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The Story of "Free Will in China Blue"


Hi. This is Karyn. For this Lowdown post, John Blangero tells his own story in his own words.


The song Free Will in China Blue has an interesting history. We began work on the Delta Tales album in January 2020. By July, we had completed the recording phase and finalized the artwork (in spite of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic shutdown).


PeacockSunrise Records President Nick Katona suggested that I add a digital download-only bonus track to the album. My producer, Steven (Ace) Acker, and I talked for a while about adding a cool song of his, but ultimately, we agreed that it didn't fit the album. I sat down at my Yamaha grand piano on July 7 and wrote Free Will in China Blue in its entirety using notes from my lengthy book of lyrics and lyric fragments. Over the next couple of days, I recorded a demo, including some of the horn parts that ended up on the final master. (Maybe someday I'll let people hear that demo.)


I sent the demo version and chart to Ace on July 11th, and he wondered what the song meant. I described it as a southern noir narrative with complex chord progressions. “China Blue,” I wrote, “is the color of the dress the singer’s lover wore. She is ‘free will in China blue.’ To sin with her was his own conscious choice."


On July 12, Ace and I met to discuss production plans for Free Will. We wanted to move fast, so he booked the studio and gathered the players quickly. Because I could not attend the session, I sent my final lead vocal and piano to Ace on July 20 for a session at David Granati's Maplewood Studio five days later. We picked some great musicians for the track with George Perilli (Michael McDonald, Donna Summer, etc.) on drums, Joe Macre (Crack the Sky) on bass, and Willie Ross (The O'Jays) on guitar.


They recorded the basic track live, with some overdubs afterwards. Prior to the session, Ace wrote to the players: "Please listen to Wilson Pickett’s recording of “Hey Jude.” That is the sound John is looking for by alluding to ‘1968 Muscle Shoals.’ That IS 1968 Muscle Shoals."


Ace also arranged for two great background singers (Stevee Wellons and Joy Brown) to round out the track. The horns were recorded by the Terminus Horns from Atlanta. Ace found them on a website and contacted them on Sunday morning following basic track session. By 7:00 that evening they had delivered the complete horn arrangement and recording that is now part of the record.

This great group of musicians turned the song into something magical. One of Ace's closest advisors and collaborators, John Hanti (owner of The Studios @ SST in New York City) wrote to him: "It's perfect...arrangement is spot on, vocal backgrounds are perfectly placed and arranged as they should be...very tasty guitar used sparingly but very effectively...it's a real shame it's not 1972. It's another hit, right up there with Blood, Sweat & Tears."

Somehow, we picked up four years of musical vibes between 1968 and 1972 and transferred them to the record!


My record label loved the song and we decided to release it as a single. It has become our number-one played song across all the streaming services and has been quite popular in the UK and Europe. The success of the song has led the record company to reissue the Delta Tales CD with Free Will in China Blue now appearing as the second song. The single is also included on the vinyl album, which has been delayed quite a bit due to production issues and shortages suffered by vinyl manufacturers the last two years.


Free Will in China Blue is now being promoted heavily to the U.S. market. We have just finished shooting a new, professional music video for the song (that story we will be telling soon).”


Ace, after listening to Free Will a million times, astutely noted: "Has it ever occurred to you that most of your songs are about lost love, sin, and redemption?"


Yes, that is true; those themes dominate my work and will be also prominent on my next album, Signs & Wonders.


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