In 1985, Micki Free found himself at the center of what would become television history: a pick-up basketball game involving Prince and Charlie Murphy. It’s a game that has become embedded into pop culture thanks to the 2003 Chappelle’s Show sketch, which depicted Prince as a basketball-crushing beast that ran Charlie and his famous brother Eddie Murphy off the hard court.
“Being around Prince was surreal,” remembers Free, a 61-year-old blues rock guitarist, who is set to drop his upcoming album Tattoo Burn Redux in May. Free was among the rare few allowed inside the late music superstar’s closed-off entourage. It was the decade of decadence, and Prince was on one of pop music’s most storied runs with such landmark albums like Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. Meanwhile, the Grammy-winning Free had re-vitalized the R&B group Shalamar, injecting the act with a rock and roll swag that hit its apex with the 1984 top 20 crossover single “Dancing in the Sheets.”
In Prince, Free found a freaky kindred spirit. They both wore makeup and high heels, and absolutely shredded guitars. The pair instantly clicked, and when Prince held court in Los Angeles, the multi-platinum behemoth made sure that Free was in the mix. From 1983 to 1989, whenever Prince was on the West Coast, he’d call up Free. “But I knew that he was on another level,” Free admits of immense depths of Prince’s musical gifts. On April 21, 2016, Prince tragically died at the age of 57 of an accidental drug overdose.
“It was a loss of one of my idols,” said Free, who took part in a May 17 tribute to Prince this past March at SXSW with The Purple One’s bandmates Andre Cymone and Dez Dickerson. “Prince was like a glowing star in the universe of music. I was blessed just to be around him.”
Free shared some of his favorite stories with Esquire.com.
On Prince’s fashion tips:
Hanging out with Prince was just like hanging out with Jimi Hendrix. It was [that] crazy. Prince had a house in Beverly Hills. He would come into town, and his bodyguard Gilbert [Davidson] would call me and say, “Prince wants you to come out to Tramps,” or whatever club he was at. When Prince and I would hang out in the clubs, we would be surrounded by a million girls. [Laughs] I would go out and meet him and he would already have [early 12-inch pressings] of his new songs like “When Doves Cry,” “17 Days,” and all the killer B-sides. And he would play them in the club to see how they would sound.
There was one time where I was coming into this club, and I had my suits made from the same people that made his suits. And I had my boots made from the same guy that made Prince’s boots. So I was coming into the club with my then wife, Teri Copley, an actress from the ’80s who had her own TV show. Prince was leaving the club, and he walked up to me— I thought I was looking sharp! And he looks straight at me and says, “Hmmm… You only missing one thing.” And Prince took out a pair of red panties from his suit, which I still have to this day, and put them into my pocket! He pat them and said, “Now, you are looking good.” And he strutted on out. Crazy times.
Sunrise in Prince’s studio
Prince’s staff would call me and say, “Meet Prince at Sunset Sound,” which is a very famous recording studio in L.A. I would go to the studio, and he would already be jamming with his band. One time I walked in, and there was [Morris Day of the Time], Sheila E., Prince…and Miles Davis was there! And Prince gave me the bass and was like, “You playing bass tonight.” And I’m like, “Prince, I ain’t no bass player.” And he just turns to me and says, “I need that bottom, Free, I need that bottom… Come on now.”
You have to understand that Prince literally slept in the recording studio. He had a bed at Sunset Sound, so he would work all night and sleep there. His cook was on call—the girl that made his famous pancakes. [Laughs] I remember it was getting so late with Prince jamming one night, and I was so tired. It was probably four in the morning, and Sheila was playing timbales and Prince was playing drums. And I was playing the bass and I was starting to slack. Prince looks at me and goes, “Uh uh, I need that bottom. Free, give me that bottom!”
It was grueling. I wanted to go home so bad and go to sleep. But that’s the kind of guy he was. I was star struck. One moment Sheila would be playing drums during a jam and then Prince would say, “Oh, let me show you… No, not like that.” He would get on the drum set, and forget about it. He could pick up anything: keyboards, guitar, bass, play piano, timbales…and be that bad.
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Basketball games and blouses
Charlie Murphy wasn’t lying. Everything that happened in that [“True Hollywood Stories” sketch] was for real. We went back to Prince’s house after the club. It was 1985, and there was a bunch of girls with Eddie [Murphy], myself, Charlie—rest in peace—and some other guys. And out of nowhere Prince says, “Do you guys want to play basketball?” Me and Charlie and Eddie are looking at each other like, what the hell? And Prince goes, “Me, Micki, and Gilbert against you, Eddie, and Uncle Ray.”
We played three-on-three. I don’t remember if we changed our clothes, but I know for certain that Prince did not change his. He didn’t gear up to play. If anything changed beyond the blouses, it was his heels. Prince changed into some tennis shoes. All I remember is when Prince made that first shot, it was all-net. I’m looking at him make shot after shot, like, “What the hell?” Then at the end they really did make us pancakes—blueberry pancakes. And they were good! Hanging out with Prince was magical.
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