KOSSOFF-THE BACK STREET CRAWLER
For a scant few years beginning in the mid-1960’s, Great Britain was responsible for producing arguably the finest crop of rock guitarists ever. This era began with Eric Clapton, who first made rock n’ roll musicianship hip with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and later the Cream. These now well chronicled “Clapton is God” years must have truly motivated his peers, because shortly after, a whole new school of heirs apparent were catching our ears. Jeff Beck shook us up with his manic feedback and wonderful phrasing; Peter Green gained admiration for his supernatural blues playing; Mick Taylor excelled on electric slide; Jimmy Page’s composition and layering produced sounds never heard before; and Paul Kossoff gave us his mastery of the understated and his frighteningly expressive vibrato.
Born in London, England on September 14, 1950, Paul had studied classical guitar for six years but had pretty much stopped playing by the time he was a teenager. By the winter of 1965, as the British blues revival was peaking, Paul happened to catch Eric Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at The Refectory in north London. That concert, he was to later say, changed the course of his life. From that moment on, he wanted to play the same type of stinging electric blues he had heard Clapton play. He soon picked up a ’54 Gibson Les Paul Custom (see
photo below) and became a serious music student, immersing himself in learning to play the blues.
After leaving school, the young “Koss” went to work in Selmer’s Music shop in London. One day at Selmer’s, he met Jimi Hendrix, who had recently come over from America with The Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler. When Jimi began playing an early version of “Little Wing” through the store’s equipment, Paul Kossoff was mesmerized. It was another defining moment for the impressionable youth.
By 1967, Koss joined a band called “Black Cat Bones” named after the mythological blues talisman. Several months later, Black Cat Bones recruited drummer Simon Kirke and the two struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of the blues. Despite it being the year the whole world went psychedelic, Paul and Simon were determined to develop a style steeped in basic blues. Soon Black Cat Bones were regulars on the London pub circuit, and they caught the eye of producer Mike Vernon. Vernon recruited the band to back pianist Champion Jack Dupree on his new recording entitled “When You Feel the Feeling.” Despite the exposure this brought Black Cat Bones, Kossoff and Kirke soon felt like they had taken the lineup as far as it could go, and began looking for a new group.
One night in The Fickle Pickle, another London pub, Koss heard a young vocalist with the band “Brown Sugar.” During a break Koss asked the singer, whose name was Paul Rodgers, if he could sit in for a number. The singer agreed and the two ended up jamming on several tunes including T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” and Memphis Slim’s “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Both Pauls later remarked that they were instantly drawn to the others’ musicality. Following the set, Koss approached Paul Rodgers about joining his new group. Rodgers agreed and along with Kirke, they made plans to pursue their love of blues-based rock n’ roll together.
As Kossoff, Kirke and Rodgers began to rehearse, Mike Vernon suggested (based on a tip from British blues legend Alexis Korner) that they check out bassist Andy Fraser. The group was impressed with the fact that Andy had played with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers when he was only 15. Fraser soon joined and the new quartet was christened “Free” by Korner. Within a few months, the group had written and road tested several simple-but-effective rock songs that fit their lineup of guitar, drums, bass and vocals. Playing a late-fifties flametop Les Paul Standard (later immortalized in Bacon and Day’s “The Les Paul” book) through a block logo Marshall head atop a cabinet that he and his dad built, Koss began to find his voice. To facilitate his aggressive attack, Kossoff utilized heavy picks and heavy strings for maximum tone, and developed the slow and quick vibrato that would one day become his trademark. In describing his technique to the English press, Koss stated “I think my vibrato has taken a long time to sound mature, and it’s taken a long time to reach the speed of vibrato that I now have…I’ll use my index to back up the ring finger when I’m using vibrato.”
