During the 1980s, a lot of memorable R&B groups came and went—but Shalamar left more of a lasting impression than most. In fact, the band continues to influence R&B groups to this day.
Micki Free, a former member of Shalamar, now makes great music on his own—including a lot of Native American music. He’ll be stopping by Morongo Casino Resort and Spa on Friday, Sept. 23, with blues-rock band American Horse.
During a recent phone interview, Free discussed growing up in Germany.
“My stepfather was in the military,” Free said. “I spent probably 10 years in Germany. They usually do 2-3 years of duty, rotate back home, and they can go back out if they want. We ended up in the same place in three tours of duty in Germany, and I loved it there. It was an awesome place. We met the most awesome people because of the people who were coming into there, and to this day, I still love German food.”
While in Germany, Free discovered a lot of music.
“I was small, but I remember it was the coolest thing over there, because it was all British Invasion kind of stuff,” he said. “I was listening to the Stones, Hendrix, The Who and Steppenwolf—and that really got me into music, seeing those bands on TV on the one channel they had over there. I wanted to play guitar, and that music was my first introduction into cool music, especially Jimi Hendrix.”
Free said he at first was hesitant to join Shalamar, given that the band’s music generally went outside of his interests—but he was persuaded to join by Gene Simmons.
“Gene Simmons from KISS discovered me when I was 17 or 18 years old. At that time, I was in a three-piece band trying to emulate Jimi Hendrix,” Free remembered. “That’s what I wanted to play—I’m a blues-rock guitar-player. Shalamar asked me to be in the band, and at that time, Gene Simmons was managing me, and I didn’t know who they were. Gene and I went to Tower Records and bought a cassette and listened to it. I didn’t want to be in that band, because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. There was no way in the world I would want to play that kind of music, and I didn’t like it. Gene said to me, ‘If you join Shalamar, we can negotiate you a solo deal, and it would be like getting into a limousine instead of a taxi cab.’ Knowing Gene, I knew exactly what he meant. So I joined Shalamar. A year later, I met Prince, and we were friends for over a decade, and I won a Grammy, had a platinum record, and so on.”
Free said his experience in Shalamar was overwhelmingly positive.
“After I got into the band and became really good friends with the singer, Howard Hewett, who I’m still friends with to this day, they were an awesome R&B group rivaled by none,” Free said. “Massive Top 10 hits—they were huge. I got a taste of R&B and could appreciate it and dug it after that.
“With R&B today … if there’s any good R&B, it’s good, but it’s not like it was back in the day. Hip hop and rap dominate the charts, and the music business as I know it and did know it—it’s gone. Will it come back? I don’t think so. I moved on to what I do, which is playing blues rock with American Horse, or playing Native American flute.”
Free says that he hears a lot of ’80s R&B in modern DJs and performers such as Chromeo.
“A good mixer, also known as a DJ, goes for beats. He goes for things that people have heard before and that they like,” Free explained. “When you put all that together now, you still have to go to the kitchen cupboard and get the good ingredients—because that’s where they are. You have some good stuff coming out, but you want some good grooves—grooves with a catchy hook line that you remember, and that’s what makes those guys happening. … Do I like it? No, because it takes money out of my mouth as a live performer. Do I appreciate it? Yes, I dig it.”
Free explained his brand of Native American music.
“There are 500 nations. Every Native American nation has its own values, its own ways that they do things, and I can answer to the way I play Native American flute, being both Comanche and Cherokee,” Free said. “There’s an organic sound that I get through playing native flute, which is not a flute you play sideways like you see in concerts; it’s a wooden flute and very organic. A long time ago, I heard a flute player at a powwow, and it was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard in my life.
“So I had to play the flute. I didn’t know how; I didn’t have one, but I had to play one. Somebody gifted me a flute, and within two weeks, I was playing it well. I can play seven instruments, and I’m self-taught. My Native American music is very organic, and I can play traditional, but I play it like I do a guitar. I covered Neil Young’s version of ‘Down by the River.’ Niko Bolas, who was a producer for Neil Young, heard it and freaked out. I got in touch with Niko, and he remixed it, and it sounds amazing.”
Free’s friendship with Prince made him a subject of Charlie Murphy’s “Hollywood True Stories” on Chappelle’s Show. Murphy told a story about playing basketball against Prince and his friends—including Micki Free.
“After I joined Shalamar, people were telling me, ‘There’s a guy who is like you! He wears ruffled shirts and wears eyeliner, and his name is Prince!’ I didn’t really get into Prince, because I didn’t really care about it until the premiere of Purple Rain, which I went to,” Free said. “By then, Prince was really cool and happening. A year after that, Prince and I are meeting each other in clubs in Los Angeles and kind of became friends. I’d sit with him and listen to some of the music he would bring in to play, and from 1982-’89, we were really tight, because he spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. I’d go to his house, listen to music, watch movies … and, of course, there’s the infamous basketball game.
“That story is true. I just did an interview with ESPN, if you can believe that, and they called it ‘The Most Famous Pick-up Basketball Game in World History.’ We played basketball against Eddie and Charlie Murphy, and Prince was like Michael Jordan—he kicked butt, and then cooked us pancakes. It’s all true.
“I’m the only surviving member of ‘Team Blouses.’ Some people want to know the truth of that story, and I’m the only one who can tell that story.”
Free lost touch with Prince in the early ’90s and was devastated when he heard Prince had died.
“I was in the studio in Nashville recording my new Native American flute CD. My phone blew up, and somebody said, ‘Prince died; it’s on Facebook.’ I was like, ‘Right … Facebook. There’s so much junk on there.’ Then … certain people I know who are affiliated with him (started calling), and they’re telling me that Prince is gone, and I’m in shock. It wasn’t like I was a Prince protégé; I was just a guy who Prince met, dug, and had something in common with. We hung out for 10 years. A one-on-one meeting with Prince wasn’t like the music he gave the masses, which was awesome, but like going to church. He was very deep, very religious and he could make you feel special. The way he passed was very tragic.”
What can those who attend his show at Morongo expect? He said he has musicians coming with him who have played with Elton John, Billy Joel and John Fogerty, among others.
“They can expect to get smoked and see a good show. I’m coming with the A-Team, baby,” Free said. “It’s going to be good blues rock, and I’m going to do one song that Prince did by the Rolling Stones called ‘Honky Tonk Women’ that is so funky and so fun.
“If you haven’t seen me play, just look me up on YouTube. We’re just going to have some fun, and I’m going to take a little break, and the people are going to ask me, and I’m going to tell them about how I played basketball with Prince.”
Micki Free will perform at 10 p.m., Friday, Sept. 23, at Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, in Cabazon. Tickets are $40. For more information, call 800-252-4499, or visit www.morongocasinoresort.com.