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Inductee: Chris Dedrick

Old softie: Composer and musician Chris Dedrick. Courtesy Chris Dedrick.
Old softie: Composer and musician Chris Dedrick. Courtesy Chris Dedrick.

Reason for Induction:
Nearly four decades of making pristine pop and superior schmaltz.

Citation:
The music business celebrates adolescent shock tactics and base overindulgence, so it’s no wonder that nice never gets respect. But what about all the great music that doesn’t inspire boycotts by moral guardians? Surely there’s something to be said for using a softer touch. Songwriter and arranger Chris Dedrick proves that nice music need not be namby-pamby; it might even be weirdly cool.

Dedrick’s sunny vibes began in Delevan, N.Y., a town not far from Buffalo. Chris and his siblings grew up playing hymns and folk songs in a very musical household. While earning their master’s degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, Chris, Bruce and Sandy Dedrick formed the Free Design (sister Ellen joined later). The band’s first album, Kites Are Fun, was recorded in 1967 — Chris, then only 18, handled most of the writing and arranging. Songs like the title track shone with all the daft optimism of the Age of Aquarius. Heard from today’s vantage, the results are too pretty and precise to count as kitsch; the easy-listening sensibility is always trumped by Dedrick’s musical sophistication.

Despite some regional success and guest spots on The Mike Douglas Show, the band failed to overcome such commercial liabilities as poor distribution and some of the era’s dorkiest cover art. Disillusioned by the New York scene, Chris Dedrick settled in Canada in the early ’70s. Given his penchant for the softer side, he was well matched with clients and collaborators such as Anne Murray, the Canadian Brass and the Star-Scape Singers. Dedrick also succeeded as a composer for film and TV, winning a Gemini award for his work on Road to Avonlea and a Genie for the wondrously loopy score to The Saddest Music in the World. When Don McKellar needed a soundtrack of sunny retro-pop for his recent film Childstar, the director — an avowed Free Design fan — knew there was only one man for the job.

Counterculture lite: The Free Design. Courtesy Light in the Attic Records and Productions.
Counterculture lite: The Free Design. Courtesy Light in the Attic Records and Productions.

Meanwhile, the cult of Dedrick’s old band grew. After decades of neglect, the Free Design was being namedropped by Beck and Cornelius; in 2001, Stereolab released a single bearing the band’s moniker. All seven Free Design albums — including Sing for Very Important People, a daffy children’s album that confirms Dedrick’s lack of counterculture cred — have since been reissued, along with two EPs of remixes by admirers such as Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian and Beatles re-arranger DJ Danger Mouse.

Capitalizing on the interest, Dedrick reunited with siblings Sandy and Bruce in late 2000 to make a new Free Design album at his place in the countryside north of Toronto. Released nearly 30 years after the Free Design’s last album, Cosmic Peekaboo sounds nice — very nice. Songs have titles like Springtime and Perfect Love; there are flute solos. If there are elevators in the hereafter, this is what they’ll play. There’s nothing here that would run afoul of a church group. Unabashed in its sweetness, Dedrick’s music is a call for the softies of the world to unite.

Jason Anderson is a Toronto writer.

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