Bobby Freeman died a few weeks ago. We’ve been losing so many artists recently that the death of a musician of his stature barely rates a mention in the press. And yet, Bobby Freeman wrote and recorded one of the most indelible songs in the history of rock and roll. “Do You Want to Dance,” as Freeman’s original version was titled, was a hit not only for him, but also for a diverse group of artists that included the Beach Boys, Bette Midler, and the Ramones.
Freeman was born in northern California and grew up in San Francisco. He was only 16 years-old when his doo wop group, the Romancers, cut their first single for Dootone Records. It wasn’t long however, until Freeman had moved on to the Vocaleers. Freeman also began to write and record solo demos. One of the songs he cut was “Do You Want to Dance,” and when Jubilee Records exec Mortimer Palitz heard it, he signed Freeman to his label.
The demo became the basis for the single. It was taken to New York, overdubbed in a studio there, and released on Jubilee subsidiary Josie Records in early 1958. Bobby Freeman was not yet 18 years old when his single shot up the Pop chart all the way to #5, and reached #2 on the R&B chart at the same time.
“Do You Want to Dance” was Bobby Freeman’s biggest, but certainly not his only, hit record. Released on Laurie Records, Freeman’s follow-up, “Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes,” was a Top 40 hit that same year. Freeman’s other chart records in 1958 and 1959 included “Need Your Love,” “Mary Ann Thomas,” and “Ebb Tide.” In 1960 Freeman left Laurie and returned to the Top 40 with “(I Do the) Shimmy Shimmy” on King Records. During these years he toured with prominent artists like Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, and the Coasters.
It remains unknown why some of Freeman’s other early ’60s recordings for King were not released, but by 1964 he was recording for Autumn Records where he returned to the Top 10 with “C’mon and Swim.” The song was co-written by Freeman, along with legendary DJ Tom Donahue, and one Sylvester Stewart, who the world came to know a few years later as Sly Stone. That same year Freeman released “S-W-I-M.” The hope was that the record would tap into the dance craze that Freeman had created with “C’mon and Swim,” but it only reached #56, and it was Freeman’s last chart record.
Bobby Freeman continued to sing in clubs in the Bay area, as well as venues in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and elsewhere. He released singles on a variety of labels, but he was never able to find chart success again.
“I’m just as content as I could be with what I’m doing,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. “I have no complaints whatsoever.”
In addition to the artists mentioned above, his song “Do You Want to Dance,” sometimes titled “Do You Wanna Dance” in subsequent versions, was recorded by Del Shannon, Johnny Rivers, John Lennon, T.Rex, the Mamas & the Papas, and Bobby Vee, among others.
Bobby Freeman died of natural causes on January 23, 2017. He was 76 years-old.