Bay Area-based Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist/Producer
Sings the Praises of the Blues Genre

By Paul Freeman [2018 Interview]

Guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer Steve Freund has explored many types of music. But since his teen years, his passion has been aroused by one particular genre -- blues.

Freund says, "I was drawn in by the rhythm, the chord changes and the sound of the instruments. Then, when I got a little older, more mature, I started to pay attention to the words. I could relate to a lot of these things. The civil rights movement was going and the American blacks were striving for a better life. I identified with them.

"Being Jewish, we empathize with other oppressed people. So I became involved in the civil rights movement. I wanted to understand the psychology of racism. A lot of answers can be found in music. Blues brought black and white people together. It crossed the color line."

During childhood, Freund had black friends, as his school in New York was among the first in the nation to be integrated.

Born in Brooklyn in 1952, Freund heard early rock 'n' roll on the radio. In his apartment building, the janitor, an African-American from Mississippi, played him Bessie Smith and other 1920s and 1930s blues 78s.

"I became immersed in that, but I didn't really know what the heck it was yet," Freund says. "The blues soothed me. This kind of music is very spiritual."

At school, he enjoyed the British Invasion music his classmates played at dances. But, at 12, his preference was for James Brown, after seeing him in "The T.A.M.I. Show" concert film. Then he got into Motown and soul music.

At 16, his interest turned to early Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, as well as Big Bill Broonzy, Albert King, B.B. King and Freddie King. An appreciation for jazz later blossomed, particularly swing artists like Charlie Christian. Freund was constantly hunting down records and researching.

He began playing blues guitar seriously in 1969, at age 17. Freund would religiously attend shows featuring artists like Otis Spann, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Sunnyland Slim. "I said to myself, ‘I've got to play with these guys someday.'"

In 1976, at 24, he tired of New York and drove with friends to Chicago. They were welcomed by many blues artists, including Big Walter Horton, Floyd Jones and Lee Jackson.

"These were guys who never got famous, never made a lot of money, but they taught me how to treat people -- just treat people the way you want to be treated. These guys were very free with their knowledge of music and their very country, down-to-Earth, honest philosophy of life," Freund says.

"These were the grandchildren of slaves. They were very magnanimous people. They were not angry and vindictive. They didn't really care if we were white, green or yellow. They just liked us for who we were and the fact that we loved their music. They took us under their wing. They encouraged me and inspired me to be the best musician I could. Now I try to treat the younger guys like that. What goes around comes around."

In Chicago, Freund re-introduced himself to piano player Sunnyland Slim, whom he'd met at a Greenwich Village show. Impressed with his playing, Slim hired him and became a mentor. Freund moved to the Windy City. He lived there for 18 years, playing with many of the greats he had idolized.

For nine years, Freund played with James Cotton. He toured California with Cotton and became enamored of the Golden State. "I loved Cotton. He was one of my heroes. He was the real deal, old school blues guy, who figured out a formula, how to make a lot of money, so he adapted his music to that. But when he wanted to, he could play the blues with the greatest. He was kind of a wild guy, a party guy. And he partied too hard for me in the 80s."

So Freund toured Europe with such artists as Koko Taylor and Luther Allison. When the time came for another geographical change, Freund moved to California in 1994.

Following a stint in Santa Barbara, Freund was quickly embraced by the Bay Area blues community. He did gigs and a record with Boz Scaggs."Working with him made me focus on my vocals, because he's a world class vocalist. I used that template for attempting to sing the best I can while still playing guitar. He left a big impression on me."

Over the years, Freund developed his own distinctive guitar style. "I'm actually simplifying a lot. I can play less and make the same statements. I don't have to be a speed demon on guitar. I model myself after more of a phrasing type of thing. Guitar is supposed to be a form of communication, like speaking.

"You have guys who play a million notes a minute. And they're wonderful at it. But if they were speaking, it might come out as gibberish. So I listen to guys like Louis Armstrong, Albert King and B.B. King. You know they have the speed and they can pull it out once in a while just to blow your mind. But most of the time, they're playing in a way that, to my ear, is almost like they're speaking in English. It's like a dialect to me. It gets a message across."

Besides playing on dozens of records by other artists -- including Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and Pinetop Perkins -- Freund has released outstanding albums of his own, the latest being "Come On In This House." You can also hear him playing with Tad Robinson, Ken Saydak, Harlan Terson and Marty Binder as the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band on 2018's "Back to Chicago."

Freund eventually settled in Vallejo, California, where he still resides. At 66, after shoulder surgery, he has bounced back and still pouring his heart into his music. He continues to perform extensively.

Freund, who taught accredited courses on blues at Chicago's Columbia College, remains a student of the genre.

"The stories in some of these songs are timeless. They're about life and death, about relationships. They show how all humans are connected, in some way or another.

"A lot of these songs are serious life vignettes. And this helps you to relate to other people. It shows that deep down, we all have the same emotional issues and problems. And this brings people together. That's part of the power of the blues."

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