Micki Free certainly remembers the first time he met Houston Local-Boy-Done-Good Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top at the Hard Rock Café in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The pair convened for lunch; the meal brokered by his guitar tech Sammy Sanchez, who also worked for Gibbons. A well-known obsessive guitar collector, Gibbons had apparently admired one of Free’s rare, snakeskin-covered axes (designed by Sanchez) that was mounted on the wall. And he wanted to meet the man who had played it.
“Dude, he came down to lunch in his pajamas with a sport coat on!” Free laughs on a Zoom interview from his home. “And from that lunch, we became good buddies. We flew the next day to the Bahamas and recorded at Compass Point Studios. We also did a lot of carousing for four or five days.”
It was during one of those recording sessions when Free says the Bearded One quietly sidled up to him and said—out of the blue—that they needed some guacamole. Right then.
“I’m gonna go in the kitchen and you’re going to do the first solo. When I come back, it’s going to be lunchtime!’” Free says with a near-perfect impression of Gibbons' calm drawl before slipping back into his own voice. “I love Billy! I just love his energy and his heart. And I learned a lot about my tone from him.”
The past two years have kept Micki Free and his band mostly off the road. But it gave him plenty of time to continue writing songs that he’d already started, and the result is a new 14-track record, Turquoise Blue (Dark Idol).
And while the dominant sound is heavy blues rock, Free also extends into other sounds and styles perhaps more than he has ever before on a solo release. A lineup of heavy-hitter guests includes guitarists Gary Clark Jr., Steve Stevens, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.
“I had some stuff already going and when the pandemic hit, there was nothing you could do but stay inside and drink and write…and drink and write. So that’s what I did!” Free laughs. “I think it’s the best record I’ve ever written. I really wanted to explore some eclectic things. I am a blues rock artist, but I wanted to show I could do much more. It’s a full, rounded Micki Free record.”
Two of the tracks were immediately influenced by the events of the past couple of years, “Bye 2020,” and “World on Fire,” the latter inspired by repercussions from the murder of George Floyd.
“The year 2020 bitch slapped us with COVID and all those people dying. And we don’t want to see it anymore!” he says. “And ‘World’ was about the riots and burning of our cities.”
That track also features Blackman-Santana, a former bandmate of his from Micki Free’s American Horse Trio who now plays with husband Carlos Santana in his needs-no-introduction group. Free’s very Santana-style playing here is a tribute to his friend and influence. Though perhaps it’s too good. He says some people have insisted to him that it must really be Carlos playing!
The sole cover is the Bob Dylan-penned classic rock standard “All Along the Watchtower,” of which Jimi Hendrix’s cover is the most famous of hundreds of versions. Hendrix is Free’s earliest musical idol, having been taken to one of his concerts as a child by an older sister. An event that would seemingly set his entire life and career path going.
Free says he wanted to “stay true to Jimi’s vibe” and not just try to copy his fretwork. “There wasn’t any hesitation in recording it. I had covered ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ on my last album and smoked that shit!” Free laughs. He recalls playing London’s Hyde Park for about 100,000 people at a festival where his band’s special guest was former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman, who of course knew Hendrix personally.
“As I’m walking off the stage after, he said to me [and here Free puts on a posh English accent] ‘You’ve got a lot of fucking nerve and balls playing that song in Jimi’s town, but you fucking rocked it!’ I was so happy! Hendrix means everything to me. The vibe, the clothing, the tone with those long sexy bends and the swagger.”
On the sartorial side, Free readily admits he (like his Crown of Thorns bandmate Jean Beauvoir and Steven Van Zandt) love to “dress” the part of The Rock Star. There’s lots of scarves and bandanas, baubles and bangles, leather and hats to his look.
“It’s in my blood. I’m a living wardrobe rack!” Free laughs. “My style comes from the ingestion of Hendrix and the Stones in the ‘70s. Keith Richards was so cool! Me and Joe Perry [of Aerosmith] were talking about this. It’s how we feel, and we don’t fucking care if other people like it or not.”
Another early mentor who became a friend (and we also well known for his Rock Star Outfits) was Gene Simmons of KISS. The Demon had singled him out after Free’s band at the time, Smokehouse, opened some shows for KISS. Simmons was “kind of managing” Free in 1983 when he was offered a slot in the R&B/dance funk band Shalamar. And while Free says he was hesitant at first, Simmons’ even then well-honed business sense made him change his mind.
“I asked Gene ‘Who the fuck is Shalamar?’ I didn’t know!” Free says. “So, he said we should go to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. We bought a cassette, Bob, a cassette! And we put it in Gene’s Rolls-Royce and listened to it. I said, ‘I don’t want to play this music!’ And Gene—with real wisdom—said we’d negotiate a solo deal as well. Then he told me it would be like getting into a limousine instead of a cab on your first outing. And I’ve never forgotten that!”
Shalamar is best known for the No. 17 hit “Dancing in the Sheets” from the movie Footloose. The group also placed “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills” on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the movie Beverly Hills Cop. During the Zoom, Free’s triple platinum record awards for both soundtracks hang on the wall behind him—and they’ve sold millions more since then.
Gene Simmons of KISS with Micki Free in Las Vegas.
Photo by Ben Robertson
He also says he learned a lot from his time in the band and was even approached by Prince to be in his (never made) follow up movie to Under the Cherry Moon, something called The Cocoa Boys.
“I enjoyed my time in Shalamar and learned a lot. Howard Hewett, the singer, is one of my best friends to this day. And I still play with them when they need me. We have the best time and the best laughs,” Free says.
But he left Shalamar in 1991 as his personal tastes always laid with a harder-edged blues rock, which he explored with Beauvoir in Crown of Thorns, interspersed with a solo career.
Free is of mixed blood Native American descent—specifically Comanche and Cherokee. He says he was never pegged as a “Native American guitar player” or wore that badge on his sleeve.
But nowadays, he’s become a voice and advocate for indigenous peoples, giving keynote speeches on the subject and even working directly with the Seminole tribe and their association with the Hard Rock Café chain and casinos. That also included helming Seminole Star Search and Seminole music camps.
“I show the kids if I can do it, they can do it. In the Seminoles, there were a lot of what I call ‘black fingernail kids.’ They were into Goth music. No one would associate with them, and they were shunned,” he offers. “Then I showed them I was like them, and they could make it too.” Of equal pride and importance will be an event scheduled to take place on November 19 when Micki Free will be inducted into the Native American Music Hall of Fame.
As for the future, Free hopes that with the gradual lifting of COVID fear and restrictions, he hopes to tour more, and will be leaving for Canada next week to woodshed playing the entirely of Turquoise Blue at a “dive” in Calgary called the Blues Can, his favorite club north of the border.
“It’s going to get back, and it needs to. Wish us luck! I lost my ass in 2020 and 2021 with no shows,” Free laughs. “I couldn’t buy any new boots or hats!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.