Denny Freeman (part 2)

(When did you first meet?) It's hard to remember, back probably in the... I guess Mike was still actually living in Fort Worth probably when I first met him. I think he came down a little after we did, but he was playing with some people that we got to know from Fort Worth and they would come down to play and we were all just kinda in the same family. They were kinda doing something similar in Fort Worth. Back then there were so few people trying to do the kind of things that we were doing that you just tended to get to know each other. Probably in the mid 70's when Mike was coming down to Austin with some fellas he was playing with, the Juke Jumpers or whoever it was he was playing with in Fort Worth. Keith grew up in Houston, he was about my age. He had left Houston and had lived in San Francisco, and Los Angeles too I think, and then returned to Austin by about 1972 or something, not long after I was there but I think before The Cobras. Keith knew people that I knew so when Keith hit town I met him pretty soon. He didn't look like anybody I had hung out with, he had streaks dyed in his hair -there was a shag haircut Rock 'n' Roll element in Austin too, we had friends that were just  Rock 'n' Roll guys like that- but Keith, he looked like a Rock star. He came down with his lizard boots and his scarf and his shag haircut, his jewelry and all that kind of stuff just looking like a Rock star! I knew a few people like that but I thought Keith was pretty exotic. I mean he seemed nice and he knew all the people I knew so he was accepted into our little cult right off the bat. Before too long we got to know each other. I liked him right off, I just thought he might be a little bit too exotic for me and he might think I was a little... I don't know, out of a whatever. But we discovered that we were just about the same age, and that he grew up in Houston and I grew up in Dallas, and even though he looked like a Rock star at heart he knew all about Blues, all the stuff that I liked, and he was a pretty lowdown street-wise guy. I think once he and I discovered about each other that we both loved Excello Records and that kind of stuff, like Lightnin' Slim and Lazy Lester, sometimes if you meet somebody and then you find out that they're into something you're into that most people aren't then you have kind of a special connection there. I don't know if that's what it was, but I kind of always thought that once Keith and I discovered about each other that we both kinda liked Excello Records... we were just a tiny bit older than people and we just kinda had some things in common. It might have something as simple as discovering that each of us really liked Lightnin' Slim or Lazy Lester or Slim Harpo. There was something, we had a connection there pretty early on and so he and I got to be friends pretty quick, pretty soon after he got to town.

   Then Don Leady came in later, I had never really played with Don hardly, except maybe a couple of times. That was a slightly different circle of people and I haven't actually see Don in... I don't know if I've seen him in 20 years! Of course I haven't really lived in Austin for 20 years. I went to L.A. for a while and I've been back in Dallas for about six (years). I never see Don but I think he's around. I see Mike all the time. I don't live there but I've never stopped going there. I still go there but I just never see him. And Bruce just called me, I don't really see Bruce either, I saw him recently and then he called me a couple of days ago wanting to know if I could play at a benefit for Evan. I haven't seen Evan either. I haven't seen Evan or Don Leady for 20 years, which is hard to believe. I do see Mike. I see Steve Doerr sometimes.

   By about 1990 everything in Austin that we had been doing started winding down. Jimmie quit the Thunderbirds, and of course Stevie died in '90. In late '89 my mother was sick and my world kind of got turned upside down and I didn't really intend to move back to Dallas, if my mother hadn't been sick I wouldn't have done it, but I moved to Dallas for a couple of years around 1990 just to help out with my mother. She died and I stuck around a minute to make sure my dad would be okay. So Stevie had died, Jimmie had left the T-birds, and a lot of the people that we used to back up at Antone's had started to die and it just seemed like around 1990 all the stuff that we had done really slowed down. At the same time I moved to Dallas Angela moved to California and at the same time Mel Brown, B3 and guitar player that was a big part of the Antone's thing, he moved to Canada. So three of us right out of the middle of the Antone's thing left town at the same time for different reasons, went in different directions. So around 1990 that whole thing wasn't completely over but it just seemed like it had come to a temporary end or something.

