Earlier in June, Rolling Stone posted an in-depth article about how Melissa Reese “broke the Guns N’ Roses glass ceiling” by becoming the first official female member of the band. But by the time she reached that glass ceiling, there were six fairly large cracks in it placed there by horn players Cece Worrall-Rubin, Anne King, and Lisa Maxwell, and background singers Diane Jones, Traci Amos, and Roberta Freeman.
All were brought on board in the early stages of the Use Your Illusion tour in the summer of 1991, and they stuck around until it wrapped up two years later. As touring members, they didn’t carry on with Guns N’ Roses when that run concluded and none have been a part of any future lineups, but they played a huge role in shaping the band’s sound during their commercial peak. (Reese, by contrast, tells RS that she’s a “member-member” and would play a role in a new album should they make one.)
To hear more what life was like as a female member of Guns N’ Roses back in their wilder days, we phoned up Roberta Freeman. She also spoke about her time singing background in Pink Floyd, Cinderella, Joe Cocker’s group, and the Pink Floyd tribute band Brit Floyd.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a singer?
My gosh … Immediately. When I was a very, very small child, I was introduced to a lot of music in my household. Both of my parents were heavily into music. My mother was into opera and folk music. My father was into the blues and jazz. I was introduced to it at a young age and I always knew I was going to be a singer. Always. There was no doubt in my mind.
When was the first time you sang onstage and felt a real connection to an audience?
Well, besides singing in school musicals when I was really young, I think the first time I got a true connection was when I was in high school. I sang in a production of Godspell and I got a standing ovation. After that, I had kids walking up to me in the hallway asking for my autograph. It was kind of bizarre to me. It kind of hooked me.
You sang with Pink Floyd for three nights in 1987 at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. How did that wind up happening?
I had been working on a Nile Rodgers projects with Lorelei McBroom and her sister Durga. What happened was that David [Gilmour] wanted to film the performances for a concert movie. They had Margaret Taylor and Rachel Fury in the band already, but they wanted, basically, more women onstage. They wanted women on both sides of the stage instead of just one side.
It blew my mind when we got the call. As a teenager, I would go asleep listening to “The Great Gig in the Sky” and the whole Dark Side of the Moon album. I had to pinch myself several times. I absolutely loved Pink Floyd. But I wasn’t really familiar with the new album [A Momentary Lapse of Reason]. When I was on the plane, I was listening to the album and learning the songs. I was just like, “Oh, my God.” Once we got there, we started rehearsing and I remember going over the vocal parts backstage. David was like, “You sound ready to me. Let’s go.”
What were the most memorable songs you sang on at those shows?
“On the Turning Away” was my favorite. That ended up being a video along with “Dogs of War” and “On the Run.” They were on MTV regularly. That’s just one of my all-time favorite songs anyway. Whenever I hear that song, I get this warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Then you played the Grammys the next year.
Yeah. After Pink Floyd, I ended up going on tour with Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads and Bernie Worrell was in the band, so that was an amazing experience. Then I ended up singing on the Grammys. I was slated to sing on the show with Nile. We were all rehearsing at SIR, going in one after another. Chaka Khan was there and Lou Reed was waiting for his turn to rehearse. He had Debbie Harry and Grace Jones singing “Walk on the Wild Side” with him. They didn’t show up to rehearsal and he was waiting around.
Lorelei and myself were like, “We’ll sit in for them. We’ll rehearse with you.” He liked us so much, and Lorelei and myself were so used to working with each other. We had our choreography down and a great blend. He just said, “You know, I want you to do this with me.” We were thrilled, but I thought, “What if Grace and Debbie show up to the gig?” He said, “That doesn’t matter. I want you to do it with them.”
That’s exactly what happened. I performed at Madison Square Garden with Lou Reed and Nile Rodgers. And then I was asked to perform with Lou at the Grammys after that. It was kind of like a snowball effect. Everything was happening.
Tell me about the Grammys.
It was a pretty incredible experience. I got to see all my idols. I was part of it. It was pretty incredible to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Michael Jackson during the finale singing “Runaround Sue” with him. It was pretty incredible.
How did you wind up with Cinderella on their Heartbreak Station tour?
A friend of mine told me about auditions. I sent in my headshot and résumé. They told me when I got to the auditions that they almost didn’t chose me to audition because I didn’t look black enough. I’m multi-racial. My mother is an Eastern European Jew and my father was black and Native American. People have always wondered what my background was. This was typical to rock & roll.
I’m not saying anything bad to those guys. I love those guys. But at the time, to have background singers for a hair band was unheard of. The only people to have done it at the time were Mötley Crüe. Cinderella were the second guys that did it. They wanted some soul sisters and I didn’t look soulful enough. But when they met me and I sang they were like, “Oh, yeah. She’s soulful.”
Was it just you?
They hired me and Diane Jones. We ended up doing the entire tour. It was a blast. I had such a great time. Those guys were like brothers to me. I really loved them. Apparently, [drummer] Fred Coury was really good friends with Slash. So when the Heartbreak Station tour ended, Slash told Fred that Axl wanted to try and have females in the band. Fred was like, “We are done with our tour. Why don’t you ask Roberta if she wants to do it?”
That is how that came to be. By the time I was called by Slash, I had already been working consistently with all these substantial artists. I was, of course, thrilled to get the call from Slash, but it wasn’t the shock that some people think it might have been. The thing that surprised me more was that they wanted females. Until then, only Mötley Crüe and Cinderella had done that in that genre. I had heard about their reputation and I was prepared for a rough road of misogyny.
They’d also recently released a song where Axl used the N-word.
Yeah. Well, the thing about that is that I had never performed that song [“One in a Million”] with them. I had heard about the song. Honestly, I was so overwhelmed because when I was hired, Slash was basically like, “Just do what you want to do. We don’t have any background parts, really. I want you to be in charge of hiring the girls to sing background with you.” I was in charge of the choreography and all the vocal arrangements and the hiring.
I ended up choosing Traci Amos. When she took a small hiatus, I brought in Diane Jones to cover for her. It was a lot of stuff that I was thinking about. I wasn’t trying to overthink the job. I only knew that I wanted to do the best job that I could. I had a lot on my plate to concentrate on.
When I did hear the song, because of the way Axl treated me, which was with the utmost respect … he was always really sweet. I didn’t get a racist vibe from him, honestly. I figured, “Maybe that song is from the standpoint of racist America or something.” I kind of dismissed it.
I’ve also heard it said that they called people out when they were being racist. And he has black band members and he has black people onstage with him. He has black crew members. I didn’t get that vibe from Axl at all. I really didn’t.
They’d just recorded two fairly complex albums. Tell me about the process of helping them transfer them to the stage.
Well, I basically just went on my instincts. The songs that I arranged background vocals for were the songs that I heard in my head. I could hear the backgrounds in my head. It just seemed to make sense to me. There were some songs that already had backgrounds on them. The one with the most was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” so that was a no-brainer. But I did add my Roberta to that mix. I added a little solo in there, I must admit.
At one point, I thought I was getting in trouble for overdoing it on that solo. As the tour went on and on, I wanted to add my flavor and I’d stretch my little solo more and more. At one point, management came up to me and said, “You’re kind of doing too much there. We need you to take it back.” I think they were having that conversation with me because it was hard to read Axl. He really didn’t have a lot of communication. I think they were just trying to make him happy. Funny enough, Axl overheard the conversation that I was having. He stepped in and said, “Roberta, I love what you’re doing. Keep it up.”
That must have made you happy.
I was really pleased because up until then I had not gotten a lot of feedback from Axl. It’s a camp. I don’t know how it is now, but at the time he was kind of kept separate from the other band guys. It was hard to get in to talk to him. He didn’t really come to the rehearsals. So here I am, this new hire in charge of creating parts and choreography and all this stuff, and I don’t have feedback. Slash was really easygoing and like, “Look, Axl is the one who wants this. Whatever you think is right, just go with it.”
He was totally, totally laid back, but I wasn’t getting feedback from him. When Axl didn’t show up to rehearsals, I got really nervous like, “Oh my God. What if he doesn’t show up and he doesn’t like what we’re doing onstage? I’ll have to start from scratch.” My first night of the tour, I wanted to go in with Traci and go over the parts with him and just sing them out and let him know what my plans were. But I wasn’t allowed to do that.
