"Sorry - only one group like this to a generation," renowned engineer-producer Phil Ramone wrote on the back cover of The Free Design's 1968 sophomore album You Could Be Born Again. After over 50 years, The Free Design are still a singular group, difficult to pigeonhole. Their gentle, even childlike style has frequently landed them in the sunshine pop genre, but that match was never quite right: not only were they from New York, but their sound lacked the brightness and even brashness that characterizes much of that genre. Some of their music would qualify as baroque pop, and conservatory-trained composer-arranger Chris Dedrick (1947-2010) was influenced by the classical realm. Folk and jazz, too, cast their potent spells on the Dedrick family - the former expressing itself via a delicate, wispy air and the latter via the group's intricate time signatures and chord progressions. While original songs dominated their albums, their covers of Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach-David, Laura Nyro, and even The Doors have found them lumped in with MOR. Their rise dovetailed with that of psychedelia, too, even though the group professed to have avoided drugs. So how to describe The Free Design? "A young thing - and a different thing!" proclaimed the original record label hype. Ultimately it doesn't matter. What does matter is the music, now collected by Cherry Red's El imprint in one package.
Butterflies Are Free: The Original Recordings 1967-72 brings together in one slipcased set all seven of the group's beguiling, ornate, and occasionally esoteric albums from that period - six for Enoch Light's Project 3 Records and one for the small Ambrotype label. All but the last LP were originally recorded at Phil Ramone's A&R Studios with Ramone at the controls for the first five albums. Supporting Chris Dedrick, sister Sandy, brother Bruce, and sister Ellen (and, briefly, sister Stefanie) were New York's finest session players including such boldface names as Tony Mottola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Marvin Stamm, Stan Freeman, Urbie Green, Paul Griffin, Vinnie Bell, and Bill LaVorgna. The Dedricks also were musicians; Chris played guitar and trumpet, Sandy was on keyboards, and Bruce on guitar and trombone.
The Free Design further stood apart by their label. Project 3 Records was the successor to the bandleader and recording pioneer Light's Command label, and he gave Chris, Sandy, and Bruce Dedrick a reasonable budget but moreover, the promise of creative freedom. That freedom was expressed on their 1967 debut Kites Are Fun. Chris Dedrick wrote or co-wrote seven of its twelve tracks including the childlike title track ("I like kites/Flying kites, flying kites, flying kites/Kites are fun, kites are fun/kites are fun/See my kite, it's fun") which became the group's only charting single. It reached No. 33 Easy Listening and "bubbled under" the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 114. Hauntingly fragile ballads (the Stefanie and Sandy-penned "When Love Is Young," Chris' "Don't Turn Away") and quirky, innocent pop tunes about family and nature (Bruce's "Umbrellas," Chris' "My Brother Woody") alike were adorned with sophisticated, tight vocal arrangements and impeccable though not overpowering musical backgrounds, beautifully recorded by producer Light and engineer Ramone. The Free Design's albums were frequently spiced with offbeat covers, in this case a languid reimagining of Paul Simon's "The 59th Street Bridge Song" that gives Harpers Bizarre a run for their money for sheer invention; a baroque take on The Beatles' "Michelle" that surely would have made Paul McCartney proud; and a sprightly pass at "A Man and a Woman."
The first CD of El's new collection continues with You Could Be Born Again on which Ellen joined the group, turning a trio into a quartet. The accompaniment also tended to be a bit more elaborate than its predecessor while staying in the same lane. The pretty title track - with a lilting melody, Bacharach-esque horn interlude, and uplifting lyric - reveals a subtle association with spirituality. In Robbie Baldock's archival interview reprinted in the booklet, Chris Dedrick confirmed the family's Christian roots and reflected on the spiritual aspects of The Free Design's art. "A Leaf Has Veins," "I Found Love," and "Daniel Dolphin" continued in the pastoral vein, and Chris' love of jazz was nodded to on his original "Quartet No. 6 in D Minor" and a cover of Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise." The Dedricks came close to rock-and-roll with a brisk revival of The Mamas and The Papas' "California Dreamin'" and the moody, throbbing closer "An Elegy." They once again expressed an affinity for the baroque Beatles with "Eleanor Rigby" on which their cleverly-arranged voices largely replace the strings of the original recording. The Turtles also got The Free Design treatment with "Happy Together," but the highlight of the outside compositions is the tender reading of Bacharach and David's exquisite Vietnam-era lament "The Windows of the World" (which Ramone had previously recorded with Dionne Warwick).