It was also through Alexis Korner that Free was signed to Island Records. Island’s staff producer at the time was Guy Stevens, whose unorthodox production and bizarre behavior (Ian Hunter called him “a lunatic” in his recent VG interview) seemed to get the best out of his groups. Working with Stevens in London’s Morgan studios, the sessions were basically just Free’s live shows with a few overdubs to fill out the sound where necessary. Besides the sunburst Les Paul, Koss was also playing a three pickup black mid-50’s Les Paul Custom through Marshall and Laney amps. Recorded in just one week, their debut album “Tons of Sobs” was released in late 1968. “Tons of Sobs” was a swaggering collection of bluesy rock tunes with tough titles like “I’m A Mover” “Walk In My Shadow”, and a version of Albert King’s “The Hunter.” With the release of “Tons of Sobs”, each member was heralded for their superb performances. While the four piece band concept was surely nothing new, Rodgers’ cocksure vocals, Fraser’s incredible bass playing, Kirke’s rock steady drumming, and Kossoff’s tough but elegant guitar work made for a truly original sound.
In live shows supporting “Tons of Sobs,” Koss began using a 100 watt Marshall Super Lead head with dual 4 x 12” Marshall cabinets equipped with bass speakers, which he felt had a more rounded tone than the guitar speakers. Andy Fraser primarily played his Gibson EB series basses through an old block logo Marshall guitar setup. Although Free was primarily playing in small clubs at this point, they began to garner rave reviews and acquire a loyal cult following throughout England. With Rodgers as the front man, the diminutive Kossoff became a great foil with his haunting vibrato and lion’s mane of hair as he played with untamed passion. Said Kossoff, “The music should come from the soul and be simple and straightforward so everyone can enjoy it, and this is why we’re going down well.”
For their second effort, Free released an album simply entitled “Free,” and a very mellow single called “Broad Daylight.” Although the single flopped, the flip side contained “The Worm,” another satisfying example of Free’s riff-rock that was vaguely reminiscent of the Cream’s “Politician.” The new album saw the group growing and developing the styles they pioneered on the debut record. To broaden his sounds, Kossoff began experimenting with different equipment, including his block neck ‘60’s Gibson ES-335, and a Fender Tremolux amp. An excellent example of some of Koss’s guitar layering techniques is “I’ll Be Creepin’”, which features both a clean riff guitar and a wah-wah laden chordal wash. The result is a mysterious and threatening sounding tune, augmented by a beautifully lyrical solo. In “Woman,” the raw Rodgers boldly sang of love with conditions, with lines like “Marry me today… I’ll give you everything but my guitar, but my guitar and my car.” Listen to “Woman” and you’ll hear where Lynyrd Skynyrd got the inspiration for “On the Hunt.” Also worth a mention is the dual tempo “Songs of Yesterday.” This tune spotlights two great solos by Koss; the first played through the rhythm pickup for a “woman-esque” tone. Immediately following the first solo, Kossoff switches to the lead pickup to anticipate the tempo change. The “Free” album also contained a slow country-influenced tune called “Mouthful of Grass,” which features some incredibly restrained chordal touches from Kossoff.
In mid-1969, shortly after the release of the second record, Koss heard that both The Rolling Stones and Jethro Tull were looking for new guitarists, and made himself available for the auditions. Although the Stones’ gig went to Mick Taylor, and Martin Barre would eventually join Tull, the eighteen-year-old Koss was still pleased to have been considered, as it was a sign that he was being recognized as a top talent in his field. Also around this time, Island Records signed the group on as opener for a U.S. package tour consisting of headliner Blind Faith and the second billed Delaney and Bonnie. Free again continued to impress audiences and musicians alike, including Eric Clapton, who asked Koss to show him his strong vibrato technique. Shortly after this encounter, Clapton gave Koss another prized ’59 sunburst Les Paul in exchange for Koss’s black Les Paul Custom. (Note: The sunburst is believed to be the guitar that is now owned by ex-bandmate Paul Rodgers and is in process of being donated to “The Paul Kossoff Foundation,” a charity run by Paul’s father David Kossoff). Koss also picked up several more Les Pauls including two great sounding late 50’s PAF-equipped models (with the sunburst finishes sanded off to give a blonde appearance).
