Austin guitar great Denny Freeman, who played with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, dies aged 76

Denny Freeman performs in concert for the Austin Music Awards at the Austin Music Hall during the South By Southwest Music Festival on March 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas.
(Image credit: Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

Guitar great Denny Freeman, a staple of the Austin music scene, has died aged 76 after a brief cancer battle. Freeman worked with everyone from Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan to Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal over his more than 50 year career, and played piano and organ in addition to electric guitar.

Freeman was born in Orlando, Florida on August 7, 1944 and spent his teenage years in Dallas, where he played in a rock group called the Corals. He once called Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and “blues artists on Chess, VeeJay and Excello Records” his first influences.  

After a brief stint in LA, he relocated to Austin in the 1970s, where he became an original member of Paul Ray & the Cobras. The band eventually included a young Stevie Ray Vaughan, with whom Freeman shared lead guitar duties.

Throughout that time, Freeman became a central figure in the burgeoning Austin blues scene that launched both SRV and Jimmie Vaughan’s Fabulous Thunderbirds, among many other acts. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he lived with both Stevie and Jimmie as well, joking at one point Stevie had still owned him $30 in back rent.

In addition to his work with the Vaughans,  Freeman was a founding member of the group Southern Feeling alongside “Godfather of Austin Blues" W.C. Clark, and in the ‘80s was a member of the house band at famed club Antone’s, where he backed everyone from Otis Rush and Albert Collins to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. He played piano for James Cotton and Jimmie Vaughan, and also spent years on the road as a member of Taj Mahal’s band.

In 2005 he joined Bob Dylan’s band, playing onstage with the songwriting giant until 2009, and also appearing on his 2006 album, Modern Times.

Regarding the challenging experience of performing with Dylan, Freeman told the Austin Chronicle, “It was totally unpredictable. We had a set list for each night and we even rehearsed before every show, but when we'd get the set list on the way to the stage, it wouldn't be unusual for a song to appear that I'd never heard of, much less played. 

"Musically, it's kind of hard to talk about playing with Bob Dylan because nothing was ever the same. The only thing that didn't constantly change was the uncertainty about everything.”

Freeman’s varied work also includes co-writing the song Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room for Blondie's 1999 album, No Exit, playing guitar on Percy Sledge’s Shining Through the Rain and Doyle Bramhall’s Is It News albums, and releasing a series of solo efforts, including 2012’s Dylan tribute, Diggin’ on Dylan, for which he told Austin 360, “I wanted to be true to the spirit of the songs, but to do them my way.” 

Regarding what the blues meant to him, Freeman once said, “It's just a very inspiring form of music. It's not for everyone, but I think musicians especially should have some familiarity with it. Playing it well is very difficult, but one can learn a lot about music and about one's self by learning about it.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.