I was adamant about getting in to see him and that it was important. It wasn’t like I was going in to bother him. This was an integral part of the show that he wanted me to do. I was finally able to go in. I remember sitting there with a tape player playing the record as Traci and I sang over it. Axl was just sitting there and smiling the whole time and nodding his head. I was so pleased that my boss was pleased.
That tour was famously chaotic. Shows often started very late. There were riots. How was all that from your perspective? Was it stressful?
It was stressful, but I think it just kind of became the norm. We knew that if we were slated at 8 o’clock we probably wouldn’t go on until at least 10 o’clock. At least. I remember going on at midnight sometimes. We would all go get ready, put our makeup on and get our wigs and our outfits. I’d be warmed up and stay warmed up. I’d keep doing my vocal exercises and try not to get sleepy. We had a really large stage. The stage had these little dressing rooms built under the stage. We’d entertain ourselves by playing cards. We just hung out. It was a hang.
I didn’t choose to do parts on all the songs because I knew that would be too much. I chose a certain amount of songs to do the background vocals for. Every night, Axl called out the set list. Every tour you go on, there is a printed set list. Even if it changes from night to night, it’s printed out. That wasn’t Axl’s style. We’d be sitting there under the stage, playing cards or just shooting the shit, and all of a sudden we’d hear “November Rain” and me and Traci would run up onto the stage and start doing our thing. It was exciting and very spontaneous.
That was a long tour. Did you get really exhausted by the end?
It was a long tour. I think it was two years. I did every single one of those shows. I think it was 194 shows in 21 countries. Rain or shine, we did those shows. I remember in Japan I got parasites and I couldn’t keep food down for like a month. I remember getting all ready and Axl looking at me and going, “Oh, my God, you’re green. If you don’t want to do the show, you don’t have to, Roberta.” I was like, “Nope. The show must go on. I’m going to do it.” One of the stage guys put a bucket right in back of me. You couldn’t see it on the stage, but it was there just in case I had to do what I had to do. I was terribly ill at the time.
What was the Queen tribute show at Wembley Stadium like?
That was amazing. First of all, that was the biggest crowd I had ever performed in front of at that date. Everybody was there. I was a huge Queen fan. While we were onstage, Brian May was standing behind me and I didn’t know until I turned around and I saw him. I was like, “Oh, my God.” It was a really incredible experience and it was historical. First of all, it was to celebrate this man’s life and to speak out against this horrible disease that was taking so many people we knew and loved. It was such an incredible experience. People like Liz Taylor were there and Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey.
It boggled my mind. Everywhere I looked was a face that I recognized. Even though I had worked with a lot of people at that point, it was still exciting to work with people that you have admired for many years. And that crowd was ridiculous. It was crazy. It was the first time we performed with Elton John. After that, we did the MTV Movie Awards. There were so many beautiful opportunities that Guns N’ Roses afforded me.
Can you talk a bit about “November Rain” and what makes that song so special to play live?
I remember during one of the shows, I think it was in South America, it started down-pouring during the song. That is, to me, what I hold near and dear to my heart. That was such a magical moment. Just to see the fans. Sometimes when you’re at a concert and it starts raining, people get bummed out. But it just fueled people and got them going even more. They were more excited. I remember for a brief moment thinking, “Huh, there’s a lot of electrical equipment on this stage and it’s raining pretty hard.” I don’t think anyone even cared. It was such an incredible moment. It was magical.
My favorite song though was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” because that’s the song where Axl introduced me and Traci every night. He had us coax the audience to sing along with us. That’s the song that put me on the map because people were hearing my name.
I really think Axl is one of the best rock vocalists of all time. What did you learn by just watching him work every night?
First of all, I wasn’t a real Guns N’ Roses fan when I started with them. When I got the call, obviously I had heard of them, but I wasn’t a fan. When I got on the tour, I was expecting these little bad-boy rock & rollers to be goofing off and not taking it very seriously since they were really young at the time. But I got on that tour and Axl was really serious about his vocal coach and his exercises and his discipline. He was working out and eating really healthy. He was really determined to be the best he could be. Not only that, he was singing on stage while he was running on stage. That really impressed me.
It’s one thing to stand there and dance while you’re singing, but you’re staying still enough to remain by the microphone. But Axl was running around these steep ramps built into the stage. And these weren’t small stages. He sang in the falsetto and then he had this beautiful baritone voice as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see him do what he did. It was very impressive.
