Paul Rodgers Returns to His Soul and R&B Roots

The Bad Company frontman shares stories of recording in Memphis, sneaking into Graceland and flying Led Zeppelin's jet

Paul Rodgers
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Paul Rodgers
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Think of Paul Rodgers, and the durable rock hits he wrote and recorded with Free ("All Right Now," "Fire and Water") and Bad Company ("Can’t Get Enough," "Feel Like Making Love") quickly come to mind. Maybe you even remember the Firm, the band he formed in the Eighties with Jimmy Page. But Rodgers has also been a lifelong R&B and soul fan, and with The Royal Sessions, he has finally channeled that passion – and his strong, burly voice – into an entire album.

Paul Rodgers Wails on Otis Redding's 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'

Cut at Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios in Memphis, the same place where Al Green recorded many of his hits, the record finds Rodgers covering Southern soul gems – tracks like Sam and Dave’s "I Thank You," Otis Redding’s "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" and Ann Peebles’ "I Can’t Stand the Rain" – backed by some of the same musicians who recorded with Green and Isaac Hayes. "To me, this music never died," Rogers, 64, says. "I feel there’s a lot of juice in these songs. Even the sound of Free and the Bad Company was influenced by these amazing musicians back then, so I’m revisiting the songs that influenced me so strongly when I was about 14."

Rodgers hopes he can reconvene those Memphis musicians for a special Royal Sessions concert, but in the meantime, he’ll be performing some of its songs with his own band this spring. Later in the year, he’ll reunite with Bad Company for a tour pegged to the 40th anniversary of the release of their debut album.

As a kid growing up in Middlesbrough in northeast England, how did you hear Stax hits in the mid Sixties? Were they on the radio much?
You had to seek them out, actually. But I was fortunate because we used to go to a club called the Purple Onion in Middlesbrough. I saw Cream and the Spencer Davis Group there, but in between, they also played great American soul records. And that’s when I started to get interested in it, especially Otis Redding. I got turned onto his style of singing, and that’s what I wanted to emulate. I used to listen to his version of "Respect" and "Down in the Valley," and a lot of these tracks. The first record I bought was actually Booker T and the MG’s "Red Beans and Rice." I recently repurchased that on the Internet. I wondered how it would sound after all these years, and it was just as fantastic, or even better, than it was then.

Given that history, what led you to cover these songs in that studio, and what was it like being surrounded by some of the same musicians?
If want to do a really soulful album, you’ve got to do what we ended up doing, which was go to Memphis, find an original studio, find those great musicians and put them together with these great songs. When I first went in there, I was a little nervous, to be honest with you, because this is the music that influenced me so strongly. And now I’m walking into one of the studios where those records were recorded. A lot of these musicians were around at that time – a lot of them were on the Ann Peebles track "I Can’t Stand the Rain." They welcomed me, but they didn’t actually know who I was. They were only told I was a singer and songwriter coming in to do some tracks. Their approach was, "Okay, there you go. Let’s see what you can do."

That must have been an unusual situation for you. 
I had to prove myself a little bit. We kicked off with "That’s How Strong My Love Is." And from the first few bars, we were in the groove. They obviously do a lot of sessions together, and the way they play is so loose and yet so tight. We would play live on the floor. I was surrounded by a huge ensemble of amazing singers and, in one case, the strings and horns. That’s how they used to do it in the old days. 

When you covered "Walk on By," what made you choose the Isaac Hayes arrangement over the Dionne Warwick version? 
I love Dionne Warwick – she's got a fantastic voice, and I love her version. But years back, when I first heard Isaac Hayes’ version, I actually literally fell on the floor, it was so amazing. The treatment he gave it was incredible. He slowed it down and made it so heavyweight and so emotionally dripping. I loved it. And I wondered if I could ever reach a point where I could sing such a song and handle it. 

When did all of the musicians find out who you were?
I think when I started singing, then they realized, "Oh, okay, this guy. . .he knows what he’s doing."

At some point, did they make the connection, "Oh, this is the guy from Bad Company and Free"?
No, I don’t think that’s their genre. I don’t know that they’re all that aware of rock music. They do their soul thing, and that’s their focus. But the Reverend Charles Hodges, who plays a Hammond B3 like nothing I’ve ever heard, came up to me after the first day and he said, "You know, you could have a future as a singer. You should probably pursue this." And I went, "Thank you!" [laughs] I mean, it was a real compliment, because he meant it. 

Did you drop by Graceland, or had you been there before?
I have been there before. The first time I went there, I was with Free. It was back in about '69, and I went with the bass player [Andy Fraser]. At that time it was all locked up, and it was a lot quieter than it is now. There was an empty lot beside it, and I was young and stupid and said, "Let’s climb over the wall and see if we can get into the grounds." A security guy caught us halfway over the wall and brought us down. He asked us who we were, and we told him we were English and were in the band and were Elvis fans. So he said, "Jump in the car." He had this Jeep and drove us all around the place. He said, "I can’t take you inside the building, that’s Elvis’ private home." He pointed and said, "See that building there? That’s floor to ceiling with gold records." Then he took us around to the back door and dropped us off. He got rid of us that way, I guess. 

