Born Ernest Aaron Freeman, 16 August 1922, Cleveland, Ohio
Died 15 May 1981, Hollywood, California

Pianist / arranger / composer / bandleader.

Ernie Freeman graduated high school in 1940 and started attending the Cleveland Institute of Music in the fall of 1940. In 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all the male members of his band enlisted in the US Navy and became the first all-Black US Navy band, with Freeman as the band leader. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute in the spring of 1946. In the summer of that year he moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, with his wife and 16-months old daughter, so that he could attend graduate school at the USC University of Southern California School of Music, where he received his masterís degree in music composition in 1949.

In the early 1950s he worked the clubs, playing light jazz and accompanying the likes of Dinah Washington and Dorothy Dandridge. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1954, he was hired by Mambo Records in Pasadena, primarily as an arranger. It was on Mambo that he had his first record release : "Poor Fool"/ "Somehow I Know", credited to the Ernie Freeman Orchestra with a vocal by Lawrence Stone. From Mambo he moved to John Dolphin's fledgling Cash label as an A&R man and recording artist, scoring a # 5 R&B hit with "Jivin' Around, Parts 1 & 2" (Cash 1017) in early 1956. Prior to that, Ernie had contributed the cling-cling-cling piano riffs (effectively satirized by Stan Freberg) on the Platters # 1 hit "The Great Pretender". Ernie can be seen in the film "Rock Around the Clock", backing the Platters.

In January 1956, Freeman was signed by Imperial Records, where he would stay for almost seven years, releasing 29 singles and seven LP's under his own name. His first single for the label, "Lost Dreams" (Imperial 5381) was a # 7 R&B hit, but this slow number was not yet typical for what was to become the sound of the Ernie Freeman Combo. With the addition of Plas Johnson on sax and Earl Palmer on drums, the combo shifted to a rocked-up R&B style, inspired by the success of Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk". Together with Irving Ashby on guitar and Freeman himself on piano and organ, Johnson and Palmer formed the nucleus of the band. A cover of Bill Justis's "Raunchy" gave the combo its biggest hit (# 4 pop, # 1 R&B), in late 1957. The Freeman version was more rhythmic than the original and superior in several respects. Still, the Justis version was the biggest hit (# 2), while a cover by Billy Vaughn also went Top 10. The twin-sax sound of Vaughn was employed by the Ernie Freeman Combo on "Indian Love Call", to good commercial effect (# 59 pop in mid-1958). This was followed by a few titles aimed fairly and squarely at the teen market, like "School Room Rock", "Junior Jive"and "Marshmellows, Popcorn and Soda Pop". Enjoyable stuff, but with few sales. Freeman did not return to the charts until 1960 when, in the wake of the giant success of "Theme From A Summer Place" by Percy Faith, he started recording lush orchestal pieces, first "Beautiful Obsession", with Ernie moonlighting for Warner Bros as "Sir Chauncey" and then "Theme From The Dark At the Top Of the Stairs" (Imperial 5693). Luckily, the strings were dropped for most of the 1961-62 recordings and Freeman's organ version of "The Twist" managed to creep into the Hot 100 at # 93 in early 1962.

By this time, Ernie's status as an arranger overshadowed his work with the combo. Between late 1959 and 1964 he arranged virtually every session for Snuff Garrett at Liberty Records (Johnny Burnette, Buddy Knox, Gene McDaniels, Bobby Vee, The Crickets) and after Liberty he was hired by Reprise Records as musical director, working with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., among others.

In his autobiography "Backbeat", drummer Earl Palmer writes about many people in the music business that he has worked with. Freeman is one of them ."Ernie Freeman was the greatest arranger I knew in the studios. Composed, arranged, played a hell of a piano. Had music so strong in his mind, he could sit down, no piano, and write a score like he was writing a letter." But Palmer continues: "Ernie was a sad case. Drunk all the time, and I hate to say it, but Ernie was a Tom. We had a push going about too few blacks in the studios and we formed an organization called MUSE, Musicians United to Stop Exclusion. Ernie flat-out refused to join. He was a guy that wouldn't speak up. But it didn't matter if he was drunk or not ; he could hear a wrong note in the last row of the orchestra."

Freeman was involved in several instrumental R&R projects by the illustrious trio of Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson and Rene Hall. Among these were The Pets (hit : "Cha-Hua-Hua", 1958), The Ernie Fields Orchestra (hit : "In the Mood", 1959), B. Bumble and the Stingers (Freeman plays piano on their first hit, "Bumble Boogie", 1961, also on the follow-up, "Boogie Woogie"/"Near You") and Billy Joe and the Checkmates ("Percolator", 1962, # 10, with Ernie on xylophone.) Furthermore, he produced most of Sandy Nelson's sessions for Imperial, usually playing piano in the process. After contributing the string arrangements to the Grammy-winning LP "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, Freeman's career went downhill. His alcoholism became worse and his driver's licence was revoked. He lived in Hawaii during part of the seventies and died from a heart attack in 1981, almost unnoticed by the media. A sad end for a man of amazing musical talents.

Acknowledgements :
- Stuart Colman, Liner notes for the CD "Raunchy" (Ace 659, released 1997). 25 Imperial tracks. Recommended.
- Wayne Jancik, Billboard book of one-hit wonders (1998), p. 45.
- Tony Scherman, Backbeat : Earl Palmer's story. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. The quote is from page 125.

Discography :


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