By the time Free went into the studio to record “Fire and Water,” their third effort, they were musically stronger than they ever had been, but they knew that true success still depended on having a hit record. “All Right Now” was just the hit the group had been looking for, and it came about almost by accident, written after a slow gig as a reaction to fire up quiet audiences. Within a few weeks of its release, an edited version of “All Right Now” shot to the top of the charts in both the U.S. and England. This tune has become a quintessential rock classic, and playing it seems to be is a rite of passage for upstart rock guitarists, much in the way that “Johnny B’ Goode” was years earlier. “All Right Now” starts with Koss’s crunchy Les Paul-through-a-Marshall rhythm, Rodgers uneffected wailing vocals and Kirke’s steady drumming, with Fraser’s blooping bass joining in for the choruses. In the solo section, Koss demonstrates textbook examples of using space and building tension for effect. Starting in a laid back fashion using a lower register major scale, the intensity builds as he ascends up the neck into repeated blues licks, ending with a long, sustained note. A testament to the staying power of the song is that twenty-nine years after its release, it was featured in the summer hit movie “American Beauty.” In addition to “All Right Now,” “Fire and Water” contained some excellent material and was the group’s strongest effort to date. Songs like the “Mr. Big” (most recently covered by Gov’t Mule), “Oh I Wept,” and the title track showed the band at their finest hour. The formula they had pioneered a few years earlier was starting to pay off in a big way.
The major success of “All Right Now” gained the group headlining status and a slot at the prestigious 1970 Isle of Wight festival, also featuring Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, and Sly and The Family Stone, among others. Having matured as a player over the constant slew of gigs, Paul’s vocabulary now included his patented rock licks (which are now part of virtually every guitarists’ bag of tricks), a series of very fluid ascending and descending runs, exaggerated bends, lyrical phrasing, and of course his signature vibrato. Despite being barely out of their teens, the raw quartet won over the half million in attendance, and for a brief moment, Free seemed unstoppable.
Unfortunately, with chart success comes the pressure to stay on top, and the touring and stress associated with having a top ten international hit began to take its toll on the young men. “Highway,” the followup to the smash “Fire and Water” did not sell well, although two of its better songs “The Stealer” and “The Highway Song” would emerge years later on several greatest hits packages. Growing tensions in the band began to mount regarding the direction they should take. Fraser and Rodgers wanted to branch out into more diverse material, but Kirke and Kossoff did not want to deviate from their hard driving blues. As a result, the group decided to disband in mid-1971, and Island Records pulled together a live album “Free Live!” to capitalize on what might have been the group’s last gasp. “Free Live!” features strong live performances, including a great version of “Mr. Big” complete with a Fraser bass solo that reaches the boiling point. Also noteworthy is “Ride On Pony” which demonstrates Koss’s use of dynamics as he weaves in and out of blues and major scales, and one of the finest versions of “The Hunter” ever recorded.
In the days following the split, the band members experimented with different groups. Fraser formed “Toby,” Rodgers formed “Peace,” and Kossoff and Kirke teamed up with Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (later of The Who) on keyboards and released “Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu, Rabbit.” This album featured a diverse array of tunes including Simon Kirke’s original version of “Anna,” which would later end up on the second Bad Company album. Playing with a keyboard player forever changed Koss’s style, making it less aggressive while opening up the sound a bit. Unfortunately, none of the ex-Free members’ new projects were met with much fanfare. To make matters worse, Paul Kossoff had become very depressed following the recent death of Jimi Hendrix, and his own health began to suffer from his increasing use of methaqualone (quaaludes), a powerful and addictive barbituate.
