(I wrote this post earlier in the week, and while I considered postponing it for a tribute to Soul Train icon Don Cornelius, I felt perhaps this tale of another African-American DJ who meant a lot to his community might be a nice tribute in its own right. VH1 will be showing their fine documentary, Soul Train: The Hippest Trip In America, tonight and probably several more times. Look for it.)
I grew up in Antioch, California, and listened to Ollie Freeman on Sunday nights at KKIS, a low-watt station in nearby Pittsburg. I was fascinated by the music and by the DJ. In those days (1960s), the entire town of Antioch (around 15,000 then) was white, with a decent-sized Latino population. The first black family didn't move into Antioch until my senior year of high school, 1969-70. Pittsburg was integrated.
The thing I remember most was Ollie talking at the end of his show each week. I loved it so much. He'd play a long instrumental and tell about putting on his red sweater and packing his red suitcase so he could catch a train out of town. Once, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Freeman, he explained to me that the track was "Midnight Special" by Jimmy Smith, and that the tale he would tell each week was inspired by the cover of the album with that track ... it pictured Smith hitching a ride on a train, red suitcase in hand. Now, when I listen to that track, I can recall being a kid back in the day. I even bought the CD so I could stare at the cover.
Freeman was an important figure in local R&B history. KCRT has some video documentaries on their website. If you follow this link and then click on “North Richmond Story II (documentary)”, and then go to the 34:10 mark, you’ll see a few minutes about Ollie.
What kind of music did he play? Honestly, I don’t remember exactly, outside of “Midnight Special”. But my always-treacherous memory remembers ads for upcoming concerts by the likes of James Brown and Little Junior Parker, and in general, I think Freeman played what to my young untutored ears was more obscure R&B, not just Motown. Here are some good tunes from the period, anyway, beginning with Parker’s “Yonder’s Wall”:
Bobby “Blue” Bland with “Turn on Your Love Light”:
The late Etta James and “Trust in Me”:
Finally, Jimmy Smith doing “Midnight Special” … you can even look at the cover of Jimmy with his little red suitcase: