With their clean-cut image ,easy-on-the-ears sunshine popand mainstream TV appeal, it’s no wonder THE FREEDESIGN were misinterpreted as just another group of singing siblings in a late ’60s marketplace overcrowded with such entities. But beneath their wholesome exterior lurked a supremely talented and fiercely experimental songwriter/arranger in ChrisDedrick, whose meticulous deployment of those four voices draws few, if any, parallels to this day. Over seven albums that filtered jazz and pop influences -coloured by the happenin’ love generation that surrounded them- they veered from the middle of the road to the edges of the avant-garde, stopping off at most points in between. Of their era, but never defined ordated by it.It wasn’t until the group’s work was rediscovered by the likes of Stereolab, The High Llamas, Super Furry Animals and Belle & Sebastian in the ’90s that their star began to ascend as an entire new generation of curiousaudiophiles and ’60s pop freaks fell under The Free Design’s spell.Shindig! bows down asRACHEL LICHTMAN gets to the heart of the band with singer Sandra Dedrick. “Music was a life saver for theharmony of our family”
The beginning of their story lies in their rural upbringing two miles out on the outskirts of Delevan, a tiny crossroads of a town of about 700, with only a few stores and an ice cream parlour. The Dedrick children – Sandy, Chris, Bruce, Ellen, Stefanie and Jason – were raised in a country house on two acres where music was not only celebrated but embedded into their genetic code. Uncle Rusty Dedrick had played trumpet with the likes of Red Norvo, and their father, Art Dedrick, had once been an arranger and trombone player for Vaughn Monroe’s band, until contracting polio which left him confined to a wheelchair. Art continued to play in jazz bands, work for radio stations and teach music, even becoming the band director at the local high school. Art had a deep appreciation for music and encouraging his children to take up instruments was only the beginning of a nurturing, supportive relationship he would have with them throughout their lives and careers. Sandra Dedrick remembers, “He started teaching us instruments, in the fourth grade I think it was. Chris took trumpet, Bruce took trombone, I took clarinet and my younger sister Ellen took trumpet and so on right down the line. I was never crazy about the clarinet – Chris was really good at the trumpet and he always loved brass instruments, and you’ll hear a lot of that in Free Design music. It wasn’t until later that we started fiddling around on guitars and things.”
Inside the musical household, the children were exposed early on to jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald – in later years they were all very taken with vocal groups like The Hi-Los and The Four Freshmen. Outside the house, they lived a carefree, rural existence, running through Uncle Ward’s hills and woods, skiing and tobogganing, and yes, flying kites. Throughout their upbringing, musical abilities were encouraged and supported, allowing for an early development of their harmonic ears that would eventually become their trademark sound. “My mother was a choral director at our Methodist church, and as I got old enough to sing, she enlisted us and all our friends. I think that’s where we really started to sing in harmony. My brothers were basketball players and I was a cheerleader, so a lot of our singing was done on the school bus, going back and forth to games. We sang songs like ‘99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall’, ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ – those old songs that you could harmonise to really easily. Crazy, fun songs. We just loved harmonising.” The groundwork was being laid for the two primary forces behind what would define the sound of The Free Design. The breezy, childlike quality of the lyrics driven by sophisticated jazz arrangements and instrumentation. Middle sibling Chris Dedrick, in particular, was beginning to emerge as a prolific songwriter and arranger at a very young age. “My dad had a jazz band, always – as we grew up he would let us sit in. I would sit in on saxophone, Bruce would sit in on trombone, Chris would sit in on trumpet. Occasionally dad would let me sing along – he really supported us that way. I think the first thing Chris did was arrange a song about roses for my dad’s band and my dad helped him with it – Chris must have been about 15 when he did that.” Though the family would often harmonise and play instruments together, the decision to become a proper vocal group didn’t happen overnight. After high school, the three oldest would move to the big city to either study or teach music formally. “We all moved to New York City, I was already married. Chris moved and lived with us for about nine months to go to The Manhattan School Of Music. Bruce was already there and was playing guitar. I was teaching music at the time so I picked up some chords just to teach to the kids. Bruce would come over to my apartment and we’d play for fun – playing Peter, Paul & Mary songs like ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and harmonising them. Somebody at one point said, ‘why don’t you write your own stuff?’ So that’s when Chris wrote ‘Kites Are Fun’. And my dad and some of the neighbours who were our friends said, wow that’s pretty good! Why don’t you get it recorded? So my dad put up the money and we recorded a demo, a single of ‘Kites Are Fun’ and ‘The Proper Ornaments’, somewhere in NYC in a big studio.