Because the split didn’t seem to be doing anyone, especially Kossoff, any good, the group decided to get back together in early 1972. After a few gigs to dust off the older tunes, Free hit the studios to try to recapture their place in modern rock. In addition to his Les Pauls, and influenced by Hendrix’s passing, Koss’s studio setup now included a 1957 white Fender Stratocaster that he played through two full Marshall stacks! These sessions would ultimately produce the “Free At Last” album, which contained several strong tunes including “Catch a Train” and the hit “Little Bit of Love.” At the same time, Koss started recording tunes for an upcoming solo album eventually released under the title “Back Street Crawler,” featuring Yes drummer Alan White, among others. One of the standout tracks recorded at these sessions is a guitar duet with British songwriter John Martyn called “Time Away,” which was actually a jam clocking in at close to twenty minutes. “Time Away” featured Koss playing his Strat through a Marshall-powered Leslie cabinet for a very liquid, ethereal sound. Eventually, only the last few sections of “Time Away” would be used for the “Back Street Crawler” album, which is a fine example of loose, blues-based rock jamming. “Molten Gold,” another soulful song from this session, would later wind up as the title track of A&M’s excellent Free double disc compilation, released in 1993.
Unfortunately, Koss’s drug problems were starting to impact his reliability, and on Free’s 1972 U.S. tour, his inability to make gigs combined with earlier personality clashes resulted in Andy Fraser leaving the group permanently. Back home in England at Island Studios, the group began work on what would become their swan song, the aptly titled “Heartbreaker” album. Joining the band for “Heartbreaker” were Tetsu on bass and Rabbit on keyboards from Kossoff’s splinter group. By all accounts the sessions were strained, and because of Koss’s problems, his contribution was minimal. The resulting album is the sound of a band going through a lot of pain. In the title track, Paul Rodgers sings “I’m wasting my whole life trying to make a brand new start” and you get the feeling he really means it. “Wishing Well” is another song about struggle, played uptempo with a sense of urgency. To fill in for the ailing Koss, Rodgers and Snuffy Walden (who would later go onto success writing the music for “The Wonder Years”) both contributed guitar work, and the album was completed and released. “Heartbreaker” was supported with another U.S. tour, which didn’t even include the ailing Kossoff, who was replaced by Wendell Richardson of the group Osibisa. Following the return trip home, Free disbanded for the last time.
After Free, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke went on to great success with Bad Company. Andy Fraser played with several less successful acts before scoring an MTV hit in 1984 with “Fine, Fine Line.” And Paul Kossoff formed a group named after his solo album “Back Street Crawler,” and recorded “The Band Plays On.” Although the album was a decent effort, Kossoff never again enjoyed the level of success he first achieved with Free, and the drugs continued to take their toll on his playing and his health. In 1975, while in a London rehab, Koss’s heart stopped functioning for thirty minutes before he was revived. Sessions for Back Street Crawler’s followup album, “Second Street,” began in Los Angeles in early 1976, but Koss’s health continued to deteriorate. Tragically, on March 19th, 1976, Paul Kossoff died on a flight bound for New York from Los Angeles. He was 25 years old. Although the coroner listed the official cause of death as “cerebral and pulmonary edema,” there is no doubt that young guitarist’s previous health problems were contributing factors to his premature passing.
In the years following his death, several top rock guitarists including Robin Trower, Gary Rossington, Warren Haynes, Angus Young, Pat Travers and Audley Freed of the Black Crowes have expressed their admiration for Koss’s playing. And although many players have studied his techniques, few have been able to match his crying vibrato or capture the simple elegance of his playing.
Over the next few months, look for a 5 disc Free boxed set called “Songs of Yesterday,” and a biography of the band by British writers David Clayton and Todd Smith entitled “'Heavy Load - The Story Of Free'’ which contains substantial input from the surviving band members.
Tom Guerra would like to thank David Clayton and Sandhe Kossoff Givens for their assistance with this article.
To hear Mambo Sons tribute to Paul Kossoff off their "Play Some Rock & Roll" cd,
click the word "ROCKAWAY".
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