While Freddie Hughes’ recording career reached its commercial peak with the 1968 hit “Send My Baby Back”, the Oakland singer’s influence on East Bay soul and the Bay Area music scene in general was much deeper.
Hughes, 79, died Tuesday in Kaiser Oakland from leukemia and complications from COVID-19, according to his son Derick Hughes, a former Tower of Power vocalist who toured with Roberta Flack for years.
Highly respected by his peers during his six decades as a pillar of the Bay Area music scene, Hughes played a central role in shaping the soul sound of the East Bay in an era of pervasive influence defined by church-bred black vocalists bringing perky gospel beats to a secular setting.
A defiantly gifted singer as a child, Hughes attended Castlemont High School in Auckland when he began working professionally in various Oakland vocal groups in the mid-1950s. If only talent had led to success in the music business, he would be a household name, said Oakland blues and R&B great Johnny Talbot, a close childhood friend who often collaborated with Hughes.
“I worked with Lou Rawls, Aretha and Marvin Gaye and Freddie was the equal of any of those singers,” Talbot said. “He had a unique and influential voice. When you mention singers from this area, Freddie should come first. He had such a gift.”
During his long career, Hughes has worked with such stars as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Etta James, and Ike and Tina Turner. However, when he recorded under his own name, one stumbling block he faced was the parallel career of Southern California R&B vocalist Fred Hughes, with whom he was often confused (YouTube credits often pair the two artists).
The fact that he recorded so infrequently didn’t help either, though every performance was exciting, as was his searing version of Paul Tillman Smith’s “Sharing” on the 1977 Vitamin E single by Buddah Records.
“Jonny Mathis and Freddie had two of the most incredible voices in the Bay Area,” said drummer, songwriter and producer Tillman Smith, who featured Hughes on three standout tracks on Sounds of Oakland, the new Eastern heritage album. Bay soul and R&B.
“He was supposed to be a superstar. But we had no songwriters, no production infrastructure. We didn’t have Philadelphia International Records here.”
Hughes was born on August 20, 1943 in Berkeley and grew up in the detached apartment complex Harbor Homes in Oakland. He had four brothers and sisters. Like many African Americans who were drawn to the region by the many jobs in the military industry, his parents came to the East Bay from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. His father, Fred W. Hughes, was a longshoreman and pastor who helped found the Oakland Church of the Good Samaritan of God in Christ, and his mother, Lola Mae Anderson, was a singer and missionary.
Oakland was full of young talent in the 1950s. As a youth, Hughes sang in a choir that included Betty Watson and Edwin Hawkins, who later became co-leaders of the Edwin Hawkins Singers (the group that recorded the 1969 international gospel hit “Oh Happy Day” at Ephesus Church of God in Christ in Berkeley). ).
“At age 12, Freddie sang in the adult choir every Sunday,” recalled Johnny Talbot, who also sang in the Good Samaritan children’s choir with Hughes. “The way he could sing later was the way he could sing at 12.”
Hughes made some of his first recordings for Compton’s Melotone Records in the late 1950s with a vocal quartet called the Markets. He continued to sing in various vocal groups and by 1961 became involved with The Four Rivers, which caught the attention of Capitol Records in Los Angeles. But legal threats from the band’s former manager, who wanted to retain control of the band’s records, ended any potential record deal.
Back in the East Bay, The Four Rivers became a house combo for Ray Dobard’s Berkeley label Music City, backing up the likes of Richard Berry, James Brown and Big Mama Thornton. Eager to find their own path, Hughes and fellow Four Rivers vocalist Ken Pleasants began performing as a duo known as The Music City Soul Brothers, recording several singles such as 1965’s “Let Our Love Go On”.
“Together we developed a style reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions,” Pleasants told British music journalist Opal Louis Nations. “We sang double falsettos in the melody and harmonized in the in-betweens and breaks.”
Hughes scored his big national hit with “Send My Baby Back” in 1968, which broke into the Top 20 R&B Top 20. the same name. A 2010 re-release on Ace Records, a British label specializing in hard-to-find soul music, includes 14 bonus tracks covering much of his 1960s production.
While international soul fans were paying hundreds of dollars for his vintage 45s, Hughes occupied a modest figure in the San Francisco Bay Area scene. In recent decades, he regularly played gigs at uncovered venues such as Berkeley’s Cheese Board, where he often performed with Oakland blues band Kickin’ the Mule, and at the Mission District Royal Cuckoo bar, where he performed with keyboardist Chris Burns.
Chris Siebert, pianist of the Red Hot Skillet Lickers and husband of the band’s lead singer LaVey Smith, orders a Royal Cuckoo (which belongs to Smith’s brother). Burns was playing a Hammond B-3 organ behind the bar shortly after Cuckoo opened in 2011, when Hughes, without counting or warning, began singing without a microphone and silenced the room.
Siebert quickly figured out who these great pipes belonged to, and Hughes and Burns became regular members of the Cuckoo rotation. “We fell in love with his singing,” Siebert said. “His version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was just as powerful as Sam Cooke’s. He was a handsome guy and his speech reflected the culture he came from in the Church of God in Christ. His voice often brought us to tears.”
Hughes is survived by his brother, Wayne Hughes of Oakland; five children: Sonia Hughes Pharma of Hanford, Deryck Hughes of Oakland, Derin Hughes Jones of Alameda, Lena Hughes and Jelani Hughes; 23 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.
There are plans to host a jam session and a memorial concert in honor of Hughes. Details will be announced soon.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.