In Slash’s book, he wrote that a documentary crew shot a lot of behind-the-scenes footage from the tour that’s never been seen. Do you recall that?
[Laughs] Yeah! I remember them always trying to get their cameras into the dressing room while we were getting dressed! We’d slam the door in their faces. They were filming everything. They filmed everything from being on the jet to being backstage in the green rooms, being backstage getting ready when we weren’t undressing or dressing. They were everywhere and it seemed like forever. I don’t remember if they started immediately. I think we were well into the tour when they started filming, but I remember that it was annoying at times. It felt invasive, but at the same time, they were trying to document their time. Now it’s a historical time. That was a one of the longest tours in rock & roll history to date.
Somewhere in the vault then is just endless hours of footage from this tour. Hopefully at some point they’ll turn it into a proper documentary.
Yeah. I think that would be pretty interesting.
How did things end on that tour after South America?
My understanding is that the band was having some kind of differences. They didn’t want to lose Gilby [Clarke]. And then Slash started doing the Snakepit tour with Gilby. That’s when it kind of fell apart. Obviously, the girls weren’t invited back because that was the brainchild of Axl. The guys went along with it, but they preferred to just have the guys. I think they felt having not just female background singers, but the horn section, that was too polished for them. They wanted to go back to basics. That’s how that ended.
You went out with Joe Cocker a bit later. How was that?
Oh, my God. That was amazing. I love working with people that I love and respect. When I get off a tour, I love and respect them even more. He was such a lovely man and so grateful. He was just lovely. He was such a wonderful, sweet, kind, gentle man. He was nothing but fair and it was such a pleasure working with him. He was an ultimate professional. I was expecting this madman, but that’s not what I saw at all.
You then worked with Mary Wilson of the Supremes for years. Tell me about that.
I worked with her for almost five years. That was pretty incredible too. I was working with a legend. She’d tell all these stories about the early Supremes and how they were treated and how they went to finishing school to become ladies. That’s so un–rock & roll to me. She was like my mom. “Sit up straight. Cross your legs.”
It was a really great experience. I was treated well, but it was rough at times. We were on a bus. But the fans made it so incredible because they really welcomed us. I was working with Karen Newman. She was the other Supreme. We were really considered one of Mary’s Supremes. It was a very positive experience for me to be in that kind of life and see things through Mary’s eyes.
Tell me about playing with the Pink Floyd tribute act Brit Floyd. That’s really going full circle back to your first job.
Yeah. They are a really good band and they are really, really good musicians. I got to see lots of interesting places. They do a great job at nailing Pink Floyd to a T.
There is no Pink Floyd now, so I guess groups like that are the next best thing.
That’s what fans think, I guess. They put a lot of investment into the production of the show. They have a comparable amount of lasers and media going during the show. I think it’s really important to fans that they hear it just like the record. That is what Brit Floyd does. That’s what they strive to do and they do it well.
Tell me about singing on Weezer’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle?’
I was really happy I got to do that. I got to do some featured vocals and I also got to work with one of the most legendary producers in the music industry, Dave Sitek. He’s a doll and it was a dream to work with him. He gave me a lot of freedom, which you don’t always get as a background vocalist. He really made sure that I was featured, so I have nothing but great things to say about Dave Sitek.
How are things going for you right now with the industry largely shut down?
I’m considering it to be a hiatus. I know that things are going to pick up again. I’m working with a band now called Think:EXP. That’s comprised of Scott Page, who was the sax player for Pink Floyd, Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction, and so many other great people from major bands. It’s an honor to work with them. They give me the freedom of doing all the background vocals and I’ve done all these new arrangements with a lot of women who rotate in and out.
We are still in the process of getting calls for work, but instead of right now it’s for December or next summer. We’re still working on working, but it’s just not going to be as soon as we’d all like. I should also say that I’ve recorded four albums with Nick Waterhouse and seven with Gilby Clarke. We’ve kept in touch all these years and he’s a super guy.
I never imagined I’d live in a world without concerts. It’s so crazy.
I’ve been hearing a lot about drive-ins and having the minimal amount of people onstage staying a safe distance from each other. I think we’re going to get more and more creative about how we keep concerts going. It’s not going to stop the music industry, because what’s the world without music?