Introduction to Ernie Freeman

Career Summary

Ernie Freeman (born Ernest Aaron Freeman in 1922 – died in 1981) was a 1950s music-era African-American pianist, organist, bandleader and a particularly successful arranger. He had a prolific behind-the-scenes work as he did a lot of session work in the 1950s for a variety of acts and labels. He worked for small independent labels Specialty, Modern and Aladdin. Freeman also collaborated with white artists such as Duane Eddy, The Crickets, Johnny Brunette, Buddy Knox, and Bobby Vee. His piano work on the Platters’ “The Great Pretender” is one of Freeman’s most distinguished contributions. Freeman also had some measure of success in his recording career, his most successful hit being his cover of Bill Justis’ “Raunchy”. He continued to work with other artists such as Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra and others. He died in 1981 from a heart attack. He was 58 years old.

Early years

Born on August 16, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, Ernest Aaron Freeman was an American R&B/jazz/pop pianist, keyboardist, arranger and bandleader. Freeman grew up in a family of performers. Along with his father and sister Evelyn, they formed a classical music trio for local social functions in Cleveland. In 1935, the 13-year old Freeman started performing in local Cleveland night spots. Later on, the siblings formed a new band, The Evelyn Freeman Swing Band whom most of the members were from Cleveland Central High School. In 1942, since most of the members joined the US Navy, they were later renamed “The Gobs of Swing” where Ernie was the band leader.  They were also the first all-black Navy band.

Music Career

In 1945, Freeman left the US Navy after serving for three years and attended the Cleveland Institute of Music where he finished a BA degree. The following year, he and his family relocated to Los Angeles where he entered the University of Southern California and graduated with master’s degree in music composition. Around 1954, he played light jazz in LA clubs with Dinah Washington and Dorothy Dandridge among others. Later that year, he worked mainly as an arranger for Mambo Records in Pasadena where he also cut his first record release, “Poor Fool/ “Somehow I Know”. In 1956, Freeman became an A&R man as well as a recording artist in John Dolphin’s Cash Label where he recorded his first hit, “Jivin’ Around, Parts 1 & 2”. The single peaked at #5 on the R&B charts.

Not long thereafter, Freeman signed a record contract on Imperial Records and issued “Lost Dreams” which made at #7 on R&B chart.  In the fall of 1957, Freeman released a  Bill Justis’ cover version of “Raunchy.” It became a chart topper at the R&B and crossed over to pop where it landed at #4. He came up with his version of “Indian Love Call” which made to  #58 on the Billboard pop chart in summer of 1958. The single was followed with lesser hits like “School Room Rock,” “Junior Jive,” Marshmellows, Popcorn and Soda Pop” among others. Staying on Imperial Records for almost seven years, Freeman issued 29 singles and seven LP’s.

In 1960, Freeman became a successful arranger and musical director for Reprise Records. He worked for several big names such as Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis and Petula Clark. He also sessioned for Liberty Records artists which included Julie London, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnett, Gene McDaniels, Timi Yuro, Walter Brennan and The Crickets.

By the end of the 1960’s, Freeman penned soundtrack for some several films such as The Pink Jungle, The Double Man, and Duffy. He contributed string arrangements to Simon and Garfunkel’s Grammy-winning LP, Bridge over Troubled Water in 1970. Later in the decade, he retired from the business. Plagued by alcohol problems, the 58-year old Ernie Freeman succumbed to heart attack at his home in Los Angeles on May 16, 1981.