The second disc features Heaven/Earth and Sing for Very Important People. By the time of 1969's Heaven/Earth, The Free Design had settled into a comfortable groove of close, familial harmonies and a lingering psychedelic air. They took full advantage of the capabilities of both the studio and the studio musicians they'd enlisted. Though Chris Dedrick tunes like "My Very Own Angel" and "You Be You, and I'll Be Me" were very much in the shimmering mold of his past work, "Now Is the Time" pulsated with a newly urgent, brassy sense of swing. "Girls All Alone" was truly bleak if indeed gorgeous: "I'm afraid of the man in the window/I'm afraid he'll come into my room/If I tried, I could end it before he comes/It's a branch but it looks like my tomb," Sandy and Ellen sweetly and unsettlingly sing in this dreamy nightmare released just months after the Manson Family murders. "2002 - A Hit Song" was another sign of their increasing maturity as they took aim at the music biz in drolly amusing fashion: "How can this hit miss?/We've done it all right and sealed it with a kiss/There's just one fact that we can't quite shirk/We did this all last time and it did not work!" They certainly weren't going for a hit with the ethereal "Dorian Benediction" with its elements of chanting and free jazz.
Enoch Light and Phil Ramone kept the sound intimate throughout, lacking the commercial AM sheen of their harmony-pop contemporaries The Mamas and The Papas, Spanky and Our Gang, or The Association. This time the covers included a very jazz-oriented reinvention of the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward's standard "Summertime" (complete with saxophone solo and vocalese), the very current "Where Do I Go?" from Broadway's Hair in baroque style, Peter, Paul and Mary's "Hurry, Sundown," Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," and a soft rendition of Mac Davis and Billy Strange's "Memories" which Elvis Presley had introduced in his '68 Comeback Special.
The Very Important People of The Free Design's next album title were none other than children. Inspired by Peter, Paul and Mary's Peter, Paul and Mommy LP as well as their own experiences as new parents, the Dedricks created an album that was childlike but not childish. For this album decorated with nine-year-old Lizzie Baier's painting of a sad clown, the group eschewed the contemporary pop covers, instead dedicating an entire album to their songs for kids including reprises of "Kites Are Fun" and "Daniel Dolphin." In true Free Design style, there were moments of solemnity but also sheer playfulness such as on the cover of composer Joe Raposo's famous Sesame Street theme. Keeping it all in the family, the Dedricks' father Art wrote the gently galloping "Little Cowboy." Chris contributed just a handful of originals, most notably the pop lullaby "Don't Cry, Baby" and the perky but jagged "Bubbles" with darkness and a wry sensibility lurking around the edges of its bubblegum tune: "Ma 'n Pa are arguing again/Today I lost my best friend/The kitty has a little cold/'n Grandmama is getting older/My tummy has a little pain/When does Jesus come again?"
"Bubbles" was recycled as the opener of the album that kicks off CD 3. On 1970's Stars / Time / Bubbles / Love, The Free Design turned for the first time to the New York stage for two tunes from all-but-forgotten musicals. "Tomorrow Is the First Day of My Life" hailed from Peter Link and C.C. Courtney's rock musical Salvation and showcases the group in a straightforward pop-rock vein. (It was unsurprisingly chosen by Project 3 as a single.) Even more obscure is George Fischoff and Carole Bayer (pre-Sager)'s jaunty "Howdjadoo (Fly Me Down)." It was the opening number of their musical Georgy which closed on Broadway after just four performances. Stephen Schwartz would go on to compose some of the most famous musicals of all time, including Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked. But he made his Broadway debut with the title song for Leonard Gershe's play Butterflies Are Free. The Dedricks, with the sisters on lead vocals, did his yearning composition justice; it was also recorded under Schwartz's supervision at RCA by The Cinnamon Ship and by the play's star Keir Dullea on the Platypus label.
Their twee, precious tendencies came to the fore on "Kije's Ouija" and the eastern-influenced "I'm a Yogi;" "Stay Off Your Frown" is a delightful slice of upbeat jazz-pop with the expected musical intricacies. Laura Nyro's malleable melodies inspired artists of every stripe. The Free Design were no exception, and their laid-back "Time and Love" is charming; so is Bacharach and David's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" on which the Dedricks wisely kept their signature embellishments limited to the attractive vocal arrangement and even kept Bacharach's trademark brass intact.
Phil Ramone handed off engineering duties on 1972's One by One to Dixon Van Winkle and Don Hahn. Only Chris, Sandy, and Ellen returned for what would be the group's final effort with Enoch Light at the helm. One by One was almost entirely original save for covers of the standard "You Are My Sunshine" and, in a decidedly more contemporary vein, The Doors' "Light My Fire." The latter is a lost psychedelic gem, bending the melody of the original chorus before erupting into a jazz breakdown with swirling voices, muted trumpets, and funky guitar in the eye of the tornado.