   I stayed in Dallas for a year or so after my mother died, just kinda looking after people, but then I had to do something. When I first got to Dallas I was doing a little bit of stuff with Big Doyle and Little Doyle and a couple other people but then that ran down, that was over. By about '92 there wasn't anything going on in Austin or Dallas so I said, "Well, I gotta do something so I'll go to L.A." I didn't have anything line up out there but I knew some people. There wasn't anything going on for me in Texas. All the stuff that I had done it just kinda wasn't happening so I went to Los Angeles and I was there about 12 1/2 years. I'm glad I went out there but then after a while things just changed. I did some good in L.A. and I'm glad I went there but after about 12 1/2 years a lot of things had changed and things weren't looking so great and I didn't really see 'em turning around any time soon for me and so I came back to Texas. I would have gone to Austin but now I have to look after my dad so now I'm in Dallas. And now there's more stuff happening for me in Austin than when I left. I go down to Austin as much as I can and play but I've gotta be headquartered in Dallas to look after my dad right now. I play in Dallas but not very much. A year after I got back here in early '05 I got the gig with Bob Dylan and I did that for nearly five years. So the 90's was basically being in Los Angeles and then the Dylan gig.

   I think we must have done (Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band) for about six or seven years. I was playing with him in '96 or '97 and then he quit using that band in maybe '02. When I was in Los Angeles I also went out with Jimmie for a year and a half when he first went out on his own as Jimmie Vaughan. Two or three years after I moved to Los Angeles, '95 or something like that, that's when Jimmie came out with that STRANGE PLEASURE album and put a band together to go on tour, so I did that for a year and a half. Mainly I played piano with him. I went from that to Taj. After Taj a couple of years later I went with Bob Dylan. In the last year I haven't really been touring with anybody, I've just been looking after my dad and driving down to Austin playing. That's really all I can do for the moment.

Right when I moved to Los Angeles what ended up being that band was recording with Taj. This producer named John Porter, I don't know how it happened because I wasn't involved, but Taj had been living in Hawaii and my friend Joe Sublett that I played with in The Cobras, sax player, he had moved to L.A. three or four years before I did and he got hooked up with some folks out there and this producer produced like three Taj Mahal albums and he didn't use exactly the same people on all of them but there was kind of one main posse of people that he used and after they recorded one or two albums they decided to use that main body of people. Just put together a band and take it out on the road. Sort of the essence of the people that he had used on these albums. And then after they had recorded three of those albums the guitar player, Johnny Lee Schell, got an offer to go out with John Fogerty when John Fogerty put out that album, Blue Moon Swamp, the first album he had put out in a long time. They needed a guitar player and so I joined the band to fill in for Johnny Lee. In other words The Phantom Blues Band had already existed for a year and a half before I joined. After I joined the band the only album that Taj made was a live album. It actually got a Grammy. It was called Shoutin' In Key. I think Larry Fulter, the bass player, said we ought to record our own album. I think there's two of them out and I think I had less involvement with the second one. Johnny Lee was part of this posse even after he started playing with Fogerty. We recorded at Johnny Lee's studio and Johnny Lee was still actually more heavily involved with the guys in that band than I was. And so Johnny Lee was on that Phantom Blues Band album that we recorded, both of them. I played on both of them but he was more involved with all that than I was. We didn't play in the band at the same time but we both recorded on the Phantom Blues Band albums. And the Phantom Blues actually played some gigs on its own. I played them for a while until I got the Dylan gig. Actually in the past year or so ('09-'10) I think Taj has used the Phantom Blues Band kinda for sporadic gigs or short tours, going out with Bonnie Raitt or something. But he hadn't used that band as one of his bands for six or seven or eight years.

