From Bobby Freeman to the Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas and Ramones: How ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ Became a Rock ‘n’ Roll Classic

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What do the Beach Boys, the Ramones, Bette Midler and the Mamas and the Papas have in common? They all had chart hits with “Do You Wanna Dance,” a.k.a. “Do You Want to Dance,” a song written and first recorded by Bobby Freeman in 1958.

Freeman was the first significant rock/R&B artist to emerge from San Francisco, long before the groups that would draw attention to the city several later. He was born Robert Thomas Freeman June 13, 1940, in San Francisco and by 14 was singing in a band called the Romancers. Signed to Dootone Records, they recorded two singles that failed to make the national charts. After recording one other single for the Bay Tone label, Freeman formed a group called the Vocaleers and met with a local disc jockey, who asked him if he had written any songs. He hadn’t actually written one, he said, but he had some ideas in his head. One of them was a rocking little tune he called “Do You Wanna Dance.”

The song was recorded as a demo, and the DJ brought it to the attention of a vacationing record executive from New York. Mortimer Palitz signed Freeman to Josie, a subsidiary of Jubilee Records, overdubbed guitar, bass and drums to Freeman’s voice and piano track, and released it in March 1958. By May it made the Billboard singles chart, eventually peaking at #5, its success undoubtedly fueled by the unusual false ending that fooled many DJs and record buyers into thinking the song was finished before it actually was.

“Do You Wanna Dance” became an instant classic. Cliff Richard took it to #3 in the U.K. and it was also cut in America by Del Shannon in ’64, who had a #43 hit. The Beach Boys’ version made #12 the following year, followed by a ballad by the Mamas and the Papas in 1968 (#76), one by Love Society the same year and a cover by Bette Midler in 1973 (#17). The Ramones turned it into a driving punk classic in 1978, which went to #86. John Lennon also cut the song, for his 1973 Rock ’n’ Roll album, and there were covers by Johnny Rivers, the Four Seasons, T. Rex, Neil Young, Dave Edmunds and many other classic rock acts.

(Two asides: First, the song is usually spelled “Do You Wanna Dance,” although the Josie original says Want To. And second, there is no truth to the rumor that future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, then only 15, played the guitar solo on the Freeman hit. Garcia did later acknowledge that he played on demos for Freeman in the late ’50s but not on the hits.)

Watch Bobby Freeman lip-sync “Do You Wanna Dance” on American Bandstand with actor Tony Randall among those in the audience

Bobby Freeman placed four more Josie singles on the chart before the end of the ’50s, including “Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes” in 1958 and the ballad “Ebb Tide” at the end of 1959. Another Josie single, “The Mess Around,” charted in 1961 and there was a one-off for the King label, “(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy,” which charted in 1960. (Freeman’s King recordings have been collected onto a CD compilation called Give My Heart a Break–The Complete King Recordings, by England’s Ace Records.)

Freeman performed on American Bandstand and on the popular package tours of the era but it seemed that his career was ending by the arrival of the British Invasion. Not quite: In 1964, at the same time Freeman was spending his time singing at a famous strip club in San Francisco, he teamed up with a young local record producer named Sylvester Stewart, later to be known as Sly Stone.

The formula for Freeman’s next hit came via Stewart, who wrote, produced and arranged a single called “C’mon and Swim,” capitalizing on the dance crazes of the day. Released on Autumn Records, owned by San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue, “C’mon and Swim” took off, giving Freeman his next and final top 5 hit in 1964.

Freeman returned to the singles chart with “S-W-I-M” later in 1964, but it stalled at #56, and then with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” the following spring (#131). There would be one last chart single, “Everybody’s Got a Hang Up,” a soul-style tune that hit #122 in 1969 on the Double Shot label, but Freeman headed back into the shadows from there. Freeman (who died of a heart attack in Daly City, Calif., on January 23, 2017, at age 76) recorded further sides for labels such as Parkway, AVco, Lakeside and others but he largely disappeared from the music scene, save for occasional performances.

Listen to John Lennon‘s cover

And the Ramones‘…

The Mamas and the Papas‘…

And, finally, the Beach Boys

Related: Musician deaths of 2017

Jeff Tamarkin

19 Comments so far

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  1. Scott Paton
    #1 Scott Paton 31 January, 2017, 00:40

    Nice overview of Bobby Freeman’s career, Jeff. Much like Abe Vigoda and Mark Twain, false reports of Bobby’s demise circulated in years past; I’m glad to learn that he was around a little longer.

    I hope that “Do You Wanna Dance,” which became a Rock & Pop standard, supported him comfortably over the years. So many great versions by so many great artists. I’m always partial to originals versus cover versions, but I’ve always felt that the Beach Boys’ take (more a cover of Del Shannon’s than Freeman’s) was the superior iteration. It was the perfect vehicle for Dennis Wilson’s swagger and even more garage than the Ramone’s cut.

    Nice job!

    Reply this comment
    • Micki
      Micki 21 February, 2017, 20:22

      Thank you for your kindness! Bobby and I have been in each other’s hearts for over 50 years! I have taken care of his personal business for many years with much love ❤️Yes DYWD and his other wonderful songs have been very generous to him as Bobby owns his publishing! Thank you for your lovely comments! It truly amazing how many great artist have covered DYWD & it’s been in many films, Broadway Plays, major commercials & continues to be placed today inTV series as well as all I’ve mentioned in my comment! Thank you Michele

      Reply this comment
      • Duke of the Discs
        Duke of the Discs 22 October, 2017, 18:54

        He played at my high school Terra Nova in Pacifica…in 1964…I saw him later in Fresno…and he signed my photos I took of him.

