The "free ride" can be literally interpreted as a road trip, but it's really about a spiritual journey. The song was written and sung by Dan Hartman, who had recently joined the Edgar Winter Group, but Winter added the lyrics:
We got to do better, it's time to begin
You know all the answers must come from within
The song offers salvation of sorts, with Hartman offering us direction when we don't know where to turn:
So I've come here to give you a hand
And lead you into the promised land
The song isn't an endorsement of a specific religion, but a call to look inside ourselves for answers. Winter was trying to make that message more clear in the lyrics he added.
Edgar Winter played Woodstock before he even released an album. That's because his older brother, Johnny Winter, was a celebrated blues guitarist who used Edgar in his band. When Edgar struck out on his own in 1970, it was with a horn-heavy band he assembled for his first album. His next two albums were with a group he called White Trash, which had more jazz leanings. In 1972, he started clean with a new band: the Edgar Winter Group. Dan Hartman, who was in a Pennsylvania band called the Legends, was his first recruit. Hartman had already written "Free Ride" (which is one of the reasons Winter wanted him), so it was one of the first songs this new group recorded.
Hartman played guitar on the album version of the song, with Randy Jo Hobbs on bass and Johnny Badanjek on drums (when the group fully formed, it was with Ronnie Montrose on guitar, Chuck Ruff on drums, and Hartman on bass). Speaking with Songfacts, producer Rick Derringer said that on the single version, which they recorded later, he played lead guitar.
Winter was adept at keyboard, synthesizer, saxophone and drums. On "Free Ride," he played a Hohner clavinet, which is what Stevie Wonder played on Superstition
. Winter generated the wind sounds with his new toy: an ARP 2600 synthesizer, the instrument featured on the album's big hit, "Frankenstein
This was released as the first single from the album, but it went nowhere. After "Frankenstein" went to #1, "Free Ride" was released again, this time going to #14 in America. The song lived on as a radio favorite. A familiar, upbeat, 3-minute rock song with pop appeal, it didn't get overplayed the first time, so listeners never tired of it when it returned.
This was produced by Rick Derringer, who produced the entire They Only Come Out at Night as well as Winter's previous two albums. When Ronnie Montrose formed his own band in 1973, Derringer stepped in as guitarist for the Edgar Winter Group.
Dan Hartman is credited as the only songwriter on this track even though Edgar Winter made some contributions. Winter didn't get greedy, knowing that Hartman made some contributions to tracks that were credited to Edgar alone.
Ford used this in 2015 commercials to promote its "Free Ride Sales Event." It was also used in a spot for the 2020 Amazon Prime Video show Troop Zero.
"Free Ride" is a popular pick for movies. Here are some films that have used it:
A Dog's Way Home (2019)
Ways to Live Forever (2010)
Jack Frost (1998)
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Air America (1990)
Dan Hartman recorded his own version for his 1979 solo album Relight My Fire
. His biggest hit came in 1984 with "I Can Dream About You