By Mark Parsell | Photography courtesy of FreeWorld
FreeWorld will rock Memphis this month as the legendary group celebrates 30 years together with a new CD and special anniversary performances.
The Band FreeWorld is the embodiment of Memphis’ musical diversity, blending funk, jazz, soul, blues and psychedelic rock. If you’ve lived in Memphis for any amount of time, you’ve likely seen their shows at one of the clubs on Beale Street.
When asked about the secret to keeping it together for 30 years, bandleader Richard Cushing said, “Slow and steady wins the race… it seems to actually work in real life. Professional perseverance coupled with having fun and sharing the love seems to keep us and our fans coming back for more.”
The group has released several critically acclaimed albums but its reputation has been built upon live performances, including the Beale Street Music Festival, which they kicked off again this past May.
“FreeWorld has done approximately 6,000 gigs if you include our acoustic side-project gigs since our inception in 1987,” said Cushing, who is also co-producer, co-songwriter, musical director, business manager and adjunct historian. “I firmly believe that if something is going to last 30 years, there has to be some real value in it.”
Memphians see them as a local band, but they have shared the stage with many big national acts. These include Levon Helm, Billy Preston, Richie Havens, Blues Traveler, Derek Trucks, Hot James Cotton, Jimmie Vaughan & Double Trouble, Susan Tedeschi, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and Widespread Panic among others.
The spiritual leader of the band, 87-year-old saxophone legend Dr. Herman Green has himself played with many Blues, Jazz, and Rock ‘n’ Roll greats, such as B.B. King, Miles Davis and Bob Weir. Both FreeWorld and its long-time trumpet man William “Nokie” Taylor have Brass Notes dedicated to them on historic Beale Street.
The band donated a collection of items relating to the its legacy to the history department of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center in 2005. The FreeWorld Collection is comprised mainly of press releases, recordings, photos, posters and documents outlining the band’s development. In addition to the history of FreeWorld, the chronologically arranged collection gives insight into the local Memphis music scene from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.
Every week, FreeWorld plays to a combination of tourists from all over the world, old-school enthusiasts, and young fans. Many learned of the group through word-of-mouth or discovered the music online or on local radio, such as “Memphis Made” on Rock 103.
“It’s nice to be around long enough now that we’re naturally creating a second generation of FreeWorld fans,” Cushing said.
Currently the band consists of Cushing on bass guitar, lead and backing vocals; Dr. Herman Green, tenor sax; Pete Climie, tenor saxophone, backing vocals; Andy Tate, guitars, lead & backing vocals; Jared Dover, trumpet, trombone, lead and backing vocals; Freedman Steorts, trombone, lead and backing vocals; Chris Stephenson, keyboards, lead and backing vocals; Greg Lundy, drums; and David Skypeck, drummer emeritus and lyrics.
Drummer Emeritus Skypeck, who had a stroke last year, was one of the recipients of “Music Heals,” organized by Memphis Entertainment photographer Danny Day. “When I mentioned to Richard that David was going to be one of our honorees, the band found time to play even with multiple shows elsewhere that night,” said Day. Skypeck is recovering well and can be seen often at FreeWorld shows.
Haven’t seen FreeWorld recently? There are plenty of opportunities as they play every Sunday night at Blues City Cafe on Beale Street and every Thursday night at The Blind Bear downtown. In addition, they play on Saturday afternoons at Central BBQ downtown, and frequently at Rum Boogie on Beale Street on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s truly humbling to look back over thousands of live performances, hundreds of band members, countless records, dozens of international tours, innumerable family, friends and benefactors that have supported us over all of these years. We take very seriously the honor and privilege of representing Memphis’ unique musical heritage through our weekly shows,” added Cushing.
With the CD release, the 30th Anniversary celebration and a full bill of performances every week, the question was posed to Cushing whether they ever think about slowing down.
“No way!” replied the energetic leader of the band. In fact, during an extended celebration, FreeWorld will release a new studio album,“What It Is” with shows Friday, October 13 at The Levitt Shell, Saturday, October 14 at The Bluff, and Sunday, October 15 at Blues City Cafe. More details are available on the band’s website, freeworldjams.com, and on its Facebook page.