By Brian Ives
Paul Rodgers is one of the dominant voices of the classic rock format, despite not having the personality often required for rock legend status. But what he lacked in media coverage, he more than made up for with radio airtime: Bad Company was one of the bands that the AOR (album-oriented rock) format was built on; their catalog includes an embarrassment of hits including “Can’t Get Enough,” “Rock Steady,” “Bad Company,” “Shooting Star,” “Ready for Love,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and many others.
Bad Co. weren’t Rodgers’ first big band, or his last. In the late ’60s, he got his start in Free, who were a bit more bluesy and jammy, but their discography still boasts the iconic “All Right Now.” And in the ’80s, he teamed up with Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page for the arena-headlining Firm (who enjoyed radio hits with “Radioactive” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed”).
In recent decades, he’s been a solo artist, the temporary frontman of Queen, and participated in various Bad Company reunions (they’ll be touring this summer). His latest release, The Royal Sessions, sees him returning to his roots in soul and R&B. To make the album, he went to Memphis to record at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, where the late Willie Mitchell recorded classic albums by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Bobby “Blue” Bland and more. Rodgers worked with a number of legendary Memphis musicians on the album, including Hammond organ player Reverend Charles Hodges Sr. and bassist Leroy Hodges Jr. (both of whom played on Al Green’s albums), keyboardist Archie “Hubby” Turner (who played with Memphis blues legend Albert King) and guitarist Michael Toles (whose resume includes working with B.B. King).
Rodgers is performing a one-off show with those musicians this week at New York’s Town Hall (June 19), and was more than enthused to talk about the project during a recent interview with Radio.com. A humble guy (not the norm for lead singers), he’s not even quick to point out that 100% of the proceeds from the album will be donated to the Stax Music Academy, an after school program that teaches music to middle and high school students in Memphis.
So, how long had it been since you recorded an album in analog?
It’s been a long time now! It must be twenty odd years or more. But the sound was so very good. There’s no ProTools on the entire album. It was very much live on the floor.
The guys you worked with on the album probably don’t have much use for ProTools anyway.
I don’t think so. With those guys, it’s all about the feel. And they’ve never ever forgotten that. It was wonderful to play like that with them. Thank God they’re still doing it that way. It was so great to go live to tape like that. Even tape is getting hard to find these days! It was very much worth doing.
What was it like being in that studio with those musicians?
It was a little intimidating, to be honest with you. These are the guys who were part of that whole movement in the ’60s when this music was in its prime. I’ve been heavily influenced by them all these years: they’ve influenced the songwriting I’ve done, the bands I’ve formed and the sound I’ve gone for. Even though I work in more of a “rock” vein, the roots of it all is in soul and blues. So, I was in the room with the real deal. I felt like I really had to step up my game and prove myself. We went right into, “If I was the sun, way up there…” [Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”]… after a few bars, we got into a groove and we stayed in that groove for the entire album. I was listening to this music before [I formed] Free. When I was like, fourteen, I would listen to this music in my bedroom, and I would go to clubs where we would hear lots of live bands, and in between they’d play records, and they’d play a lot of Otis Redding, a lot of Sam and Dave. Soul music.
We recently interviewed Sam Moore.
He’s so funny! He’s a great, great singer. The first time I met him was backstage at a Four Tops concert, and he comes up to me [sings] “And I feel like makin’ love!” It was fantastic! Years later, he had a jam with me, we were playing in Seattle, we did “All Right Now,” and and we got into a kind of a jam, we’re going back and forth “Yeah!” “Yeah!” “Whoa!” “Whoa!” Exchanging licks. And I actually forgot what song we were doing! (laughs) It was just fantastic, it was very exciting.
So, you got to play the role of “Dave.”
Well, everybody’s gonna try and do that with him. I sort of hesitated to do that, I thought he must get a little tired of that, really. But you can’t really resist it too much! It was great: he’s still got it going on.
When you work with people like Sam Moore, or the musicians from your album, can you on some level forget their discography and say, “These are people I’m just trying to to make music with?”
