Andy Fraser started out as a 15-year-old bass player for Alexis Korner and later John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He co-wrote “All Right Now” one of the most played songs in classic rock history with rock legends Free. His embryonic days with that band led to them being one of the most talented and respected rock groups in history. All of that can be seen on the “Free Forever” DVD, which chronicles his expert bass playing (he was placed on ReviewFix.com’s top ten bass player list) and the band’s brilliance. He later wrote songs for such music luminaries as Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Paul Young and Robert Palmer (“Every Kinda People”). He is currently involved with a project that is addressing the pressing problem of global climate change ( www.avaaz.org). Review Fix had the opportunity to get his insight on the rock and roll world, bass playing, the environment and fatherhood.
REVIEW FIX: I placed you on Review Fix’s Top Ten list of classic rock bassists, and I think it’s very well deserved. How did your technique evolve? I’ve read that you started on guitar initially.
ANDY FRASER: Well, initially piano: I had classical piano tuition, from about the age of five, or seven – really young, but the teacher didn’t want to take me, because I was young and she thought my hands were small. And I learned through Beethoven and Bach, like I was a typist until I was about 11 where I kind of felt old enough to say “this is like extra homework; I don’t need it.” I got a guitar and sort of figured out where all the notes corresponded.
RF: Wow. By ear?
AF: Yeah, I sort of figured it out. I sort of understood music from a piano point of view, and when I learned where the notes were on the guitar, then it all kind of made sense, and I was sort of getting into the guitar until I guess the school band. Everyone wanted to be the guitarist, or the drummer or the singer – anything but the bass player. I was the diplomat who tuned my strings down on octave, which were probably flat like old farts, but everyone was happy enough with that and [it] enhanced my career as a bass player.
RF: I’ve played a little guitar, but do you think that becomes an advantage: having played guitar then switching to bass at all? Or do you think that’s sort of an advantage, having started on guitar?
AF: I suppose it gives you some extra experience. I mean a bassist basically plays guitar. You play a few strings, a couple of octaves. I think any kind of musical experience is going to help. Truly, I mean, the bass is a bit like a kick drum with a note, so you’ve really got to do something to sort of make it much more than that.
RF: But your style is very impressive and melodic and your playing of high notes up on the bass, and sort of fills – guitar like fills – while you’re playing bass, I think.
AF: I was really unconscious of doing anything other than okay. You need something here? Then throw something in. Although I was a bit of a diplomat, I never sort of saw myself as a bass player. I began to see myself more like a songwriter or an arranger, and I would do whatever was necessary fill out the part – especially in Free. For example, you only have a guitar to help with the melodic part, so if he wants to play a solo, you’ve got to find something – either chords or something that fills it out to give some support, so that really was all I was doing, was whatever was necessary.
RF: I just want to go back to your early days with you playing with Alexis Korner and then later John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. Was that a sort of training ground for what came about later in your career?
AF: Unbelievable – and it was like laid completely in front of me after I was thrown out of school for not having my hair cut, complicated by my mother by going to a college, and I became great friends with Alexis’ [Korner] daughter, and we used to hang around a lot at her house, and came to know the family through her and seemed to bond with Alexis. And to tell the truth, it was a John Mayall thing, I think. He lived around the corner from John Mayall and John Mayall called her; he says “Alexis I need a bass player like yesterday.” “Well,” he says, “there’s this kid who hangs around the house, plays my guitars, says he can play bass.” So they tend to believe him, so he set me up with a kind of audition where I went around and played a couple of tours; he says “you got the gig; you start tomorrow.” So then I had to go and quit college. He gave me some money to buy a decent bass and amplifier and he says “oh, you’ve got to have a good stereo system.” We were going to go on a European tour within days, so I had to get permission from the magistrate that I would be in bed by eight o’clock.
RF: How old were you exactly at that point?
RF: How did it feel to be doing this at that age?
AF: What a thrill; all of the musicians I played with before, which are definitely older than me, but these were definitely like great musicians. I mean, I think John Mayall was like the biggest blues band England had at the time and you know Mick Taylor (later of the Rolling Stones) was on guitar.
RF: At the same time as you?
AF: Yeah, he was 19, and so he was the closest to me in age and I could relate to him. In fact, we used to sneak off behind the gig and I think if John Mayall had found out, he would’ve fired us
RF: You know I was supposed to review a show of his at B.B. Kings here in New York, but it was canceled. I hope he’s well. I have to find out what’s going on. I was just going to say, John Mayall was such a great training ground with Clapton, John McVie. It is just amazing – the roll call of people who went through his band.
AF: Jack Bruce.
RF: Jack Bruce, sure.
AF: It’s quite amazing, really; Peter Green.
RF: Peter Green right. It’s like a college – he had his own college in a way, and I was going to ask you about early bass influences. I’ve read someplace – also I hope it’s correct – Jack Bruce and John Entwistle – people like that or any others?
AF: Both of those; I remember still being at school before I was expelled for hearing “My Generation” and you know the bass solo comes in after the first chord. I always thought McCartney was always brilliant for the way he orchestrated; I mean you listen to the bass lines on Sergeant Pepper it’s like sing-a song-bass – it’s brilliant.
RF: Yeah,”With a Little Help From my Friends” or also the song “Rain” on another album has incredible bass lines. For me, I just like the sort of melodic bass sound. You have McCartney where it’s not just backing up. It’s shining on its own. Do you know what I mean, where it just is out there?
AF: The Beatles were so great. It’s easy to forget, but they had like an incredible bass player that the orchestration is like from underneath. Most of the songs, I would say, from Sergeant Pepper – all the bass – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” is something unbelievable.
RF: He did some nice stuff later with “Wings,” too, in terms of the bass.
AF: I’ll tell you, other people who influenced me was like Carol Kay, and the people who played on the Motown – I mean, just unbelievable. I mean, what’s that guy’s name? He was on the Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On.”
RF: I’m not sure. I know James Jamerson I’ve heard of.
AF: Right, yes, James Jamerson.
RF: Is that the person you’re talking about?
RF: All of these people – they’re kind of lost in the shuffle a bit, not out front, but they made these songs such incredible classics.
AF: You know, I read about James Jamerson. He was doing something else and Marvin Gaye sort of twisted his arm to come on in to whatever gig he was doing, and laid the bass down on his songs, and he used to come in kind of tired at the end of the day, and he actually lay on the floor and played all the bass parts straight off right under the song. I mean the bass is just – you’ve got to love the guy.