View All

Freddie Hughes Remembered

Soul singer Freddie Hughes died last week from complications in part due to Covid-19. His pal Alec Palao fondly remembers the man with the high-reaching, eminently soulful voice.

I’m glad I knew Freddie Hughes, because I could regularly shake his hand in thanks for some of my favourite records within the admittedly well-stocked and populous San Francisco Bay Area soul pantheon. An essentially humble man, Mr Hughes understood that his claim to fame would always be ‘Send My Baby Back,’ an easy-moving, grooving mid-tempo masterpiece graced with an upper-atmosphere vocal chart so remarkable that it was no wonder that Hughes was referred to as a male Aretha. The record was not the hit it should have been, reaching only the R&B top 20 in the summer of 1968, but it has remained to this day a beloved R&B oldie in many parts of the US, and is a veritable anthem in Freddie’s native Bay Area. Invariably, uninformed historians mistake Freddie for the older Fred Hughes, singer of the 1964 hit ‘Oo Wee Baby’, who added to the confusion by duplicitously featuring ‘Baby’ in his own act, a fact which irked Freddie to no end.

Our Frederick W. Hughes Jr was born in Berkeley, California in 1943, grew up in the Oakland projects and, in the time-tested manner, discovered his voice in the church. But despite his parents’ wishes for him to sing only for the Lord, Freddie’s horizons reached beyond gospel into secular music, and the populist proto-soul style of the early 60s vocal group. He first sang on disc with the Markeets, a studio-only outfit, but it was with Oakland quartet the Four Rivers that Freddie truly cut his teeth in the music business. The Rivers appeared as backing vocalists on local singles by Little Lynn, Johnny Talbot and others, and did a lot of studio work, though they only enjoyed one single under their own name, ‘I Confess’, at the end of 1962.

All the Four Rivers recordings are enhanced by Freddie’s immediately recognizable and melisma-rich falsetto - for example, check out the death-defying intro of ‘Nature Boy’ on Ace’s “Music City Story” box set. The Rivers were initially Svengali’d by notorious deejay Magnificent Montague, but it was the East Bay’s own master manipulator, Music City’s Ray Dobard, that got his hooks into the singers. When the group devolved into the duo of Freddie and Ken Pleasants, they became the Music City Soul Brothers and spent countless hours in Dobard’s funky studio in the Lorin district of South Berkeley. Dobard worked the pair hard, but their efforts reached to only three Music City singles, one of which they merely sang background to an incognito Jimmy Norman, and another where they were the voices on ‘Do The Philly’, a regional hit credited to the Music City All Stars. The third was their own ‘Let Our Love Go On’, its fabulous Impressions-style groove marred only by Dobard’s parsimonious production values.

Hughes eventually wriggled free of the entrepreneur’s clutches by entering military service in May 1965, but he was out within six months and back singing locally with Pleasants as The Soul Brothers. When Ken subsequently quit due to a religious epiphany in 1966, Freddie enlisted the help of another old associate, Wylie Trass, in the creation of a new act. Together they became the Casanova II, and it was clear that this was a very special combination. Whereas Hughes and Pleasants’ voices had been similar in range, the diminutive Trass had a gruffer, rough-hewn style of singing that proved the perfect foil for Freddie’s vocal acrobatics. The act was fine-tuned by Lonnie Hewitt, charismatic Bay Area jazz musician who had recently begun to delve into the local R&B scene with his Wee label.

Hewitt placed the Casanovas with Fantasy Records, and produced two fantastic, if unsuccessful, singles in late 1966 and 1967, which emerged on the label’s Early Bird subsidiary. The whims of the northern crowd normally plump for the dancefloor moves of ‘We Gotta Keep On’, but for my money the sleeper is ‘Maybe They’re Right’, an upbeat gem with insidious piano riffery and the singers testifying for all that they are worth. Live tapes of the duo suggest just how exciting the Casanova II must have been in person.