The voices and sophisticated arrangements were unmistakable but the feel was different this time around - as if The Free Design were finally capitulating to the prevailing sound of the era in a bid for commercial success. (Surely Enoch Light wouldn't have objected.) More prominent electric guitar, acoustic piano, and horns flecked One by One from its soaring opener to the true sunshine pop of "Felt So Good." The soft breeze and wash of harmonies on "Friendly Man" and "Love Me" can't help but recall the Carpenters, who may or may not have themselves been influenced by The Free Design. The bright, propulsive "Like to Love," too, was strictly commercial with its bold Blood, Sweat and Tears-esque horn chart. Even more atypical was "Go Lean on a River," a slice of pure rock with Chris on solo vocals and more aggressive brass stabs. Appropriately, the final song was the lengthy (6+ minutes!) "Friends (Thank You All)" which would have made for a fine farewell with its heightened sense of drama. But there was one more LP to come.
The fourth and final disc of Butterflies Are Free presents the group's final album for nearly three decades, and their first post-Project 3. There Is a Song was recorded in Toronto after Chris Dedrick relocated to Canada and represented a stripped-down Free Design. Chris played piano, trumpet, guitar, flugelhorn, and recorder, joined by a small rhythm section of Tom Seznesiak on electric piano and bass, Bob Mann on guitar, and Gary Gauger and Ted Moore on drums and percussion. His, Sandy, and Ellen's voices were just as ethereal but the overall sound was much earthier. Part of this was due to the personal nature of his songwriting. He penned eight of the twelve songs, with Ellen and Sandy each contributing one. The only covers were of the traditional "Kum-ba-yah" and Alec Wilder and Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born."
Chris' move inspired "Springtime in Canada" and the Free Design's longtime love of "Peter, Paul, and Mary" led to a musical tribute to the trio. The bouncy, piano-driven "I Wanna Be There" would have done nothing to discourage the sunshine pop tag, and indeed, it's one of the most felicitous melodies here. They experimented with a cappella arrangements on Sandy's song "Pineapple Crabapple" and Chris' "Chorale" and "Fugue." Lyrically, the Dedricks expressed new philosophies they had been learning on such tracks as "The Symbols Ring" ("You can look beyond the dream you dream into another way of seeing/You can see beyond the thoughts you think into another way of being one"), the spiritual "There Is a Song" ("In harmony we see beyond the death of birth/In unity the Maker knows the made-of-earth"), and billowy, downbeat "Love Does Not Die."
El's collection is rounded out by 13 bonus tracks on CD 4 encompassing mono single mixes, a non-LP Christmas 45, one previously released outtake, and both sides of Ellen's solo single. A few bonus sides appended to the definitive 2003-05 Light in the Attic CD reissues are missing, however: six Tony Mottola sides featuring The Free Design on background vocals, two outtakes from a Chapstick commercial session, and five live tracks with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Chris, Sandy, and Bruce also reunited in 2001 under The Free Design name for the album Cosmic Peekaboo which has yet to see a reissue. Though this set isn't complete, it still offers the group's core catalogue at an affordable price.
The four discs are housed in simple paper sleeves (one cover to each side) within a slipcase. The 28-page black-and-white booklet has an essay about the group's history as well as the interview with the late Chris Dedrick and credits for each album. There are no remastering credits, but sound is subtle and effective befitting their mellow and proto-lo-fi sound. The Free Design never achieved the commercial success of their contemporaries, and it's not altogether impossible to hear why. Instead they made an indelible imprint on a generation of bands including Stereolab, The High Llamas, The Pizzicato Five, and more. For the rest of us, they left behind a legacy of fascinating and multi-faceted soft harmony pop well worth rediscovering.
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The complete track listing can be found here. Box set includes:
- Kites Are Fun (Project 3 Total Sound PR 5019SD, 1967)
- You Could Be Born Again (Project 3 Total Sound PR5031SD, 1968)
- Heaven/Earth (Project 3 Total Sound PR5037SD, 1969)
- Sing for Very Important People (Project 3 Total Sound PR 4006SD, 1970)
- Stars/Time/Bubbles/Love (Project 3 Total Sound PR 5045SD, 1970)
- One by One (Project 3 Total Sound PR 5061SD, 1972)
- There Is a Song (Ambrotype Records 1016, 1972)
- Kites Are Fun (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1324, 1967)
- The Proper Ornaments (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1324, 1967)
- You Be You and I'll Be Me (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1331, 1968)
- Never Tell the World (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1331, 1968)
- 59th Street Bridge Song (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 Netherlands PR 45-1331, 1968)
- I Found Love (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1336, 1968)
- Umbrellas (Mono Single Version) (Project 3 PR 45-1336, 1968)
- Close Your Mouth (It's Christmas) (Mono Single) (Project 3 PR 45-1347-M, 1968)
- Christmas Is the Day (Mono Single) (Project 3 PR 45-1347-M, 1968)
- Nature Boy - Ellen Dedrick (Mono Single PR 45-1362-SD, 1969)
- Settlement Boy - Ellen Dedrick (Mono Single PR 45-1362-SD, 1969)
- Butterflies Are Free (Single Version) (PR 45-1370-SD, 1969)
- To a Black Boy (Outtake) (first released on Light in the Attic LITA 007, 2004)