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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Bobby Freeman: An appreciation

Bobby Freeman "Do You Want to Dance"

Rhythm-and-blues singer and songwriter Bobby Freeman, who died Jan. 23 at 76, had only two Top 10 pop hits, but the first one, "Do You Want to Dance" in 1958, was immortal.

"It's a flat-out rock 'n' roll classic! That's all you can say about it," says Rockin' John McDonald, the longtime host of the weekly I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison, Wis. listener-sponsored station WORT-FM.

He notes that "Do You Want to Dance" has been covered scores of times, most notably by the Beach Boys, who had a No. 12 hit with it as "Do You Wanna Dance?" in 1965, Bette Midler (her ballad version reached No. 17 in 1972) and Cliff Richard and the Shadows, whose version peaked at No. 2 in the U.K. in 1962--as a B-side. The Ramones famously covered it in 1977, with other artists recording it or performing it live including the Four Seasons, Del Shannon, Sonny & Cher (as Caesar & Cleo), the Mamas & the Papas, Johnny Rivers, John Lennon, T. Rex, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Dave Edmunds and Juliana Hatfield.

Freeman's "Do You Want to Dance" was a No. 5 hit, as was his 1964 single "C'mon and Swim." He had lesser hits with other dance-themed tunes like "(I Do the) Shimmy Shimmy," his No. 37 single in 1960.

"The Orlons covered it and had a bigger hit [titled 'Shimmy Shimmy,' it was a No. 17 hit in 1964 on the R&B chart—which Freeman's didn’t crack, though his original outpaced the Orlons' on the pop chart with theirs reaching only No. 66], but I like his better because it was the original."

McDonald, incidentally, learned of Freeman's death at Clear Lake, Iowa's annual Winter Dance Party commemoration of Buddy Holly's final concert, when Midwestern rock 'n' roll/rockabilly/doowop group the Whitesidewalls announced it and then performed a Beach Boys-styled "Do You Wanna Dance?" tribute to Freeman.

Freeman died in San Francisco, where he was raised.

"Well before San Francisco famously put itself on the music map in the mid-'60s, Freeman, along with pop crooner Johnny Mathis, was making noise—rock 'n' roll noise," notes author and pop culture observer Gene Sculatti, whose books include San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip. He cites Freeman's "unbeatable '58 stomper 'Do You Want to Dance,' and his 1960 classic '(I Do the) Shimmy Shimmy,' which occupies a shiny-suit hip groove somewhere north of Jackie Wilson, south of James Brown and right on time whenever it’s played."

"In '64 it was 'C'mon and Swim,' without a doubt one of the toughest non-Brit sides of that year," Sculatti continues. "A paean to a banned local dance craze, it was arranged and produced by Sly Stone, written by Sly with DJ Tom ‘Big Daddy’ Donahue. But the ownership is Freeman's."

Sculatti appropriately concludes with a key line from "C'mon and Swim": "Do the dog-paddle, baby!" Meanwhile, music publicity veteran Bob Merlis points to "Do You Wanna Dance"'s novel "fake ending."

"That's what I call it: a fake ending--though maybe there's a music term for it," says Merlis. "I think Bobby Freeman was the first to do it."

Specifically, Merlis refers to Freeman's apparently "definite" cut-off to the "Do You Wanna Dance" single, at the one-minute, 40-second mark.

"You take a breath and contemplate how great the song was, and then it comes back with [what sounds like] bongos--and gives you more!" says Merlis, and sure enogh, Freeman starts up the music again after the moment's pause. "It's wonderful—not a coda or a notation, but a record production thing. I loved it so much as a kid and bought the 45 [single] on the Josie label—a dvision of Jubilee Records. And his name was Bobby, so I felt an identity with him!"

Merlis notes that the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" and the Contours' "Do You Love Me" both employ a similar device—and both came after "Do You Want to Dance."

"I think Bobby Freeman invented this quirky rock 'n' roll convention," says Merlis, "and you look forward to hearing it."

Bobby Freeman "C'mon and Swim"



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