“My husband was working with my dad, doing copyright law, he started taking this little demo around and we started getting offers. That’s how that all started. You can imagine – we were not city people by any means. Strictly from the country. So we went down to The Bitter End in Greenwich Village and started singing our Peter, Paul & Mary songs down there, and called ourselves The Village Fare at that time. It was scary. I was glad I had two brothers I was singing with – I never would have done that on my own. They were bare bones coffee house kind of places. The Bitter End was the one place I remember. We went down there to hear Miles Davis and various other people. I was married, soon to be pregnant. I do remember we went to a loft where The Mothers Of Invention were setting up the artwork for the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money. In the loft was a huge pile of dirt filled with vegetables, I think Zappa was running around in a girl’s dress and I just remember I thought it was the most far out scene I’d ever seen in my life.”
Though the group received offers from the likes of bigger companies like RCA/Victor, they were urged by their experienced father to go with a label that would allow them more artistic freedom. This would turn out to be a key decision in the group’s evolution, as other labels made offers but talked of staff writers doing the work for them. Once again, Art would advise and encourage the group in the right direction. “He was definitely not a stage parent. He was a collaborator, really. He had a lot of respect for the talents we had, especially Chris’s writing talent. In fact, he had nurtured them all along, really. He was just incredible.” Art recommended that they sign with a smaller label called Project 3, run by producer Enoch Light, who were known for releasing “total sound stereo” esoteric jazz Patterns In Sound compilations and other easy listening titles that featured beautifully designed album covers that fitted in with a swinging bachelor pad lifestyle.
“We had the contract and no name, except The Village Fare, which we didn’t want to use, so I remember Chris and Bruce and I had yellow pads and pencils, and we sat around one of those big street fountains in New York and wrote down everything that came into our heads – about 150 different names. We were really being silly, picking up on Pink Floyd and The Ultimate Spinach – some of these crazy names that groups had. And then somebody came up with the word Design – we thought that would be a good name to have because Chris wrote down what he arranged and we read it – very designed and planned out. My dad came down to New York a lot at that time, so we went over to his hotel room and I think it was dad who came up with Free Design, so it had that aspect of freedom. It turned out to be a good one.”
Newly christened, The Free Design went into A & R Studios to record their first album, Kites Are Fun, in 1967. Aside from a few well-chosen covers, the album is comprised of mostly original material by Chris. Not only did the group have a wealth of stunning material, they were fortunate enough to work with celebrated session musicians such as Tony Mottola, Jay Berliner, Dick Hyman, Ralph Casale – even Uncle Rusty sat in. “We had the very best musicians. They taught us professionalism. You can really learn a lot by just watching and listening and seeing how people behave towards one another.” In addition to this cavalcade of brilliance was Phil Ramone, who engineered the group’s sessions right from the start. Chris Dedrick was 19 years old when he started bringing in complicated scores and arrangements written out, and Phil was the perfect match, bringing out the layered sounds and harmonics of The Free Design using his innovative techniques. “Phil was so amazing, besides being such a professional, he was such a gifted musician as well. I think he was a violin prodigy when he was a child. He really respected good music and he loved the music, loved the songs. We had a wonderful rapport with Phil. He was so easy to work with.”
