WEST SIDE IN MOURNING: Freeman at the 2008 Chicago Blues Fest. | BONNIE McKEOWN/Contributor

Local West Side blues and soul singer Willie D. Freeman, 75, of Austin, died on Feb. 7, after a long illness, according to his wife, Gladys. 

Freeman had lived on the West Side since moving to Chicago from Mississippi, when he was 20 years old. Born in Bentonia, Miss. in 1944, he came to the Windy City to stay with his sister at Racine and Cabrini. 

“I wanted to experience other parts of the world,” Freeman said during a previous interview. 

Willie knew he had a good singing voice. Down south, his older brother had played some guitar and bass, and their mother declared, “If you let Willie sing, the two of you could make some money.”  Willie sang sometimes in the church choir, as well.

Willie wasn’t so keen about working in the cotton fields. As a teenager his mother warned him to be careful, after he stood up to one of the white wagon drivers who had called Freeman’s mother and the young workers rude names.  Willie went and got a job in a saw mill, where he was able to earn an entire cotton worker’s weekly pay in only one day. When he arrived in Chicago, he was confident he’d find good-paying work with similar ease.  

Relatives got him a job cleaning offices and equipment. Later he drove delivery trucks, bringing beer to restaurants. In a downtown alley, he fought off enormous rats. “I picked up a brick and killed a 12-inch long rat,” Freeman recalled. “A man saw me and was so glad, he paid me $10.” 

In Chicago, he started going to Michelle’s Lounge, at Lotus and Madison, where Johnny Christian was singing with his band, the Playboys, which included Stan and Vern Banks on keyboard and guitar, Bald Head Pete on Drums and Big Pete on bass. Many different musicians, including Johnny B. Moore, Vance Kelly and the late Willie Davis, played with Christian, who toured the Midwest and had many fans all over the West Side.

When Christian’s health declined and he couldn’t perform as much, he urged Freeman to put a band together:  “You sing your heart out,” Freeman recalls Christian telling him. “I never know you to back up off a song. You get deep into it.” Christian died in 1933.

Over the last 20 years, Freeman had carried on his mentor’s singing tradition in West Side clubs, including the Starlite, at Fifth and Pulaski, with Jerry Tyrone and Johnny Dollar; and at soul/blues singer Tyrone Davis’s club at Bloomingdale and Central, where Freeman was typically accompanied by three horn players who added to the soulful sound.

Two to three years ago, Freeman’s memory failed and he was not able to perform in public. A year ago, a promoter organized a celebration for him at Brick’s Club on Madison, attended by many neighbors and Mississippi relatives, his wife said. 

The family announced that funeral services for Freeman will be held Saturday Feb. 16, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Corbin’s Colonial Funeral Home, 5345 W. Madison, Chicago. The repast will be held next door following the service.

CONTACT: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com.

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years. www.barrelhousebonni.com  She has led classes for young and old on...