It’s amazing how enduring "All Right Now" has proven to be.
With Free we had phased out all of the blues material and wanted to phase in all original material, and the only song that stayed from our blues past was "The Hunter" by Albert King. People just loved that. And I said, "We have to write a song that will top that – otherwise, what are we doing here?" That was the birth of "All Right Now." I wanted something people could join in. I always think the audience should be part of the show. "All Right Now" is just such an easy song for everybody to sing. And it doesn’t matter how drunk you are.

Is the song still a dependable source of income for you?
It’s still a very profitable thing for Island Records. We were so young in those days, so we pretty much signed all the rights to the songs – and a couple of our grandmas, I think. So Island still owns and controls that. It grates on me a little bit, but there you are, you know? 

Looking back at Bad Company, do you wish the original band had continued longer?
When we lost John Bonham [in 1980], it was really a wake-up call. He was such a beautiful guy, and probably the greatest rock drummer we’ve ever produced so far. And to lose him just took the wind out of everyone’s sales, everyone at Swan Song. And at that time, we were on this cycle of touring, make an album, tour, make an album, tour, and it got a little grueling. And I thought, "This would be the time to step back and just regroup and figure out where to from here." So perhaps it was a good time.

Since Bad Company were on Swan Song, Led Zeppelin’s label, did you get to fly on Zep’s infamous plane, the Starship?
Yeah, it was a beautiful plane. It had four Rolls-Royce engines and used to take off at 200 miles per hour. They had taken all the seats out and refurbished it inside like a lounge in a living room. I got to actually fly the plane one time, and none of the guys [in Bad Company] knew I was. I thought, "I wonder how I can just sort of let them know that it’s not the captain that’s flying this?" So I wiggled it a little bit from left to right. And three of the members of the band come dashing up to the cockpit, "What are you doing?" At the front it wasn’t much of a nudge, but the back of the plane apparently was swinging. They were losing their drinks and hitting the sides of the walls. I’m not really a licensed pilot, so perhaps I shouldn’t even be telling these stories, but at least I didn’t dive-bomb the Fillmore or anything.

How do you look back on the Firm?
Well, with interest, actually. I still see Jimmy. Whenever I’m in England, he’ll always come to the shows at the Albert Hall or Wembley. I try to get him up for a jam, but [he says], "Next time, maybe." I’d love for him to play. It would be great, wouldn’t it? I might actually put that invite out there and see if he’ll jump on a plane and come over. I was just listening to the Firm recently, and I want to include "Tear Down the Walls." Fantastic guitar in it. I thought, "Wow, we should be playing that live." So I’m going to give it a try out and see how it feels.

Recently it came out that you had a chance to replace Jim Morrison in the Doors after Morrison died in 1971. 
I heard that well after the fact. I was recently on the same bill with a version of the Doors. Robby Krieger came up and said, "You’re not going to believe this, and you probably don’t know this because nobody does know it, so I’m going to tell you. When Jim died, all of the rest of the Doors got on an airplane and flew to England, and we were looking for you." And I said, "What? Really? What were you looking for me?" And he goes, "Well, we wanted you to be our singer." And I’m like, "Wow, really?" He goes, "Yeah, but we couldn’t find you." [Laughs] I had bought a cottage in the country, in England, miles and miles from anywhere, and I was forming Bad Company at the time. Mick [Ralphs] and I were writing songs and playing in a stable out there. Anyway, the Doors couldn’t find me, and they got into an argument. He said, "We all fell out with each other and got on separate planes and went home." Who knows what that would have been like? I don’t see myself doing that, honestly, but it’s fantastic.

You did end up filling in for Freddie Mercury in Queen for a few years. 
It was quite incredible to take this amazing production all over the world and play those songs. We actually played "Bad Company" as well, and I would rise up from under the stage on a piano amongst smoke and lasers. For the song previous to that, there’d be a great big hole in the stage ready for the piano to come up, and so we were all told very strictly by our roadies, "Do not step back into that hole." I would be halfway up – it’s a hydraulic lift – and I would start the song before I reached the main stage. So one time, I’m halfway up, and I look on the end of the piano, and there’s Brian May. He’d stepped into the edge and landed on top of the piano – still heroically playing, but completely down. I thought, "What do I do?" If you have your legs hanging out, the hydraulic is so strong, it’ll clip your toes off. So they had to do an emergency stop, jump down into what is now the well, and help him out. And we proceeded on. I mean, talk about "the show must go on."

You have to admit that story approaches Spinal Tap territory.
Well, you know, it certainly did. It’s a great story to tell. And Queen is up and running now, which was part of my plan. 

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