Friday, April 8, 2011

In Memory of Paul Kossoff

Paul Kossoff died 35 years ago, on 19 March ’76. Most of us know him for Free’s hit single “All Right Now,” which features one of Koss’ best solos - sadly cut from the radio edit.

Last month, at the anniversary of his death, I read an article in the UK’s Total Guitar magazine about Kossoff, and it sparked an old flame I had with Free. (“All Right Now” was a song I used to perform for boozed up Brits in their 60’s at a kitschy English-style pub here in Dubai.)

Of course, “All Right Now” isn’t in any way a measure of Kossoff’s accomplishments as a guitar player, or Free as a band, in the same way that “Satisfaction” isn’t The Stones’ best song. Most of us Free fans would probably consider “Heartbreaker” off of the record of the same name one of Free’s best tunes, or their work on the album “Fire and Water” that’s full of soul, passion, and finesse. Then, of course, there’s the heavy blues of their debut album, “Tons Of Sobs,” where Kossoff took Eric Clapton’s fundamental Les-Paul-into-a-cranked-Marshall sound and managed to find the hidden “11” on his amp’s volume knob.

Paul wanted to be Eric Clapton and Peter Green rolled into one, and though he never played for John Mayall, unlike the aforementioned guitarists, he was often seen as the fourth great guitar legend in that Mayall family tree, following Mick Taylor, who went on to become a Rolling Stone. The importance of John Mayall in Paul Kossoff’s life comes into play as the inspiration that sparked his first band, Black Cat Bones back in ’66, after Kossoff saw Mayall perform live with Peter Green taking up six-string duties.

Black Cat Bones went no where, and apart from opening for Green’s subsequent band, Fleetwood Mac, they were only important since they were the launching pad that skyrocketed drummer Simon Kirke and guitarist Paul Kossoff into one of the ballsiest, no-frills rock ‘n’ roll bands of the 60’s.

Free was a powerhouse of good rock riffs and chillingly soulful vocals, courtesy of singer Paul Rodgers. With bass player Andy Fraser in the mix plucking away at the low-end, the band was unstoppable, except of course, for one little problem: Kossoff went from pot-smoking blues legend, to fumbling, numb junkie in just the few months of the band’s rise to fame. It eventually got Rodgers and Fraser to pull out. They would come back again for “Free At Last,” but Fraser would leave again before the recording of “Heartbreaker.”

When Free finally did call it quits, it took Kossoff a couple of years to put together his first and only solo album, Back Street Crawler, which spawned a band of the same name a two more albums before his body was found in the bathroom stall of an airplane New York-bound at the age of 25.

You know how all these 60’s and 70’s band have their ups and downs? Well, with Free, it never showed on record. Every album is a gem in and of its own, and it’s surprising, given the fact that Kossoff was often too stoned to remember the chords to half the band’s songs right before some of their later gigs.

Kossoff was praised by many for his incredible vibrato style; think Peter Green with rubber fingers. He was a slowhand player, but every note he hit was the right note. He built such a powerful signature sound that if you heard a single sustained note shake and moan a little, you knew it was the Koss playing.

His rhythm and blues guitar style embodied the quintessence of rock ‘n’ roll music in Free. His lead melodies and riffs were anything but conventional, while sticking to a conventional 12-bar-blues form in composition, most prominently in “Tons of Sobs.” From Free’s debut onward, Kossoff continued to soak up more sounds and influences, which we see glimpses of in albums like “Fire and Water” and “Heartbreaker.” And despite his style being so dynamic and full of development from album to album, he’s managed to put his signature on every note he played with that tear-jerking vibrato that most guitarists would be lucky to have in their trick-bag.

By the time he cut his own solo record, you could hear in that wailing Les Paul the hardships of a man that’s learned every step of the way how to make a guitar truly sing. Take a track like the instrumental “Time Away;” there are phrases in Kossoff’s six-minute-solo that hark at Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, and David Gilmour, all the while being none of these guitarists, and remaining genuinely Kossoff. Dare I say, he even invented that singing-sustaining solo style way before Gary Moore perfected it on “Still Got The Blues.”

Kossoff fed off of Fraser, Kirke, and especially Rodgers in his melodic phrasing in such a reactionary and almost spontaneous way. Each note sounds heartfelt, and is almost an echo of Rodgers powerful singing. It was almost like Kossoff paralleled the feeling in Rodgers voice rather than the melody itself.

Rodgers and Kirke went on to put together Bad Company, and they’re a damn good band. But I can’t help but think Free’s song “Walk In My Shadow” was a self-fulfilling prophecy about the Free alumni’s subsequent band, since Rodgers and Kirke were always walking in the shadow of the giant, the titan, Paul Kossoff.