Bobby Freeman, San Francisco's first rock star with 'Do You Want to Dance,' dies at 76

Bobby Freeman, christened San Francisco’s first rock star and best known for his hit single “Do You Want to Dance” that enjoyed lasting success in the hands of other artists through the decades, has died at the age of 76.

Freeman was 17 when he recorded the energetic, infectious song that charged up the charts and made him a star when he was still a high school student in the Bay Area.

Over the years the song was rearranged, renamed and turned inside out by more than a dozen acts.

In the hands of the Beach Boys, it was a melodic pop favorite. Bette Midler turned it into a slow, sultry torch song on her debut album, “The Divine Miss M.” The Ramones rebranded it as a churning punk anthem. Neil Young recorded it too, and so did John Lennon.

The song was recorded in 1958 and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, featured Jerry Garcia on lead guitar, years before he would become the front man for the Grateful Dead. It reached No. 5 on the charts and became such a generational standard that it was included in the soundtrack for “American Graffiti,” the 1973 coming-of-age movie. 

When it was recorded by Cliff Richard and the Shadows and released in Britain, the title was altered to “Do You Wanna Dance.”

Born on June 13, 1940, in San Francisco, Freeman died Jan. 23 at his home in Union City, according to daughter Nichole Hackett.   His death was not widely reported.

Though “Do You Want to Dance” became Freeman’s signature recording, he did surface on the charts again — in 1964 with “C’mon and Swim,” a novelty song written by a young Sly Stone, who played organ, bass and guitar on the recording. Sandwiched between his two hits, he recorded “Betty Lou’s Got a New Pair of Shoes,” a modest hit that would reappear years later when it was recorded by Young.

Freeman was part of a memorable concert in 1962 when he was packaged with Chubby Checker and other stars of the day in what’s considered one of the Bay Area’s first festival-style concerts. Freeman performed “Do You Want to Dance” but when he was called back for an encore, he said he was unprepared to perform any other songs.

So he danced.

“I started off by saying, ‘I’m going to show you some new dances,’” he recalled in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. “I started creating these things I called the Basketball Twist, the Tennis Twist and all of a sudden my arms started moving and my bottom part started shaking, and I said, “This is called the Swim.”

Whether that was truly the moment the dance craze was launched is unclear. But many swore it was.

Freeman returned to the recording studio in the late ‘60s and recorded a rhythm-and-blues single, “Lies.”

“It was the best record I ever made,” he told the Chronicle in 1990. The song, however, failed to draw much interest.

As the years past, Freeman continued to perform, sometimes at casino lounges in Lake Tahoe, Reno and Las Vegas, sometimes at rock ‘n’ roll oldies shows. For nearly two decades, he performed five nights a week at the Condor Club in North Beach, alternating sets with famed topless dancer Carol Doda.

“I’ve never made a comeback,” he said in 1990 while prepping to perform at a rock ‘n’ roll oldies event in the Bay Area.

“If they don’t hear you on record, people think you’re not around anymore.”

In addition to his daughter Nichole, Freeman is survived by a second daughter, April Freeman; two sons, Robert Jr. and Jerrald ; and longtime partner Michele Ellen.

steve.marble@latimes.com

Twitter: stephenmarble

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°