*I got Mike Flannigan, a guy that's younger than me. He's actually a guy that I met when I moved up here to Dallas the first time after living in Austin. When I moved back here to Dallas for a couple of years around 1990 I met him but he was a guitar player at the time. I met a handful of young guys that were playing Blues. They all ended up moving down to Austin, these young guys. Mike just put his guitar in the closet and decided he wanted to be a Hammond player. People get confused because the organ players in the Phantom Blues Band, is Mike Finnegan (note: who also played with Tommy Bolin in the 70's). He's also a B3 player. This is Mike Flannigan. He would play around town a little bit and then the Continental Club opened up a place upstairs called The Gallery and Steve who owns the Continental said, "Just put your B3 up there, leave it there, and play there every weekend." So he's playing there every weekend and I'm one of different guitar players that he uses. He uses Frosty on drums most of the time and he kinda rotates guitar players 'cause people are in and out of town. It's a real fun gig because it's a small place but a real cool place, kinda retro without being phony retro. It's just kinda automatically naturally kinda retro beause Steve just kinda had a B3 vibe. That was kinda the purpose of even acquiring that space and turning it into this bar called The Gallery. I play it when I can. It's just really fun to do a B3 trio type thing. I also play with Bill Carter. It's frightening to think how long we've been doing that. Bill Carter is a songwriter that wrote some songs for Stevie, he wrote WILLIE THE WIMP and CROSSFIRE and a few other songs, and he wrote WHY GET UP for the T-birds. He's written a bunch of songs for different people. Over the years he would put different bands together just kinda for the heck of it and one of the collections of people that he uses is like Chris Layton on drums, one of the combinations on guitar is Charlie Sexton and me. And Bill plays guitar too. It's mostly Bill's songs which is just kinda Rock 'n' Roll in A, clever three-chord songs. They're fun songs. They're good, catchy, Rootsy songs. There's different guitar players that we use. Sometimes if Charlie can't do it we use his brother Will. A guy named David Holton. We've been doing that for a long time. It's just something that we would do every once in a while. But lately in the past year or two we started to play more regularly. We might have gone two or three or four or five years in between gigs in the past but now we're starting to play a little bit more often. I think two out of the last three times I went to Austin I played with Bill and the next two gigs I have in Austin are with Bill. There's hardly any Blues at Antone's at all but Derek O'Brian still plays there on Tuesdays and if I'm in town sometimes I'll play with Derek.

I don't even really consider myself a Blues guy. Most of the stuff I've done has been Bluesy stuff but I really kinda think of myself more as just a guitar player. I like to play Blues with my friends and Derek is still there at Antone's playing on Tuesday nights. Every once in a while there will be some occasion where I'll play at Antone's but I'm not playing with any one particular band. I do the B3 thing, and I do the Bill Carter thing, and the occasional gig at Antone's. That's the main things I do. And every once in a while something else will come up. If I was living there... I'm trying to... I gotta take care of my dad for now but whenever I'm done with that I'll want to live in Austin again and pursue a bunch of musical ideas. But for right now all I have time to do... if somebody calls me I'll go down there and play if I can get away. Everything is kinda on hold right now. I'm lucky I get to do those kinds of gigs. I actually got a band here in Dallas. I don't really play that much in Dallas, not that much going on, but I've got a singing drummer here and a bass player. We play sometimes, just not very often. There's not many places to play up here. Mainly I'm concentrating on my music in Austin. I can't leave my dad for very long so I can't tour, so I'm headquartered in Dallas and I run down to Austin to play. I hoping at some point to be a lot more active in Austin and other places but for right now I have to slow down.

Neither one of us are deep Jazz guys. It's kind of anything goes. It's instrumental stuff, sort of Soul Jazzy Funk. Or Funk, Jazz and Soul. It's Bluesy Jazz, or Jazzy Blues, or Funky Blues, or Bluesy Funk. Whatever you want to call it! It's more Jazzy but it's also kinda funky. It's nice to look and see these chicks dancing and stuff. It's the kind of Jazz you can dance to. Mike's inspired by the classic B3 players. He's not trying to be Jimmy Smith but there's a lot of other organ players that are less well known and we do some Jimmy Smith type stuff. If you're into organ music you realize with a lot of those guys almost anything goes. We might do a Burt Bacharach song, or some ballad. We mainly go to the Jazz well for most of our material but Jazz covers a pretty wide area. There's a lot of different kinds of what you would call Jazz. But it's basically just Bluesy, funky Jazz. Pretty typical organ trio. If Jimmy Smith brings anything to mind it's something like that. It's Jazz but it's not academic. Jazz you can dance to. It's kind of a cool place, young people go to it and I don't know if they've heard anything like this before. It's an intimate setting, it's a pretty small place. People talk and everything but if you're in there you hear the music. Most people haven't heard much Jazz anyway. It's the kind of Jazz where even of you think you don't like Jazz, of you hadn't heard much Jazz and you're not very familiar with it, this is the kind of Jazz that you might find that you like. I like to listen to John Coltrane myself. I don't like all Jazz, there's some stuff that I don't like, but I like some pretty deep stuff that people, non-musicians or something, might have trouble processing or even enjoying. But a lot of Jazz is just pretty soulful, funky stuff. That's the kind of stuff we play. The kind of Jazz for people who maybe don't like Jazz, because it's not far out or academic. We look up and there's all these chicks dancing to what we're doing.