It would however prove to be another short-lived professional venture, as the singers eventually grew apart, but Freddie remained aligned with Lonnie Hewitt, the older musician taking him under his wing to develop a new batch of material, more mature and less rabble-rousing than in the past, with the focus fully on Hughes’ interpretive abilities, and that magical voice. Sessions at Coast Recorders in San Francisco with the cream of Bay Area R&B instrumental talent on hand bore fruit with ‘Send My Baby Back,’ which emerged on Wee in early 1968, before getting picked up by R&B stalwarts Scepter/Wand. The record’s enduring popularity has led some – include the singer himself - to believe it was a bigger hit than it actually was, but ‘Baby’ got enough action at the time for Scepter to greenlight a full album named for the track.

Freddie’s “Send My Baby Back” LP is one of the most satisfying soul long-players of the era, solid from start to finish, with some astute covers and several strong tunes from the pen of Hewitt, Hughes and associate Ernie Marbray, along with arrangements from the same great team that had created the single. Highlights abound, from the assertive ‘Gotta Keep My Bluff In’ to streamlined re-runs of earlier material like ‘Every Night I See Your Lovely Face’ and ‘We Gotta Keep On.’ “I was trying to stay melodic,” Freddie would tell me many years later, “I wanted just to be smooth, not as hostile; I wanted to muffle the edge.” While his elastic falsetto gets a full workout throughout, the playlist demonstrates Freddie’s versatility. Indeed, one piece, an eventual single, captures the Hughes instrument operating with elan in the tenor range. ‘He’s No Good’ is simply as good as uptown can get: no over-arranged studio trappings, just pure, unbridled soul artistry.

Hughes and Hewitt’s efforts sadly wouldn’t go further than the R&B market, and sales were disappointing, including those for a hopeful sequel, ‘My Baby Came Back’. Freddie attributed this to Wand’s poor standing amongst R&B stations, due to their lack of black promo staff, but Hewitt was also having problems of his own, issues the producer would later obscurely blame upon various “moneychangers”. Freddie’s discography from this point onwards gets more complicated. Ron Carson of the Soul Clock label used Freddie on a handful of sides leased to Janus and Happy Fox in the early 1970s, including the superlative ‘I’ve Got My Own Mind’. Several sessions that he participated in later in the 1970s and 1980s came out on obscure imprints as Hip Star and Greg-Uh-Rudy. Freddie also recorded with the Natural Soul Band and Vitamin E. It would be fair to say that most of his subsequent studio work, though good, lacks the distinction of the 1967-1968 period.

As a performer, Freddie’s base would remain the Bay Area for most of the rest of his life. He passed on his musical talent to his son, Derick, who has enjoyed his own accomplished career. Around the time that I first met Freddie, he was busy singing with local outfits like Kicking The Mule and others. He always did a lot of pick-up gigs, often just himself and his piano playing sidekick Chris Burns, parlaying a blend of blues and easy soul, as his voice naturally could not scale the same heights that it once had. But he was a lifelong entertainer and always great to see and hear, no matter the setting.

I had been a fan of the Casanova II and Wee/Wand records for many years, but it was not until I started sifting through the voluminous Music City tape catalogue that I realised what an uncut jewel Freddie’s pipes were, even in their early days. From the get-go, he was super-friendly, and we stayed in touch long after the anthology I assembled for Kent came out in 2010. I also did my best to help him get his “forty acres and a mule,” in reference to the inconsistent remuneration an older musician often experiences, and Freddie was always appreciative of that. We last spoke just after the beginning of this year, with him calling to say hi and to see what was up with Ace. It’s a sad reflection on the current state of things that a relatively important and stable presence in Bay Area musical circles could suddenly just be gone in a flash.

An artist will necessarily be judged by the surviving recorded catalogue, but that doesn’t always guarantee that their best work was preserved. In the case of Freddie Hughes, everything he did in the studio in the 1960s and 1970s had merit. However, for empirical evidence that the singer truly occupied his own unique, inimitable spot in the soul firmament, look no further than those incredible discs that Lonnie Hewitt produced. You won’t be disappointed.


Alec Palao