The result was a debut album that is nothing less than stunning. Title track, ‘Kites Are Fun’, their most well known song, floats along in the air, a memory of Uncle Ward’s (now “Uncle Bill”) fields as the flute mimics the air sweeping a kite upward, almost humorous, staccato vocals on the bridge, concluding in the very simple, innocent sentiment: Kites Are Fun. “We all pulled inspiration from everywhere around us; writing about scaring up the milking cows (in ‘Love You’), because Uncle Ward used to get mad because that would spoil the milk. There are a lot of lyrics that come from that environment and also the rest of my family.”
‘The Proper Ornaments’ begins with a strident fanfare, then moves through time signatures with gorgeous instrumentation, including a prominent harpsichord. Another standout, ‘Make The Madness Stop’, reflects the level of arrangement Chris Dedrick is working at, even this early on, with an almost haunting vocal by Sandy over discordant calliope sounds. ‘My Brother Woody’ also goes back to family roots: “When my brother Jason was only eight years old and had his own little group, he and his cousin across the road played ukulele and they called themselves The Woodpeckers, so we’d be rehearsing in the living room and they would be rehearsing their little group, and you know, copying us. And so Chris wrote this cute little song about ‘My Brother Woody’.”
All of the tracks, including covers of ‘Michelle’, ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ and ‘A Man And A Woman’ reveal a fresh, new sound that was unique to the group, and part of a pop sensibility of the mid- 60s – groups such as The 5th Dimension, The Mamas & The Papas, The Association. Even The Swingle Singers. Though the musical landscape post-’67 began to have a harder, more serious edge, the group maintained an identity unto themselves. “I admired that about Chris and his songwriting – he wrote for us and our sound in a lot of different ways. There was an integrity about what we did, I felt – it was what we did, it wasn’t really copying someone else. Generally I don’t think we copied ourselves. Even when groups had a hit record there would be three songs after that sounded like a formula of the hit, instead of something new and original. I don’t think Chris ever did that.
“Chris was very much influenced by Benjamin Britten, because he had the experience of playing trumpet with him on a performance of ‘War Requiem’ and I know it affected him deeply. You’ll hear that influence. Or Aaron Copeland, with the spacious kinds of sounds. Chris also liked the harmonic rub – you know, when you have notes that are very close together and it sounds dissonant and then it resolves into something harmonic and beautiful. Which is comparable to our lives; growing up in a family of six very different siblings could be filled with ‘dissonance’ at times, but everything usually resolved. Maybe the music was even influenced by that fact.”
Surprisingly, The Free Design’s debut was not considered a commercial success at the time of its release. ‘Kites Are Fun’ would barely crack the Adult Contemporary Top 40, and reached only #114 on the pop charts. This was mostly attributed to the lack of distribution by Project 3, which didn’t have the reach of the larger labels. However, the group remained loyal to Enoch and the creative freedom he allowed them – and allowed artistic integrity to be their number one priority. “That’s the way things fell in line. I was never unhappy about [working with Project 3]. The company was known for top quality recording, they chose the best musicians, the best engineer, the best studio – I think we were fortunate. I don’t think that we ever got into that drive to make a big hit and big money. Our main goal, really – especially in the beginning, was just to have fun making music. We all loved music, and that showed.”
The Free Design continued to exist in a world of their own, somewhere between easy listening and psychedelic, experimental jazz – a softer, innocent sound that flourished in the face of the guitar rock topography of the time period. Despite their lack of hits, the band enjoyed enough success to play some live shows on the road and appear on television. “We did some warm-up acts, I remember one show with Sonny & Cher, which was a huge crowd. And very exciting. I know Chris and Bruce were very taken with Cher. She was gorgeous, and had a costume on that you wouldn’t believe. They were just gaga-eyed! I remember warming up for Roy Orbison and even Duke Ellington one time. And then we did concerts on our own and they tended to be college and university situations, we did clubs only a couple of times. Later on we were doing concerts with full orchestras, and that was very exciting – the four of us singing in front of a 90-piece orchestra.