It's fun because I like to try to play Jazz but I'm not really a Jazz player. We do more Jazzy stuff in this outfit than anybody else I play with so that's one of the few chances I get to try to play some Jazz. I sit on a stool, maybe play a 175 or something, and try to play some stuff that I don't usually get to play. I really enjoy it a lot. We plan on recording all the time, we just never do it. Somebody almost insisted they come record us live, and they did one time, but I don't think these people quite understood how to record a B3 so we need to do it again. If I was living nearby I might try to make sure that it happened. It's really a shame that we haven't gone into the studio or recorded more live gigs but that's just the case a lot of times. There hasn't been nearly as much recording of it as there should have been. We've got plans to do it but right now my participation is limited because of my situation with my dad. He's real old and I can leave him but it's kind of where I can leave him for shorter and shorter periods of time. I hope that we can resume the recording of that trio and some other stuff too. Actually, we've got plans to record some live Bill Carter stuff too, 'cause that's also different but it's really good stuff. That's another side project so we really don't think about recording it and kinda take it for granted, but just recently Bill called up the other day and started talking about making plans to record that. We'll just have to do that at a gig because which will be fine. That'll be a good way to record that band.

I'm really frustrated in every area of recording, If I ever get some more time in my own life, whether it's my own stuff or the organ trio or whatever, recording is actually a priority. It's just something that I'm having to postpone which is really bothersome to me, not being able to get around to doing it, but I can't do too much about it right now. It's difficult to even get started because I'm not living in Austin and I can't be there enough. I've got my hands full and it's hard to plan ahead right now and it's getting harder. But it's also maybe nearing the end of my... who knows, sometimes I think my dad's gonna live forever, but while he's here it seems to be demanding more and more of my time. It's frustrating because I'm having to postpone a lot of my activities. I mean I can still run down to Austin and play a little bit but not nearly as much as I like. There's a lot of things that are frustrating but that's just life.

(While hairspray and synthesizers dominated the 80's, Blues/Rockabilly bubbled underground, occasionally poking its head into the mainstream. Austin was the unofficial capitol.) It's kind of the second time something like that happened because when most people think in general of the 70's you think of Disco and all kinds of cars in the last half of the 70's. Cars started getting ugly and stupid. It was like the more the 70's image was upon us the more we were entrenched in trying to play Blues even though it was going against everything that was happening. But the funny thing was if you think about Blues you might think about polyester pants and shirts and Disco and all that, all those 70's iconic images, but the thing was that the world that I was living in in the 70's we were in the gritty nightclubs trying to play Blues. Underneath all those images of the 70's the Thunderbirds and Stevie, The Cobras and Lou Ann and all of us, Antone's was being born and Roomful of Blues was doing it, and there was some really great cool stuff that was happening and being born and being formed in the 70's that had nothing to do with any of the more well known images. And in the 80's, when MTV started happening and all of that 80's stuff that I certainly couldn't relate to... to my surprise I actually found myself being a fan of some of the 80's stuff. I liked The Cars, and I can't handle Sting on his own but I liked The Police. I liked Blondie. There were some bands in the 80's that were totally separate from the world I lived in and the music that I liked but I actually found myself, to my surprise, liking a lot of the New Wave bands. Probably fewer than more but I liked some of that.

