SONG: Mojo Black Coffee
"The man, Micki Free, is a multi-talented maker of mad machinations in a most mesmerizing manner. Mercy! Git it on, Micki..."
- The Rev. Billy F. Gibbons, ZZ Top
Chances are you've heard Micki Free play guitar before - and remembered it, even if you didn't know it was him.
It might have been on Shalamar's Top 20 smash "Dancing in the Sheets" from the Footloose soundtrack, or its Grammy Award-winning "Don't Get Stopped in Beverly Hills" from Beverly Hills Cop. Or maybe it was with Crown of Thorns, the hard-hitting band he and the Plasmatics' Jean Beauvoir fronted during the early '90s. Or perhaps it was on albums by Janet Jackson and Wendy O Williams.
Suffice to say the guy's been around awhile. And now, after five years of making award-winning and spiritually enriching Native American flute music, Free is back and rockin' with American Horse, a fierce thoroughbred of an album whose 11 tracks remind us of the singular musical talent he possesses.
"This is a real rock album, and I'm very proud of it," says Free. "I was just inspired to write some cool rock stuff again. To me, rock 'n' roll is dead as we know it, there's some cool music out there, but it's not rock 'n' roll, classic stuff like we used to know - Zep, Hendrix, Cream, all of that. That's what I do. My heart is in rock 'n' roll, and that's what's on this album."
American Horse starts at a gallop with the bluesy attack of "Wounded Knee," a heartfelt paean to the 1890 incident that Free, whose bloodline comes from the Comanche and Cherokee tribes, reprises at the end of the album with a "warrior version" of the song. "New York New York" and "Lucky #7" are blazing, straightforward rockers, while "Drowning Pool" recalls the droning ambience of Robin Trower and certain Led Zeppelin songs. Free delves into Texas-style slide playing on "Black Moon Rising" and visits the Mississippi Delta on "Angels in the Room," and then changes the pace with the melodic, rootsy gentleness of "Heather's Arms" And, of course, it wouldn't be a Micki Free album without a nod or two to his hero, Jimi Hendrix, which he does twice on a coupling of the little-known "Hey Baby" with "New Rising Sun" and a ferocious, 17-minute "Voodoo Chile Blues" that was recorded in one take at Nashville's Quad Studios with bassist David Santos (Billy Joel, John Fogerty) and drummer Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz, Rachel Z).
"This is what I do," Free explains. "I ain't following no rules. This is how I do it, and you can dig it or not. I'm happy with it. That's what I'm saying on this record."
Truth be told, Free has always forged his own path, driven by spirit and passion rather than rote music biz conventions.
Born in West Texas, he grew up mostly in Europe where his stepfather, an Army sergeant, was stationed and where Free was introduced to rock 'n' roll. "I wasn't a Beatles guy," he recalls now. "I dug the Beatles, but I heard Hendrix and Cream and the Stones and that was it. I'm more of a bad-boy guy, I guess." Free was moved to start playing himself after getting a chance to see Hendrix play live in Germany, with tickets his father was given by a colleague that he subsequently passed on to one of Free's five sisters, who took him along to the show.
"It just blew my mind," he remembers. "We sat in the third row and (Hendrix) walked on stage in pink bellbottoms, looking really cool. He started warming up, and then he said, "This song's for the lady in the pink panties in the front row, and busted into 'Foxy Lady.' And I was like, "Oh, hell I gotta be a guitar player."
Free started playing guitar shortly after that, playing Johnny River's Secret Agent Man over and over until it got on his sisters' nerves and they told him to learn something else. "I tried to take a lesson once," he says with a laugh. "They were teaching me 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' and I was like, "No way. I want to learn 'All Along the Watchtower! So I just started listening to records and learned to play guitar that way."
The family relocated to Illinois when Free was a teenager. He formed a band, Smokehouse, that played shows with Ted Nugent, Rush, REO Speedwagon, KISS and a nascent Cheap Trick, with the 17-year-old Free earning a reputation as something of a six-string prodigy on the Midwest scene. KISS' Gene Simmons was so impressed that he told Free, " You're a star. If you ever get to L.A., look me up."
Free headed west in 1979, and after sleeping on girlfriends'' floors and hanging out at the famous Rainbow bar, he eventually did hook up with Simmons again - a chance meeting at a studio where both happened to be working. Free wound up going on tour and being managed by Diana Ross, Simmons' then-girlfriend, and after coming off the road he was offered membership in Shalamar; though his initial instinct was to turn it down, Simmons counseled Free that "if you join this band it will be like getting into a limo instead of a cab right now." Free took the gig and didn't look back. "I won a Grammy Award with them, so it was obviously the right move," he says.
Free won further notoriety when comedian Dave Chappelle put together a Chapelle's Show skit poking fun at the guitarist's long-haired good looks, mistaking him for a woman before finally declaring that "Micki Free is not a girl!" "I became infamous overnight," Free says.
After Shalamar, Free hooked up with Beauvoir, who had been playing with Little Steven Van Zandt's Disciples of Soul, in Crown of Thorns, which was managed by Amazing Management (Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) and produced by Jean, Micki and Paul Stanley. After a pair of albums in that configuration, Free decided to go solo with 2002's Black Moon, Black Sun, the first of his two solo rock albums. 2002's Gypsy Cowboy was nominated for seven Native American Awards (Nammys), which named him "Best Male Artist of the Year" in 2002. Onetime Cheap Trick bassist Jon Brant was part of his Micki Free Electric Blues Experience, while Free's path also led to work with LA & Babyface, Queen's Roger Taylor, the late Tony Thompson of Chic, former Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin and others.
More Nammys followed after Free decided to "follow the red path" of his heritage and embrace Native American flute music, starting with 2003's The Sun Chaser. A varied group of projects also included a role as Tonto in 2003 WB pilot for a new version of The Lone Ranger and a spot with the Spirit of the West Riders in the Tournament of Roses Parade, atop his paint horse Ty-ee.
Free's return to rock came in 2004 after he had moved to Sedona, Ariz., and was approached by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which had purchased Hard Rock International and invited Free to first be one of its grand opening performers - "I thought they wanted flute music", they said, "Forget that, we want you to play your Micki Free stuff," and then its Director of Promotion and Special Events, which has made him a worldwide ambassador for Hard Rock International and The Seminole Tribe of Florida.
It's also given Free the opportunity to create the Native Music Rocks label for Native American artists, many of which he has produced himself.
It was a ZZ Top gig at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, FL, that led to the first step in Free mounting American Horse . He met Billy Gibbons that night, and the bearded icon, "One of my favorite guitar players of all time,"not only gave Free one of his Billy Bo guitars but also suggested they repair to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to do some recording with mutual friend Terry Manning. Their recordings as GFM are in the vaults until the trio has the proper time to promote them, but Free was "inspired" to take his axe back into the studio and make his own new rock album.
With American Horse out of the stable, Free is ready to take his current Electric Blues Experience on the road, featuring drummer Cindy Blackman, doing what he does best.
"Seeing us live is one of the best things, besides my songs," Free says. "For this kind of record, you have to go out and play live. It really comes to life out there. I come from the school where you've got to go play for the people. That's the only way to do it, man, so I can't wait."