Sometimes we don’t know that there’s a Renaissance man walking among us till years after he’s left town. Ed Freeman grew up in Belmont, became a singer-guitarist of traditional folk songs, and often played classical lute, usually in the coffeehouses along Charles Street. The Boston music scene was tight in the mid-’60s; everyone knew each other. Freeman would casually chat with Tom Rush, he’d have Son House and Skip James stay at his Cambridge apartment when they passed through town, he was pals with then-local stars Barry & the Remains.
A move to New York got Freeman off the stage and into the producer’s seat, eventually making albums with Tom Rush, Gregg Allman, Roy Buchanan, and Don McLean (including “American Pie”). Another move, this time to Los Angeles, had him performing again when his band the Joyful Noise signed to Capitol. That short-lived project, for which he also wrote folk-pop tunes, led him to a busy period of composing, arranging, more producing, and developing an interest in writing music for synthesizers and computers, as well as building recording studios and concentrating more on his hobby of photography, which is the profession he settled on.
Somehow in the middle of all of this, Freeman secured a spot in pop culture history, landing a three-week gig as a roadie for the Beatles on their final tour, which had a date at Suffolk Downs a half-century ago on Aug. 18, 1966. Freeman briefly reminisces about the tour in Ron Howard’s upcoming documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.” Now 74, he spoke about that whirlwind time and his eclectic careers by phone from Los Angeles.
Q. How did the Beatles gig happen?
A. Barry & the Remains was one of the opening acts on that tour, and I was friends with Barry [Tashian]. When they got the spot on the tour, Barry realized they’d need a roadie, which they’d never had before. He asked me if I’d like to do it, and I said sure.
Q. What were your responsibilities?
A. I was hired to be the Remains’ equipment person, which meant I would have their laundry done, make sure they got into their hotel rooms in one piece, and set up all of their equipment onstage. There were actually only three roadies on the entire tour: me, Mal Evans, who worked with the Beatles, and Mike Owen, who was the Cyrkle’s roadie. The other two acts didn’t even have roadies, so the three of us handled all of the equipment. But Mal and Mike weren’t musicians, so I ended up tuning all of the guitars. Everyone in the audience could hear me tuning the Beatles’ guitars, and I did get some applause for that.
Q. Any specific Suffolk Downs memories?
A. No. It was all such a blur. I believe we left Boston the next morning, played two shows in Atlanta in the afternoon, then slept in Cincinnati in the evening. It was an insane schedule, so there’s a lot of it I don’t remember.
Q. Why did you switch from performer to producer?
A. I was at a folk festival in Connecticut. I remember doing a 20-minute set in front of 5,000 people, and afterward I realized, as far as my own personal satisfaction was concerned, I could have spent the last 20 minutes in the bathroom, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I just didn’t care enough about performing. But I was really interested in being a songwriter. So I went to New York, wrote a bunch of songs, put together the Joyful Noise, went to Los Angeles, and we were signed to Capitol Records. But the group fell apart, and my producer, Nick Venet, decided to record me as a solo act. But I wrote arrangements for 20-piece chamber orchestra for every song. [Laughs] Nick decided I was too expensive, but he turned me into an arranger, and I went out on my own producing.
Q. So how did you end up as a fine art photographer?
A. I was producing, then I got interested in writing very avant-garde music. The more I got into that, the less I was working, because what I was writing was strange and experimental, and I wasn’t making a living. But I knew how to take pictures, which had always been a hobby. So I decided to make a living doing that, and then I could spend my spare time writing music. I fell totally in love with taking pictures, and that ended up taking up all my time. I woke up one day and realized, I’m a photographer. But I still play my Steinway in my apartment.
Q. You’ve shot landscapes, portraits, and album covers, but you’re probably best known for your underwater nudes. How are those done?
A. I dump a whole bunch of naked people in a pool. Then I hold my breath and jump in, too, wearing a 20-pound weight belt. It’s a little bit problematic because I can’t swim. A couple of times I’ve had to be rescued by my models.