Single Stories: Joni Mitchell, FREE MAN IN PARIS

Thursday, September 23, 2021
Joni Mitchell performs on stage, supporting Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Wembley Stadium, London, 14th September 1974. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

It was the dawn of 1974--January, to be exact--when Joni Mitchell released sixth studio effort, Court and Spark. The album's second single, "Help Me," was a big hit, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100. It still stands as Mitchell's highest-charting song on the chart. The third and final single from Court and Spark: "Free Man in Paris."

"I wrote that in Paris for David Geffen," Mitchell explained, "taking a lot of it from the things he said" (via Joni Mitchell Library of Articles). The story goes that Geffen confided in Mitchell that while in Paris, he felt the most free; it was the one place he could be without feeling the overwhelming pressure of running a superstar record label, Asylum.

"People assume everything I write is autobiographical," Mitchell explained. "If I sing in the first person, they assume it's all about me. With a song like 'Free Man in Paris,' they attribute almost every word of the song to my personal life, somehow missing the setups of 'He said' and 'She said.'"

Court and Spark found Mitchell working with a litany of jazz musicians, as her music continued to evolve: "I had no choice but to go with jazz musicians," Mitchell revealed. "I tried to play with all of the rock bands that were the usual sections for James Taylor when we made our transition from folk to folk-rock. They couldn't play my music, because it's so eccentric. They would try, but the straight-ahead 2/4 rock & roll running through would steamroller right over it."

Among the musicians on "Free Man in Paris": guitarist Larry Carlton, bass player Wilton Felder, and Puerto Rican guitar legend, Jose Feliciano. He was recording with John Lennon in a neighboring studio when Felicano heard strains of Mitchell's song.

"I already knew Joni from when we both worked in Canada," he explained, "so I walked in and said I thought I could play some good electric guitar for it. The great guitarist Larry Carlton of the L.A. Express was already on the track, but I knew I could hold my own with him. Joni didn't try to direct me at all, just let me do what I do, and it turned out really good."

After the success of "Help Me," Mitchell had her eyes on "Car on a Hill": "I wanted to release it as a single, and [Asylum Records] fought me on it. Instead, 'Free Man in Paris' was released, which never sounded like a single to me."

Released as a single in July 1974, "Free Man in Paris" made a strong chart run, peaking at #22 on the Hot 100 for the week of September 28, 1974. Over on the Adult Contemporary chart, the track climbed as high as #2 for the week of September 21, 1974. The song that block Mitchell from #1: Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You." FUN FACT: Among the voices singing background vocals on "Free Man in Paris": Graham Nash and David Crosby.