by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
Reasons to be grateful
Today I’m grateful for Freddie White.
As part of my new social distancing routine, I’m trying to identify, each day, something that I’m grateful for. This morning I woke up around 6:20 and it came to me immediately: I’m grateful for Freddie White.
“Tenderness on the Block” had been churning around in the windmills of my mind since I called out Kid Rock (is that embarrassing?) on a WhatsApp group game where we had to name summer songs. Summer led to “All Summer Long” which led to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon which led to “Werewolves of London” which led to “Tenderness on the Block” which led to Freddie White.
Non-Irish readers of this blog are unlikely to know Freddie White. In fact a lot of Irish readers may not have heard of Freddie White but for anyone in university in the late 70s in Ireland, Freddie White held the key to a treasure trove of musical marvels that, without him, we’d probably never have heard of, or even known they were good.
University College Dublin 1977
Freddie White was a regular performer on the college circuit in Ireland. He hailed from Cork, was over 6 feet tall and played acoustic guitar. He regularly filled Theatre L in University College Dublin (UCD), where I was a student of English & Italian between ’77 and 83.
The Friday gigs in Theatre L were organised by the Students’ Union and took place between 1 and 2pm. For an hour you’d sit in the dark and eat your sandwiches while Fit Kilkenny & the Remoulds or Bagatelle or Stepaside or Jimi Slevin or Rocky DeValera & the Gravediggers banged out songs at high volume. Sometimes someone lit up a joint in the lunchtime dusk. Then you went out again into the light and headed for a tutorial on Boccaccio’s Decameron.
When Freddie White came to UCD, it was different. Alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, Freddie created a full band sound with just voice and instrument at a time when loop pedals and sequencers were strictly for prog rockers. His touch, dexterity and guitar technique were flawless and his deep baritone could rise and fall and twist and turn at will, now full of bitter anger, now redolent of tender love. Suddenly you weren’t in that dusty chalk filled theatre anymore, you were a desperado waiting for a train or back in Germany, before the war.
As a 17 year old aspiring guitarist I would sit there transfixed, afraid to chew my cheese and ham sandwich in case I missed a note and wondering would I ever find my way around the fretboard like Freddie did? I didn’t but, for him, it was all so natural and effortless – in retrospect, probably the result of those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about.
But, beyond the perfect performances, there was another dimension to Freddie White and that’s the reason for my being grateful to him, more than forty years later. Freddie had a special gift for sourcing and, ultimately, re-purposing brilliant songs. Because of Freddie White, a generation of students in Ireland got to know the music of Tom Waits, John Hiatt, Randy Newman and, of course, Warren Zevon.
As well as that, we were introduced to the Great American Songbook and given a Pop101 course in the graced songwriting of the likes of Fats Waller and Hoagy Carmichael, writers our grandfathers and fathers may have listened to but, without Freddie’s endorsement, would never have featured on our turntables.
Arbitrator of taste
Freddie made artists rejected by the college music commentariat not just respectable but genuinely cool. When Billy Joel lost his Mojo by becoming far too accessible and popular, Freddie would remind you of his immense songwriting talent with his version of “Goodnight Saigon”. He had a knack for finding hidden gems on albums that never got played on the radio (not that there was a great choice of alternative radio in the late seventies in Ireland) – “Nutted by Reality” from Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool (1978) is a case in point.
And he lived inside the songs he performed – there are many of us who think Freddie’s version of Tom Waits’ masterpiece, “Martha” is far better than the original. I can still recall the first time I heard him play that song and how its sense of fatal, lingering loss was etched on Freddie’s face as he sang it. The same for his sublime renditions of Guy Clarke’s “Desperados waiting on a train”.
I lost touch with Freddie White after Do You Do, his album from 1981 that included many of the set he performed during my UCD years. A lot of the stuff I learned in college I’ve forgotten but not what I learned from Freddie White in Theatre L. In fact, those lessons have informed my musical journey for the past 40 years. I still listen to the singer songwriters that Freddie played – Bob Dylan, John Prine, Jackson Browne.
And, over the past few days, as I thought about writing this piece, I googled Freddie White and discovered how his career flourished over many subsequent albums, on many continents – he lived for years in the US, apparently, and then in Australia before returning, recently, to Ireland.
On his most recent, 2018, album there’s a track called “The Sound of Crying”. It’s Freddie’s version of a song by Prefab Sprout, one of my all time favourite bands. When I saw that, I felt my musical taste was validated and endorsed by one of the seminal musical influences in my life, along with my late brother Seán and my friend Andrew.
And that’s why I’m grateful for Freddie White.