“My dad was very instrumental in, first of all, getting us interested in music. Then with The Free Design, just supporting us in every possible way. My dad fortunately knew musicians. So, for instance, he knew Doc Severinsen. That was the way we got on to Johnny Carson, I’m positive. I remember shopping up 5th Avenue to find something to wear [on The Johnny Carson Show]; I had no concept of what to wear on television. The three of us were there and I remember the curtain coming open and catching the neck of Bruce’s guitar. Certain things are ingrained: all the bright lights and singing the ‘Kites Are Fun’ song. We met him afterwards and shook hands. We were on Merv Griffin, we were on Mike Douglas about 13 times, and he was the most wonderful person. He would do interviews, and I had a one-month-old son with me and he brought the baby and my mother out on the stage. Another time he brought my brother Jason out because we did ‘My Brother Woody’. We had a lot of fun on his show – we would take the train from NY to Philadelphia. And we were on Dick Cavett and Captain Kangaroo and Arthur Godfrey.”
In ’68, The Free Design continued to evolve forward towards their next album, You Could Be Born Again. The addition of fourth sibling Ellen added to the complexity of their already sophisticated sound. Chris continued to compose inspired arrangements for the four of them. Though the themes continued in a whimsical direction, some of the subject matter got a little heavier as the world around them began to change, even in their own backyard. A cousin Dwight, whom they called “Pete” was shot down in Vietnam, inspiring one of the more powerful tracks on the album and one of the darker tracks for the group, ‘An Elegy’. While other bands sang about Vietnam from their comfortable Laurel Canyon lives, the war was a very real presence in the lives of the Dedricks – Chris and Bruce barely escaped going over themselves. “You were hearing the harder sounds come out. Chris was very capable of arranging things to sound like that. They were interesting songs.”
The title track is a magical showcase for the new depth of harmony – a bouncy, Bacharachian number, followed by ‘A Leaf Has Veins’, another familial, selfreferential pop song with a groovy Swingle Singers vibe. ‘Quartet In D Minor’ is an incredible juxtaposition of upbeat pop and experimental jazz, a version of Duke Ellington’s ‘I Like The Sunrise’ is surrounded by ethereal female vocals, pure sunshine punctuated by a jazzy trumpet breakdown. ‘I Found Love’ had the commercial appeal for a hit record, and ‘Ivy On A Windy Day’ is a remarkable stand-out but once again, The Free Design fails to chart any singles off their second effort.
Third album, Heaven/Earth (’69) delivers another collection of striking vocal harmonies that reflect a depth of mood and versatility, beginning with the airy, refined sounds of ‘My Very Own Angel’, immediately followed by the boisterous, hornfilled jingle, ‘Now Is The Time’. All the tracks on this album are driven by an even more polished, professional sound; particularly ‘Girls Alone’, featuring Ellen and Sandy layering up vocally over a full orchestral arrangement and ‘Dorian Benediction’, a free form jazz excursion featuring a lead vocal that employs almost Gregorian harmonics. Still, the group pokes a humorous hole in their own seriousness with the accusatory ‘2002: A Hit Song’, while ‘Hurry Sundown’ is almost a follow-up contradiction to ‘I Like The Sunrise’ but also somewhat of a complimentary completion of light and dark; the natural cycles that mark human experience. “There’s quite a variety of things on there, like ‘Where Do I Go’ from Hair. Chris did the most amazing arrangement of ‘Summertime’. Really an incredible, unique arrangement. But my favourite song on that album is ‘My Very Own Angel’ – I just love it.”
In the meantime, Chris Dedrick continued to lend his ever-evolving skills in vocal arrangement and composition by working on a Project 3 Moog album called Spaced Out. Chris was coming into his own as a force of brilliance, continuing to lend his superior ears to more experimental Free Design recordings. Star/Time/ Bubbles/ Love is no exception, considered by many to be the group’s most ambitious effort to date. Appropriately, beginning with the beloved ‘Bubbles’, which could describe the groovy, unique world that The Free Design existed in throughout their career. This is followed by the uncharacteristically funky instrumental break that flows into the easy, breezy ‘Tomorrow Is The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life’. Chris’s ever-sharpening skills are once again evident on the arrangements and lyrics on unique tracks like ‘Kije’s Ouija’ and the selfsatirising groove of ‘I’m A Yogi’, featuring experimental sound designer Vinnie Bell on electric sitar. Songs like ‘Butterflies Are Free’ invoke the beauty of nature and childlike wonder. The album ends with ‘That’s All, People’, perhaps a small glimpse into the cracks forming in the group’s facade. The Free Design, the family and the group, were beginning to show signs of burnout.