The 80's you think of MTV, I don't like 80's music when you think of "80's music". If you grew up on it then that's what you like but I didn't grow up on it and I don't like it. But in the 80's that's when the Antone's house band was really happening and that was some really cool stuff going on at Antone's because we had a really good house band and in the 80's there was still a lot of, I've noticed in this conversation I've used the word "iconic" more than I've ever used it in my life, but it's true in the 80's there were still a lot of Blues stars that were capable of traveling around and we would back them up. We saw these Blues guys that I never thought I would see and this was in the backdrop of MTV and all that stuff. It had nothing to do with any of that, of course. But it was also in the 80's that The Thunderbirds had some commercial success and it was in the 80's that Stevie had success. And all of that was not typical of what you think of as "the 80's". And also in the 80's that's when Austin music, Austin bands were getting solidified as a force to be reckoned with. Because in he 80's at some point if you were from Austin you could go work in Europe. I don't know if Doug Sahm opened that up, not that Doug was from Austin but he can be identified with San Francisco, San Antonio or Austin. He could be identified equally with any of those places. Doug was going to Europe and Scandinavia in the 80's again and he was taking some Austin fellas in his band, and when he was going to those gigs that's when he was living in Austin. Then The Thunderbirds started going over there and maybe somebody else and so everybody's going "What's this Austin stuff?" and obviously there was a lot of Austin bands. I went over there twice with Angela and everywhere we went people had on Antone's t-shirts, and in the 80's Antone's and Austin had become part of the musical pilgrimage of for people in Australia or Europe or Japan. People who would come to America for their musical pilgrimages, maybe they wanted to go to Memphis or Chicago or wherever, by the 80's Austin had become part of that landscape. It was not unusual at all for like some big night at Antone's to discover that... I remember one at Antone's I was talking to somebody at the bar and they were either from Norway or Sweden, then a few minutes later I was talking to some more people and said, "Oh I guess those were your friends. I was talking to some other people earlier from Oslo," or wherever they were from. They said, "No, we're not with them." We got to be friends with people from all over the world who would come to Austin, and if they came to Austin one of the main places they would come would be to Antone's.

And so in the 80's while all the MTV stuff and all those other bands that got to be so popular and that would typify the 80's, that sound and all that stuff -I don't like it myself, that wasn't my thing- underneath all of that stuff that was getting the majority of the attention that's when Antone's was at (its peak). Actually the first couple of years of Antone's was pretty heavy, but in the 80's that's when we had our house band and we were backing up everybody and that certainly had nothing to do with MTV. It was anti- that. Not that it was against it, it was just totally removed from it, but that's when Antone's was at its strongest was in the 80's which had nothing to do with your typical imagery of the 80's. It's when the T-birds and Stevie had success, and when Austin bands started going to Europe, and they went to Austin bands just based on the fact that they were Austin bands. It's like you have all these images of the 70's but that's when all of us, we were still under the radar, but all those people I just mentioned that was happening in the 70's. Antone's opened up in '75, the Thunderbirds were formed in '75, all of that Austin Blues stuff was being formed and grown and nurtured in the 70's as opposed to the images most people have of the 70's. That's interesting that you're taking that take because there was definitely stuff going on in the 80's, I don't know where else it was going on, but in Austin the second half of the 70's and throughout most of the 80's that's when there was a lot of really cool stuff happening in Austin and a lot of it kinda had not much to do with the more familiar images of the 80's. That's just my take, I didn't have anything to do with typical 80's music but the 80's was when all that stuff that we had ben working on for so long had started to finally get some respect. You've got your perspective of when you came of age, how you saw things.