        Reply this comment
  2. Brooklyn Boy
    #2 Brooklyn Boy 31 January, 2017, 14:51

    I had that 45 as a kid. Want to know the flip-side? “Big Fat Woman”

    Reply this comment
  3. Kev
    #3 Kev 31 January, 2017, 22:15

    The online California Birth Index shows that Robert Thomas Freeman was born in Alameda County (not San Francisco) on 6/13/1940. Joel Selvin says that Bobby attended University High in Los Angeles, which may explain how his first recordings were on the L.A.-based Dootone.

    Reply this comment
    • Micki
      Micki 21 February, 2017, 20:08

      I’m Bobby Freeman’s Personal Manager Ann Fiancé! He never attended any school other than in San Francisco & he was born in San Francisco!

      Reply this comment
  4. ghmyrtle
    #4 ghmyrtle 1 February, 2017, 17:01

    This article seems to be the only confirmation that Freeman has died. Reports elsewhere that he died in Texas have been shown to be false, and nothing has been published elsewhere beyond sources copying this article (or, copying the Wikipedia article that copied this article…). It’s all disconcertingly vague. Any more information about the date, place and nature of his death would be welcomed.

    Reply this comment
    • ghmyrtle
      ghmyrtle 3 February, 2017, 08:42

      Are you sure that is the right Bobby Freeman? The first report of the singer’s death on Wikipedia was made by an anonymous contributor on Jan.25, and the Bobby Freeman who died in Anson, TX was a welder.

      Reply this comment
    • Micki
      Micki 21 February, 2017, 20:16

      I’m Bobby Freeman’s Fiancé & partner for almost 18 years! We have been in each other’s hearts for 53 years! Bobby has always been extremely private and I’m trying to keep his wishes still! Sorry I’ve been doing my best since this was very unexpected! Sometime soon many questions will be answered! Thank you

      Reply this comment
    • Micki
      Micki 21 February, 2017, 20:31

      I’m Bobby Freeman’s Fiancé & Buiness as Well as Personal manager! I’m sorry about the way this information was handled I needed to reach Family which Bobby had no contact with so out of respect I did what I needed to do. I’m still not doing the best I can but I will at sometime make things clear! As for now 1/23/17 Bobby Freeman passes away in his home from a heart attack. We were each other’s Soulmates & love of our lives! My mom would say ” People Plan & G-D laughs”
      We had many beautiful plans but I know we will meet againtill than I will continue to keep Bobby Freeman’s Music Alive!! Most Sincerly Michele Renea Ellen

      Reply this comment
      • Jeff Tamarkin
        Jeff Tamarkin Author 21 February, 2017, 21:17

        Thank you so much for reaching out and letting us know what happened. We will all miss Bobby!

        Reply this comment
  5. Tee Watts
    #5 Tee Watts 17 February, 2017, 12:23

    Inner peace and blessings to the family of Bobby Freeman at this difficult juncture in time.

    My dear departed mom took me to the Chubby Checker Twist Party at the Cow Palace in the early 60s. It seems like there were about 20 different acts on the bill. Of course Chubby Checker was the closer. No disrespect intended to Mr. Checker, but he could not successfully close following Mr. Freeman who owned the hometown crowd that night. Music has been alive in me ever since.
    T. Watts, Lucerne, CA

    Reply this comment
    • Micki
      Micki 21 February, 2017, 20:35

      Always been MrEntertainment & one of the most underrated singers his voice was & remained magnificent to Today!

      Reply this comment
  6. Fabriv
    #6 Fabriv 9 July, 2017, 09:03

    Dear Jeff , Jerry Garcia played guitar on Bobby Freeman’s “do you wanna dance?” !!!
    David Nelson,Sara Ruppenthal Garcia and Phil Lesh tell so !
    For more information read “dark star – an oral biography of JG” and “Searching For The Sound”:
    by Phil Lesh.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 9 July, 2017, 12:06

      I asked Garcia about that when I interviewed him in 1980. He told me that he played guitar on a Bobby Freeman session, and he “may” have played on a demo version of “Do You Want to Dance,” but he was not sure on the hit version. Jerry would have been 15 or 16 at the time that record was cut, so in either case it’s quite remarkable that he was already being used on sessions.

      Here is that part of the Q&A:

      I’d like to clear up a historical question that’s often a matter of dissension among Deadheads. Did you do any recording before the Dead, not counting the Warlocks single and the record one which you backed (blues singer) Jon Hendricks? Was there anything before that?

      JG: I did some various sessions around San Francisco. Demos and stuff like that.

      Anything that was released?

      JG: I really don’t know.

      Well, here’s why I ask. I heard that you played on the hit single by Bobby Freeman, the original recording of “Do You Want To Dance.” Is that true?

      JG: I played with Bobby Freeman, but I’m not sure whether it was released. I played on a demo, but I’m not sure if that’s the one that was released.

      That would be the early ‘60s, right?

      JG: No, that was the ‘50s! [note: “Do You Want To Dance” was released in April, 1958!]. Sure was.

      Read more:

      Reply this comment
    #7 FABRIV 11 July, 2017, 09:09

    Thanks jeff, I would then ask you if you can correct the Wikipedia. Over there, be sure that Jerry did not play that piece. It would be better to say that Jerry is not sure if the piece played by him was used
    thank you

    Reply this comment
    #8 FABRIV 13 July, 2017, 06:01

    Hi Jeff, another matter. from your searches you clarified whether Jerry has performed other pieces of LP “do you want to dance?”?
    Thank you

    Reply this comment

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