“They’re wild songs – wherever Chris was at in his head at that time – I didn’t feel like we were ending. But there may have been something in Chris that was feeling that. Bruce did one more album with us – there was already a conflict happening there between them. I can’t say I wasn’t aware of it, but I wasn’t really a part of it. I didn’t have the aspirations that Bruce had [ for songwriting]. There could have been that feeling at that point.
“Another conflict might have been our other commitments that kept us from going on the road – I was married at the time. We had multi-faceted lives. We didn’t have personal conflicts at first. I think as time went on, Chris wanted to do more of the writing because he was so capable and the rest of us backed off that – that wasn’t a conflict at the time for me. But for my brother Bruce it might have been – he wanted to go in a different direction and he wanted more opportunity to write. After the first five albums he struck out on his own.
“It was very different between Chris and me and Bruce and me. I never fought with Chris or argued – the family always jokingly said he should be a lawyer because he had a sharp mind and a great wit, but I never really competed with him. He always defended me as an older sister. So we got along. I felt really glad that I had the opportunity to be singing – I wouldn’t have without Chris. I mean, without Chris there wouldn’t have been a Free Design. It wouldn’t have happened. But there are always family dynamics.”
But compared to the painfully complicated dynamics of other family bands such as The Cowsills and The Beach Boys, The Free Design maintained a protective shell throughout their career, perhaps due to the solid foundation of positive support from father Art, or the general good vibrations and energy felt through the recording process. In their case, according to Sandy, “Music [was] a great harmoniser. When you do music together, in a professional way, it was a life saver for the harmony of our family.”
With that in mind, they seemed like natural candidates to join the ranks of artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joe Raposo and Bruce Haack and make a children’s album – Sing For Very Important People, which would take them back to their unaffected roots. In addition to including previously issued tracks such as ‘Kites Are Fun’, ‘Daniel Dolphin’ and ‘Bubbles’, the album includes the lovely ‘Little Cowboy’, written by Art Dedrick. “It’s more like the innocence of ‘Kites Are Fun’ in that way, the mood. The song ‘Love You’ I wrote and Chris arranged for this album; a lot of the songs we wrote had to do with our own experiences. It just came to me because of all our childhood and also because I was just about to have a child, so it was a really special time for me.”
The Dedricks were maturing into fullyfledged adults with other lives and ambitions, feeling the need to flee the nest – particularly Bruce, who was the first to go. “Bruce left but we kept going, we did One By One [which would be their last recording for Project 3] and There’s A Song; by that time Chris had moved to Canada. Ellen and I were still down in the NY area – we weren’t rehearsing together anymore. I don’t think we thought, ‘We’re gonna end this group’, it just kind of evolved that way. And part of it was Chris got involved in writing his own album – he did a solo album [Be Free] at that time too. But it was so interesting because in One By One, which has this incredible song called ‘Friends’, that really seems like the ending song to me. A big thank you to everyone who had gone before and all the friends who had helped us along the way. It seemed like an ending. We were pretty much split up by then.”
And so after the mostly ignored There Is A Song, released on the tiny Ambrotype label in ’72, The Free Design disbanded. Ellen and Sandy followed Chris up to Canada with younger sister Stefanie, and formed the nucleus of The Star- Scape Singers, for whom Chris Dedrick wrote most of the music. “We had quite a career for 10 years. We toured with that group from the late ’70s into the ’90s.” The ensemble would perform at Carnegie Hall seven times and go on multiple European tours. At this time, Chris also started an arc composing for film and television, beginning with orchestrations for film composer Michael Small in the ’80s, and blossoming into his own award-winning career in the ’90s. Something else started to happen in the ’90s.