The interesting thing now is when I was younger Rock 'n' Roll was teenage stuff and then later on in the 60's the people that were into all of the 60's stuff -whether it was Hendrix or Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash or whatever in that late 60's/early 70's stuff- it was still a small group of people, at least age-wise. The group of people that were into Rock 'n' Roll, it was still a youth-oriented thing. But as time goes by it's just funny that now, I mean the Stones are in their sixties and the age span of people that are into Rock 'n' Roll, I mean people that are in their forties or fifties are not into the same thing that people in their twenties are into, but there's certain musical laps or certain musical venues you go to and instead of it just being teenagers like it was when I started- it was only teenagers, and then in the late 60's and early 70's it was mainly people in their twenties, maybe late teens and in their twenties, but then as time has gone on some of us just won't go away. Now you might go to a venue and there could people in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties at the same joint. And if people of different ages all go to the same show then there's some kind of unity there if they're all going to see the same thing. There's certain famous bands that young people like and older people still like. So they have something in common there, but for the most part people in their fifties they don't even like what people in their forties like. And they don't like what people in their thirties like. Some of us that are older we just kinda won't go away. The subculture splintered into about a hundred different subcultures. There's not really much unity out there. I don't really have much in common with somebody in their thirties. I've got friends that are young, I've got friends in their twenties and thirties. Just about everybody I know is younger than me but most of my friends are friends of mine because of some sort of connection to music. And there are young people who like what I like. Most of them don't but I've got some that do. I know a lot of people of all ages but really for the most part it's a fractured, splintered up world out there and there's not that much unity. For somebody like me I feel really isolated. I've got a lot of friends myself but the kind of stuff we're into we're so much in the minority that we don't even register hardly on anything. A lot of people are feeling isolated I guess, just because there's so many different sub-groups and fractures and subcultures that people are isolated. I probably spend too much time trying to figure it all out. It's a complicate world, I know that.

When I look at those books (Antone's photo albums published by Susan Antone)... I think the first one was better -I don't think I even have the second one or I hadn't seen it in a long time- but every once in a while when I come across those books and I look through 'em it just blows my mind because of how much stuff. I mean it wasn't like that every night but it almost seems like it was. When I look through those books it's like incredible the kind of stuff that just went on there. One reason it was so cool is because not just Clifford but the bartenders and the waitresses, we were all kinda family. And all them pretty little girls that worked there, if they weren't Blues fans when they got there they were by the time they started working there a while. It was just a cool environment because all of us were into the thing. Everybody was into the music, and everybody treated those guys the way they deserved to be treated. The whole outfit was a big business mess, it was a crazy situation, but everybody that worked there was into the ideal of the whole thing. That makes a lot of difference. So when those guys played there they got nothing but love and respect. Because you know what it's like to play at a club, it can be a real cooperative environment or the manager or owner may not k ow who you are, or care, you're just an annoyance to him, all that kind of stuff. But when you play at a place where the owner or the manager is into it and he has some respect for the music itself that's the kind of place you want to play. Those guys probably had it pretty rough throughout their lives but when they came to Austin, when they came to Antone's, they were treated like royalty and they deserved to be treated like that and they were treated like that form the club owner down to the waitresses. And by all of us that backed them up. We didn't fawn over them too much, we just wanted them to be relaxed and have a nice time and feel welcome. We just tried to treat them the way they ought to be treated and we had a good band, they were usually satisfied with that. On the whole I'm sure most of those guys had good memories of that place. And when they would look through those books they would see their friends. It's not like that anymore. There's still a place called Antone's but they might as well have changed the name about 15 years ago. Nothing lasts forever but that was some heavy stuff.

(The Austin scene played a vital role in keeping it a living art form and not just a museum piece. Up-and-coming accomplished musicians honed their craft backing up the originators before going out on their own and influencing generations of younger players, some of whom are currently playing with the now-veteran Austin guys.) I guess we did. I don't know that we saw it like that at the time because we just thought that we were the kids and they're the real deal and everything. Nobody enjoyed it more than we did. I guess we were providing a service. At the time we didn't see it like that, we just thought we were the luckiest people in the world getting to do that. Which we were. So I guess we did provide something but nobody benefitted from it or had more enjoyment from it than us. And if it actually did some good then that's even better.

All of this stuff, it's really the way I remember it. It's my perspective and I'm not trying to say that it's the ultimate one, or the only one, or the accurate one. I guess mine's as good as anybody else's.

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