To fulfill The Band’s obligation with Pyramid Records we had to make another CD. With the constant touring to promote Jericho, the guys did not have time to do any writing so the search was on for songs to record. Some of the new members of the newly reformed Band would do quite a bit of writing and we would record these songs but nothing was coming together for Levon, Rick, or Garth.
In order for The Band to honor their record contract, they needed to record songs by other artists. It made sense at the time to keep everyone together because new releases are usually followed by a tour. It also gives the press something to write about and provides the fans something new.
One Saturday night I was hanging with Levon at his barn; we were watching Saturday Night Live. The guest musical act was En Vogue. At the time they were one of the hottest groups on the scene. That night they sang “Free Your Mind” on the show. I thought Levon was going to jump out of his skin when he heard it. He thought it was just one of the greatest songs with a positive lyric message. He declared that he would refuse to record or work on the new Band record until we recorded this song. Everyone thought he was kidding around but he was serious. I mentioned to him that he would have to change some of the words to fit and that it was a challenge to make the music and sound fit into a Band recording.
He went right to work changing the lyrics brilliantly. He did not care if the song fit or not it was a song with meaning to him and I think that Levon who grew up in the South when segregation was the law, it had a deep meaning for him to record this song. If I am producing a song it is my job to make the creative ideas of the artist happen as best as I can. The beat of “Free Your Mind” is infectious, and the modern sound of En Vogue’s recording really got him.
I decided to ignore all the nay-sayers and figure out the approach of how to record the song. The song had to be built with a different approach that we had used before. We would record the drums first and then start building the arrangement opposed to recording with everyone at once. We recorded most of High on the Hog at Levon’s barn. The building has a garage with an extremely live sound. It is cement block, a true garage band sound, perfect for this song. The garage is over the control room so I ran microphone lines down into the garage to tie into the recording board.
Randy (second drummer in the reformed Band) set up his drums in the garage. Randy was the best choice to go first. We tuned the drums to a more modern sound and laid down the beat. We recorded the basic drum track and started building the song from there. Next Richard Bell on synthesizer played the hypnotic bass part of the song. Garth and Richard were always experimenting with new synth sounds. He had the perfect sound for the bass line. Rick doubled the bass line with his electric bass and Jimmy did the same on guitar to really fatten the line and make it jump out. We now had a strong foundation and started building that Band sound. Levon added toms and cymbals getting it to a more exciting place. It was time to add the vocal and Levon recorded his lead, singing in one take, sitting on the couch in the control room and it was brilliant. He had been working on the words the whole time we had been getting the foundation together.
Garth was starting to come up with incredible synthesizer parts, intro, solo section, counter lines to get the song into that creative space that only he could do. We now had all the Band members contributing to the song. After all the guys had got their parts together, it still sounded like it was missing something, so I played what we had for Tom “Bones” Malone and asked him if he could come up with a four-piece horn arrangement. I also asked Richard Bell to write a horn arrangement. Both of them really got it. We recorded two different arrangements with the same players. We recorded the horn section at Levon’s studio. There is a small alcove in the main room as you walk up the front steps. The alcove has windows in the back and the sides are open into the big room. I could place the mics in different spots giving the horns a unique sound that was special to the recording. The horn section had strong players consisting of “Bones,” Howard Johnson, and Ron Finck. I was then able to sort through the horns and combine both at different times. They played the arrangements great and the song was complete.
Levon and I listened back and our final thought was our arrangement of the song needed some editing. We made the edits and the song became more effective. At some point when recording a full record, the company wants to hear the progress so they came to Woodstock to listen. They traveled with an entourage and had their secretary with them from down south. She knew the song and flipped when she heard this version. It took all the label people by surprise and with her reaction they got excited. “Free Your Mind” became the single that Pyramid released off of High on the Hog. Pyramid liked it so much they went on to make a promotional video. Additionally, The Band performed “Free Your Mind” on the Jay Leno Show.
Recently, I was on the radio doing an interview at WDST in Woodstock, and out of nowhere, the music director starts letting me know that “Free Your Mind” was one of his favorite Band tracks ever and wanted to know all about the origin of The Band recording it. Well, here it is.
Free Your Mind
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