There were the first rumblings of a resurgent interest in the albums the Dedricks had recorded almost three decades before. After Japanese musician Cornelius reissued The Free Design’s back catalogue to a new generation of sunshine-psych enthusiasts, fans around the world began to catch up to the clean, innocent and ingenious sound that the previous generation had missed out on. The Dedricks were somewhat taken aback. “All of the sudden we are hearing that people like Stereolab and different groups are covering our songs. I remember Chris mentioning it – saying ‘What’s going on here?’ My then ex-husband had bought the Project 3 masters from Enoch Light, when he had passed on. It’s possible that Joe had some involvement in that happening but I don’t know how. We found out about it later. Marina Records in Germany may have heard about [our renewed success] because they asked us to do tribute song to Brian Wilson.”
So, for the compilation Caroline: Now, The Free Design reconvened to do one Beach Boys song, the highly appropriate ‘Endless Harmony’. The Free Design buzz was still growing, so Marina Records in Germany asked them to record another full-length album, Cosmic Peekaboo, in 2001 – almost three decades after their last release. “There we are, putting out another album and then along comes Light In The Attic. They reissued all the albums on vinyl and CD, and that’s when things really took off. We were just flabbergasted. There were things happening in Japan, then Spain, then the UK, then the US – things just kept pumping up.”
Light In The Attic Records would give the group a beautiful, definitive reissue campaign, including a Free Design Redesigned series featuring remixes by psych-pop heir apparents such as Super Furry Animals and Mellow. “I really like it. It’s totally different from us and unique to them.”
In the meantime, all the Dedricks have gone on to be successful in their various pursuits, musical or otherwise. Bruce continues his involvement in music as a teacher, songwriter and performer. He lives both on Long Island and in the Poconos Mountains and plays trombone in big bands in both places, as well as booking and playing jazz jobs through his own company, Spectrum Music. Ellen is a successful business woman in Toronto, as well as recently recording a CD called McKinstry Adventure with youngest brother Jason (of ‘My Brother Woody’ fame) and her son Griffin – to honour father Art and Uncle Rusty. Chris Dedrick passed away in August ’10 after a hard battle with cancer. Sandra Dedrick wanted to honour him by recording a tribute album in ’11. “His wife, Moira, and I went through hundreds of mostly unrecorded songs he had written between 1975 and 2010. I chose and recorded 14 of them that moved me the most – and released 10 of them in February ’12 on a solo album entitled It’s A Blue Hill Day.” The collection is a treasure of lost compositions, faithful to the spirit of the sound of The Free Design that Chris Dedrick was such an integral part of.
From harmonising on a school bus in Delavan, NY to becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the Dedricks created something much more than they could have imagined. Using themes of family and love from their own life experience, and through their refreshing and positive layered sound, they remained true to their creative instincts. They synthesised something completely unique and pure, celebrating a pure American pop sound that evolved from a musical calling. As the Dedricks developed into individuals, they each brought their own maturity to the group’s progressive output. Though in their own time the group didn’t get the recognition they deserved, they would end up becoming a phenomenon in a business where lost hit-makers often slip through the cracks, chasing the tail of success. The Free Design made almost a conscious effort not to fall victim to the now dated trends of the times, and create something more holistic, more eternal. They may not have needed the audience, but now the audience needs them again. They harmonised more than voices – they harmonised experiences, the perception of their familial journey. What really emerges from the sound of The Free Design is sheer joy and love for the music making, a lack of ego or agenda. They transcended conventional boundaries and categorisation, bringing them into an important universal light. In the Dedrick fairytale, the music would go on to live happily ever after.
“I think in any field, I don’t care what you do, if you can find something you really love and are passionate about, you hope that you can go in that direction. I think we were all lucky because we really loved music, we had training in music from our dad and our mom, and I think it just shines out when you love something. It just shines.”
With thanks to Matt Sullivan and Jay Zynczak