The man who could have reigned

By Sergio Ariza

At the end of the 60s, England, the centre of rock music at that point, was dominated by hundreds of blues/rock bands where the guitar hero figure was prominent along the lines of Clapton, Beck, Page, or Peter Green. Among these hundreds of challengers the next on the list was one Paul Kossoff, born in London 1950, and his band Free. They did reach those heights for a brief spell with his incredible vibrato but his addictions snuffed out the band, and still more horrifying, ended his life before he was 26.

Free had what it takes to be great, a great couple of exceptional composers in Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers, the latter’s big voice, an explosive live show, and the the ability of Kossoff who, without Clapton’s dexterity, Page’s technique, or Hendrix’s innovation, gave life to each note, hitting an incredible vibrato and holding it for what seemed like an eternity, becoming the personification of ‘less is more’. But his career was cut short and with too many ups and downs to really know how far Kossoff could have gone in good shape. 

Kossoff began playing as a boy, studying classical guitar where he showed an innate talent. But it wasn’t until 1965, when he saw Clapton playing with John Mayall, that he had a revelation. He took up his lessons but this time focussing on the blues. As with so many others, after seeing Clapton playing with the Bluesbreakers, Kossoff decided the guitar he needed was a Gibson Les Paul, so he first bought a Junior for a cheaper price, but after saving his money, he got a black  Custom from 1954 with P-90 pickups, that supposedly had belonged to ‘Slowhand’. It was with this guitar, his most precious of possessions, that he became a master player on his own. At 15 he started his own blues band called the Black Cat Bones, it was 1966 and Kossoff played nonstop in the dives of London. In those days his most memorable moment was to open for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Kossoff spent hours playing and talking guitars and equipment with Green, and his development as a guitarist was dizzying. In 1968  he joined Simon Kirke’s band and they accompanied the legendary pianist Champion Jack Dupree on his album When You Feel the Feeling You Was Feeling, and went on tour with him.   

But the definitive moment of his career came when a friend took him to see a band called Brown Sugar with a young singer named Paul Rodgers. He was so delighted with his voice he asked to join them on stage and began to play Albert and BB King, two of their favourites. When they stopped, Rodgers declared “ we should form a group”. Free was just born. They didn’t have a name yet but Rodgers and Kossoff knew they had been born to play together. Kossoff recruited his old mate Simon Kirke and a bassman came recommended by British blues patriarch, Alexis Korner, who was also in charge of giving them their name. He was the young prodigy Andy Fraser, who was part of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at the ripe old age of 15. 

With Korner’s help they landed a contract with Island Records, and by the year’s end they recorded their first record. When it was released in March, 1969 Fraser was 16,  Paul Kossoff 17, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke 19. But their youth is not obvious on Tons of Sobs, the bluesiest of their albums, based on a repertoire of live shows (they hadn’t stopped playing since the start) with Rodgers as the main composer, with some help from Kossoff on Moonshine, and began a fruitful relationship with Fraser on Wild Indian Woman and I’m a Mover, the best song on the album. Yet the real protagonists were Rodgers voice and Kossoff’s guitar which shines especially on versions of Goin’ Down Slow, and The Hunter by Albert King, which became a fixture in their song lists. 

The record didn’t have much commercial success but the band never stopped touring with it, gaining a reputation for great live shows. By October of the same year they put out a second album named after the band. Fraser and Rodgers took over all compositions, bringing to the studio a close idea of how they wanted to sound. This is when the squabbling started with Kossoff and Kirke moaning about the lack of freedom they were given. Things got serious and there was a bit of a mutiny where the guitarist and drummer threatened to replace Fraser with the bassman from Mott The Hoople, while Fraser and Rodgers were thinking of forming another band. Kossoff was considering his own departure and auditioned to become the new Rolling Stones guitarist but producer Chris Blackwell put the kiboshes to that. Blues was still their main source but other notions began to appear like hard rock, and shades of folk and soul. 

The record didn’t have the expected success, but it allowed Kossoff to fulfil one of his dreams. After resuming his tireless line of gigs, he found himself in the U.S. opening for the new supergroup Clapton’s Blind Faith. This led to a friendship with talks about techniques and exchanging guitars, a ‘ 59 Gibson Les Paul for a mid-50s Custom. The Gods recognised him as one of their own. All was lined up for success and it came after a bad gig in Durham, when Fraser decided to write a rock hymn to end the shows with. In the dressing room he started to sing what would become All Right Now, and moments later the song that immortalised them was ready.

At the start of 1970 the band would record their masterpiece Fire and Water, their hardest rock album, and for the first time Fraser’s  excellent material together with the passionate playing of Kossoff made one of the best albums of the genre. Songs like the title Mr. Big, Oh I Wept, and All Right Now, put them in rock’s throne. Their ‘hymn’ rose to the ‘Top 5’ on both sides of the Atlantic. Free then went on to play at one of the biggest dates in rock history, The Isle of Wight Festival. There on August 30, 1970, before 600,000 fans, these Brits turned into the superstars they had always seemed to be.  But what should have been the dawn of their reign, was just the tip of their decline.

There were various reasons, but the most important was the pressure of success, getting back in the studio to record just days after Wight, and the death of Hendrix during the recording session, something which deeply disturbed Kossoff and aggravated his own drug use. Hendrix, besides being his good friend, had replaced Clapton as his idol. Months before his own demise, he would bare his feelings in an interview about the author of Electric Ladyland: “I loved him to death. He was my hero.” .

As was expected,  Highway became a commercial and critical failure. Apart from Kossoff’s  there was the dispute between the band’s two main writers and in 1971, while My Brother Jake (a Rodger’s song about Kossoff) was climbing the charts, the band broke up. This made things worse with Kossoff’s condition and he decided to keep going with Kirke and brought in Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick  to cut a new record called ‘Kossoff/Kirke/Tetsu/Rabbit’. While this was going on, the record company released a live album that sold quite well. With this, and Kossoff’s poor state, Rodgers and Fraser put an end to the dispute and got the group back together.  It didn’t last long. They put out one more record titled Free At Last, where they made the songs together and Fraser took Kossoff away to get him off his Mandrax addiction. It failed, and the guitarist began to miss gigs and recording dates. Fraser, fed up, was the first to leave. Kossoff also had to seek treatment. Then Kirke got in touch with Yamauchi and Bundrick to fill in.  

With this new set up, came the swan song of the band, Heartbreaker, a record in which Kossoff only played on 5 of the 9 tracks, scarce moments when he got rid of his demons. Despite being far from his best, he left proof of his class on solos like Come Together in the Morning, the album’s best along with Wishing Well. Finally, on February 17 1973, Free played its last gig in Florida. Rodgers and Kirke formed Bad Company to great success, while Bundrick moved on to  The Who, Tetsu went to the Faces, Kossoff created Back Street Crawler, and made two records with them. In 1976 they crossed paths in L.A. with Bad Company, and as in the old days, Rodgers and Kossoff spent the night jamming.

A few days later, the 19th of March, he got on a plane and his excesses caught up to him. When the plane touched ground, Paul Kossoff had died at the age of 25. He wasn’t the best guitarist but one of the most passionate, giving life to each note and transmitting it so well. His ashes lay beside a plaque that reads: All Right Now.