wasn’t a riot. It was just the place was rammed and basically as soon as Free came on stage there was just a rush of excitement and emotion that boiled over to people rushing the very low stage. It happened twice. Then the police were called. I’m sure they had a police dog on stage.”
‘All Right Now’ was released in May 1970 and climbed to number 2 in the UK charts. Freemania, which started in Sunderland spread throughout the rest of the UK and beyond. Free continued to play in the northeast throughout 1970 and 1971 mainly at shows promoted by Geoff Docherty until their first breakup in the summer of 1971.
Compared with a lot of iconic bands formed in the sixties, Free had a relatively short life. After their split in 1971 the original four members reformed in 1972. As with many bands, there had always been tension within Free that fans probably did not detect. First of all, their recording sessions didn’t always go smoothly. Secondly, Paul Kossoff’s increasing use of drugs caused many problems for the band. After the 1972 reformation, Andy Fraser was the first of the original four to permanently leave. Paul Kossoff was the next to go leaving Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke to continue with new personnel. Free’s final breakup occurred early in 1973.
Free’s songs from 1970 to 1972 have certainly stood the test of time. ‘All Right Now’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are still on the set list of just about every classic rock covers band in the country. Those two songs along with ‘My Brother Jake’ and ‘A Little Bit Of Love’ continue to get a lot of air play. You can see Free performing ‘All Right Now’ live at the Isle Of Wight most weeks on either the VH1 or the Vintage TV music channels.
Paul Rodgers is arguably one of the best rock vocalists to have come out of the late sixties. After leaving Free, he formed Bad Company with Simon Kirke and had a number of hit records. Throughout the eighties and nineties he was involved with various bands as well as solo projects. In 2004 he teamed up with some of the members of Queen to perform as ‘Queen plus Paul Rodgers’.
Paul Rodgers still occasionally performs in the northeast, the place where he was idolized as a Rock God way back in 1969 and 1970.
Here’s a list of Free gigs in the Northeast between 1969 and 1972: –
|11/01/1969||Coatham Hotel Ballroom, Redcar||12/01/1969||Redcar Jazz Club @ Coatham Hotel||13/01/1969||Bay Hotel, Sunderland|
|30/03/1969||New Dawn Soul Band||Peterlee Jazz Club @ Argus Butterfly|
|27/06/1969||Tyrannosaurus Rex||Bay Hotel, Sunderland|
|12/09/1969||Mott The Hoople||Locarno (Fillmore North), Sunderland|
|26/10/1969||Queen’s Head Hotel, Bishop Aukland|
|01/11/1969||Dunelm House, Durham|
|14/11/1969||Glass Menagerie, Rivers Invitation||Redcar Jazz Club @ Coatham Hotel|
|21/11/1969||Quintessence||Locarno (Fillmore North), Sunderland|
|06/02/1970||Griffin||Locarno (Fillmore North), Sunderland|
|15/03/1970||Junco Partners||Redcar Jazz Club @ Coatham Hotel|
|19/03/1970||Juicy Lucy, Raw Spirit||Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle|
|23/05/1970||Bronco||City Hall, Newcastle|
|26/06/1970||Kevin Ayres, Juice||Top Rank Suite, Sunderland|
|28/06/1970||Skid Row||Redcar Jazz Club @ Coatham Hotel|
|03/07/1970||Sneeze, Blondie||Dunelm House, Durham||16/10/1970||Deep Purple, Principle Edwards||Top Rank Suite, Sunderland|
|14/02/1971||Amazing Blondell||Empire Theatre, Sunderland|
|27/02/1971||Amazing Blondell||City Hall, Newcastle|
|01/02/1972||Junkyard Angel||City Hall, Newcastle|
|13/02/1972||Junkyard Angel, Vinegar Joe||Top Rank Suite, Sunderland|
|19/02/1972||UFO||Town Hall, Middlesbrough||21/02/1972||Amazing Blondell||City Hall, Newcastle||22/02/1972||Amazing Blondell||City Hall, Newcastle||03/10/1972||Dunelm House, Durham||11/10/1972||Beckett||Locarno, Sunderland||12/10/1972||Redcar Jazz Club @ Coatham Hotel||20/10/1972||Beckett||Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle|