About the Free Design
The Early Years
The Dedricks grew up in Delevan, N.Y., a small town near Buffalo, surrounded by music. Their father, Art Dedrick, played trombone and was chief musical arranger for big band musician Vaughn Monroe and later had a band of his own until an attack of polio put him in a wheelchair. After that, unable to travel extensively, he served as staff arranger for radio stations WGR and WBEN in Buffalo, New York. He also taught music in public schools and privately, and was instrumental in starting Kendor Music Publishing Co., an international leader in band music for schools, which still operates in Delevan today. Undaunted by his disabilities, he started his own jazz band again, and taught every one of his 6 children an instrument. Their uncle was Rusty Dedrick, who played trumpet with the likes of Red Norvo, Claude Thornhill and Ray McKinley and put out nine albums of his own. Rusty was on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, (where Chris studied trumpet and composition years later) and eventually became its director of jazz studies. His jazz band charts for the education field have received high acclaim by musicians of all ages. In 1996 he became the musical director for the prestigious Smithsonian Institute American Songbook Series with their tribute to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf. Quite a musical environment to grow up in!
Each of the Dedricks had impressive musical skills. They all sang; Sandy played the keyboard instruments; Bruce was a master with guitar and trombone, and Chris showed supreme skills with guitar, trumpet and recorder. Ellen, who joined the group straight out of high school in its second year, was also an extremely talented singer and lent her skills to quite a few of the band’s songs. All of them studied music formally, and it is safe to say they had a frightening amount of musical talent between them.
The Genesis of The Free Design
At the end of 1966, Sandy, Bruce and Chris had moved from upstate New York down to New York City. Sandy´s apartment in Queen’s became a handy gathering place. There they started singing folk music and creating their sound. They began playing small venues in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in New York City. The group´s name, Chris said, came after they had gone through “a zillion suggestions.” “The Free Design,” he explained, “had to do with our way of singing – there was a lot of counterpoint and individual lines going on all the time.”
Chris, recalls, “We tried to make our own arrangements. People who heard us said, ´Boy, what a great blend.´ So I decided to try writing some songs of our own.” His first effort was “Kites Are Fun.” After his father heard it – and complimented him on it – he suggested that Chris try writing something with trumpets in it. The result was “The Proper Ornaments.” These two songs became their first singles – and “Kites Are Fun” hit the charts.
Within a few months they signed with Project 3, Enoch Light’s label, and soon had a collection of songs ready to record for their first album, titled Kites are Fun (1967). The album cover was simple and beautiful and it carried some sharp introductory lines about “the new group”, and the “new, exciting and different! the fresh sound of The Free Design.” Certainly they achieved near perfection with exceptional songs as “My Brother Woody” (a song dedicated to their brother Jason), “Never Tell the World” (a rhythmic number with precise vocals and magical counterpoints), not to mention dazzling versions of “Michelle”, “A Man and a Woman”, and “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”
After their first album their repertoire and reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Chris’ original flair for vocal arranging and orchestration and the God-given voices of all of them gave the world a sound that should always be remembered.
Chris Dedrick did most of the writing and all the arranging. Once Chris had established a pattern for their songs, Sandy and Bruce joined in with songwriting of their own. Their source was, of course, the beat and feel of rock´n´roll. “I like it,” said Chris at the time, “because it’s got a young thing to it. It’s a different thing today, a thing that’s being done by young people who are saying what they want to say.” But I want to take a more studied musical approach to rock´n´roll than just shouting. There are other ways of building excitement than to have the drummer get louder and louder. I’ve tried to incorporate more real expression in our songs from a musical standpoint.
Chris wrote the lyrics of his songs first. “It’s important for the whole song to have an idea, like a novel or a poem, although it doesn’t have to be very profound. To start with, you need a catchy phrase. But after that phrase, a lot of songs don’t go very far. I spend a lot of time on the lyrics trying to make them say something and, at the same time, to make sure that they’re not so deep that nobody understands them.”
The golden sound of the Free Design was shown in a non-stop run of potential hits like “Friendly Man”, “I Found Love”, “You Could Be Born Again”, “One By One”, and a collection of gems such as “Love You” and “Daniel Dolphin” dedicated to “very important people” (ie: children).
Despite the almost unbelievable lack of chart success they had keen followers and made numerous appearances on TV Shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, Merv Griffin, Captain Kangaroo and others and toured around the country playing at universities and clubs. However, with the contemporary rock air of the late 1960s early 1970s thick with the textures and attitudes of Led Zeppelin, Zappa, David Bowie and Sly Stone together with the arrival of the disco, a brother and sister act who struck no poses but sang melodic popular music never made it high on the charts. The craftsmanship of the Free Design’s productions, the intricate arrangements, the timelessness of the songs and the purity and natural beauty of their voices were in contrast with the trends being set by their contemporaries.
The sound of Free Design is modern, rich orchestration with a choral approach to pop, simultaneously nostalgic and bracingly fresh. Although the band remained obscure and unnoticed by the media it is not strange that nowadays bands such as Cornelius, Stereolab, Pizzicato Five, Blueboy, Gentle People, Louis Philippe and Tomorrow’s World, have found a source of inspiration in the prolific career of the Dedricks.
Where Are They Now?
The Free Design stopped recording together in 1974 and Chris, Ellen, and Sandy moved to Toronto, Canada shortly thereafter. They continued to sing together in a 10-voice vocal ensemble called the Star-Scape Singers and toured extensively in Eastern and Western Europe. Sandy taught music in elementary schools in Ontario for many years until retiring recently, but she still teaches music privately and works with various choral groups. Bruce stayed in New York, also teaching music, continuing to perform in studio sessions as well as releasing several solo albums and is still actively making music today. Chris is recognized and highly respected as one of the most remarkable composers in Canada. He has written in almost every medium including film, television, commercials, CD-ROMs and for the concert hall. He has been awarded 4 Gemini awards (the Canadian version of Emmys in the US) for his musical scores for TV documentaries (having been nominated for 17) . He also was awarded a Genie (Academy) award for his musical score for Guy Maddin’s film, “The Saddest Music in the World”.
Sadly,Chris passed away on August 6th, 2010 after a long battle with cancer.
Reissuing The Albums
In 1995 Joe Zynczak, who co-wrote “Love You” with Sandy, purchased the rights to the master recordings of The Free Design and began to seek out a record label to reissue the albums. Despite having been mostly out of sight for over 20 years, The Free Design still had a following. Joe worked with record labels in Japan (Shinko), Spain (Siesta), and the United Kingdom (Cherry Red) to release singles and compilation albums and a Best Of album was released in the USA by Varese Sarabande Records. He also soon found Light In The Attic Records in Seattle, WA who released new vinyl versions of the original seven albums as well as reissuing them all on CD for the first time. The reissues were very popular and their successful return to the scene led to a fantastic “re-design” of many of The Free Design songs by today’s artists on a remix album put out by Light In The Attic appropriately entitled The Free Design – The Now Sound Redesigned. The Redesigned album included over a dozen reinterpretations from today’s finest music-makers: Madlib, Belle & Sebastian’s Chris Geddes & DJ Hush Puppy, Danger Mouse & Murs, Nobody, Caribou (formerly known as Manitoba), Super Furry Animals, Stereolab & the High Llamas, Kid Koala & Dynomite D., Koushik & Dudley Perkins, and more.
A New Album
In 2000, Marina Records, a German record label put out Caroline Now, a tribute to the music of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys which included a version of “Endless Harmony”, newly recorded by Chris, Ellen, Bruce and Sandy as The Free Design once again. Due to this project, and based on the resurgence of interest in The Free Design, Sandy, Chris, and Bruce began working on a brand new album, and released Cosmic Peekaboo in 2001. Along with Chris’ songs, this recording includes some fine original songwriting by Bruce, as well as the lovely voice and expert production assistance of Rebecca Pellet.
The Music Today
The Free Design’s music has become more and more popular as time goes on. The song “Love You” is featured during the credits of the film Stranger Than Fiction (2006), at the very end of season four on the Showtime hit show, Weeds, and as the theme song to the internet podcast “Jordan Jesse Go”, co-hosted by The Sound Of Young America host Jesse Thorn and Fuel TV correspondent Jordan Morris. “Love You” was also featured in TV commercials for Peter’s Drumstick ice creams in Australia (2007), “Smil” chocolate in Norway (2008), Toyota (2009), “Cosmote” in Greece (2009), DC Shoes’ second “Progression” short(2010) and in Toyota advertisements internationally (2009/2010). The song “I Found Love” can be found on Our Little Corner of the World: Music from The Gilmore Girls. The song plays as the start of “Sadie, Sadie” (Season 2, Episode 1).