Bassist/vocalist Richard Cushing and drummer David Skypeck were playing with The Moonlight Syncopators every Wednesday night at Lafayette’s Corner on Beale Street in August of 1986. The band featured a horn section, but by November horn players Sal Crocker and Scott Thompson had left the band. One night, the band was surprised by the unexpected guest appearances of veteran jazz saxophonist Herman Green and Stax trumpeter William “Nokie” Taylor. That initial jam session led to a number of subsequent collaborations and in September of 1987, Cushing and trumpeter Willie Waldman approached Green about forming a new band. They were joined by guitarist Clint Goodwin (later Wagner), keyboardist/vocalist Ross Rice, and Jimmy Ellis on drums and vocals. Together with sound technicians Michael Kearney and Dave Aron from Sun Studio and Vince Pratt, who also occasionally played rhythm guitar, the band soon became a local favorite.
FreeWorld played its first gigs at The South End, a restaurant on the corner of Front and Calhoun, in October of 1987. Their initial set lists were made up of an eclectic mix of songs by other performers, but it was not long before the band members began writing original material. FreeWorld’s first CD was recorded and co-produced by Daniel Pfeiffer at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee from late 1991 through mid-1993. By that time, the core lineup had evolved to include Cushing, Green and Skypeck, guitarist/vocalist Chuck Sullivan and percussionist Leopoldo “Rico Rumba” Lopez. The self-titled CD was a local hit and provided the band with ample opportunities to perform both locally and regionally. FreeWorld gained broader exposure over the next few years touring incessantly throughout the Southeastern United States, as well as embarking on two European tours in 1993. The band then expanded to include trumpeter Steve Dolan and a second saxophonist, Art Edmaiston, but unfortunately, it also began to unravel as their frenzied touring pace wore on some of the members. Eventually Sullivan and Lopez left, and guitarist Brian Overstreet and keyboardist/vocalist Parker Card were enlisted to take their places.
In July 1996, the band released You Are Here, produced by well-known studio veteran Jim Gaines. Gaines began his recording career at Stax in Memphis and later worked with Santana, Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Van Morrison, Steve Miller, Huey Lewis & The News, Bruce Hornsby, and Journey. The new CD brought the band even greater critical acclaim and continued success which led to band members being presented numerous Premier Player Awards by the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
Perpetual personnel changes and frequent guest artist appearances have consistently characterized the band throughout the years. By 1997, Parker Card and Art Edmaiston had left the band, and trombonist Prentice Wulff-Woesten was added to the line-up. Over the years, guest artists have included Bono from U2, Levon Helm from The Band, Stax great Steve Cropper, The Memphis Horns, Phineas, Jr. and Calvin Newborn, James Cotton, Ace Cannon, guitar genius Shawn Lane, Artimus Pyle from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jon Fishman and Page McConnell of Phish, Eric Gales and his brother Little Jimmy King, violinist Peter Hyrka, Kenny Neal, Ivan Neville, and George Coleman among many others.
After a decade FreeWorld was as active as ever, averaging nearly three hundred live performances a year. Despite their busy touring schedule, they continued to write and record new music. Diversity, which featured guest appearances by numerous friends, was recorded in 1999 at the famed Easley-McCain recording studio and produced by Ross Rice. FreeWorld was then voted one of the city’s best bands in the 2000 Memphis Flyer’s “Best of Memphis” reader’s poll. In 2003 they released Live from Memphis, co-produced by FreeWorld and Kevin Houston. The band’s lineup at that time included Cushing, Green, Skypeck, Overstreet, Dolan and Josh Degges on alto saxophone, with occasional appearances by Wulff-Woesten, Nokie Taylor, and both Ross Rice and Paul Brown on keyboards. They followed that by releasing the CD single Save Our Soul in 2005, recorded at Willie Mitchell’s world famous Royal Recording Studio here in Memphis, with Hope Clayburn replacing Josh
Degges on saxophone, and featuring special guest artists James Govan on lead vocals and Rick Steff on Hammond B3 organ. There have also been numerous side projects, as well as outside collaborations and the promotion of up and coming acts.
While continuing to be important recording artists and performers in their own right, FreeWorld members have also worked as movers and shakers behind the scenes helping their fellow Memphis musicians within the local music community. Band members, most notably Richard Cushing, have been active in local music organizations such as NARAS and the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission. Their efforts are a benefit to all musicians in our community and will certainly leave an indelible mark on the history of Memphis music.
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