When I first met Sam, I was like a fourteen year old boy again. But you’ve kind of got to get over that. Quickly. You’ve got to get past it and do your thing and show what you can do. But they bring the best out of you.
Were the musicians on your album aware of your history?
They weren’t. They only knew that I was a songwriter that was coming in to do some sessions. It took a moment for us all to get to know each other, but it didn’t take too long. They’ve probably vaguely heard of Bad Company and Free, but they’re mostly in the soul genre, and that’s fine. I just connected with them straight away.
You’re donating the proceeds from this album.
We are. Memphis has given us so much, we thought, we’ll give all the funds back. We’re giving the funds to the Stax Music Academy. We did a big show down there for the album release party, we played our first show together with all the guys. We did six songs together. It was our first taste of playing live.
Blues and R&B seem deceptively easy to play, but it’s not easy to get it right.
It’s easy to make a mess of it! But it’s hard to get the essence of it. What those guys did, they put their soul into it. I keep saying that, but they absolutely did. But each of us has a different soul. You have to find your own interpretation in order for it to be authentic. That’s what I tried to do with The Royal Sessions, to hopefully capture something authentic. I think we did. I hope it’s a joy to hear, because it was a joy to be part of.
Another thing many vocalists fall victim to, when they’re performing blues or R&B, is over-singing.
Restraint is very important. Even now, I sometimes listen to myself and think, “I overdid that.” And so yeah, you do need to restrain myself. I learned that from people like John Lee Hooker or Otis Redding.
The press materials from the album came with a quote from your former bandmate, Jimmy Page, who said, “Paul has made a timeless masterpiece.”
That means the world. I have so much respect for Jimmy. In fact, on my solo tour, I’m doing “Tear Down the Walls,” a Firm song that we never played live. I was listening to the song and thought, “Wow! You know what: this song needs some airing!”
Has there ever been talk of a Firm reunion?
Not really, everyone’s so busy, it hasn’t ever come up. But Jimmy’s a great, friend, he always comes to the shows when we play Albert Hall. But I can’t get him to come on stage for a jam. He seems a little shy nowadays! I’d always play with Jimmy. I don’t know about getting the Firm back together exactly, but I’d love to do something.
How did you get involved with the Queen reunion in the mid-2000’s?
When I first went into that, it was going to be just for a couple of shows. And it kinda grew. It was good, I enjoyed it, they did really good versions of my songs too. But it’s amazing how quickly four years can go by! And I suddenly thought to myself, “This is not the story of my career, I have to move on to other things,” so we let it go. But they’re back up and running now, and I’m happy that they are. I think that [experience] gave them the confidence to know that they can do this, and I’m happy to help them get to where they are now.
Will you see any of their shows with Adam Lambert?
If schedules permit! Yeah. I wish him all the very best. It’s not the easiest gig in the world!
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Bad Company’s 1974 debut album. What are your memories of making that album?
The first record, it was fantastic. We had great material, a really good band and we really believed in ourselves, and we had Peter Grant as our manager [an industry powerhouse who also managed Led Zeppelin]. It turned out to be a very iconic album in retrospect. We didn’t really have an image as such. We were just four guys playing all these songs together.
That’s something that’s always struck me about you: in contrast to many of the other frontmen in England at that time — Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart — you seemed pretty low-key and didn’t have a larger than life image, you let the music do the talking, as it were.
It’s all I ever really wanted, to be honest. I’m not really a showbiz person at all. Some people embrace that, and that’s fine. It certainly sells records. But for me, I just like to keep a low profile and focus on the music and do the best shows I can.
Speaking of music, I’ve heard that you were writing a bunch of new songs that you were working on before you started The Royal Sessions.
I’ve been working with my producer, we did get sidetracked with this. We’ve written a lot of songs. We’ll get back to that later this year.
I’d read that Robbie Krieger recently told you that the Doors wanted to ask you to join after Jim Morrison died. How did you react to that?
I was gobsmacked! He said, “You probably don’t know this, but when Jim [Morrison] died, we got together and flew to England and we were looking for you, to ask you to join the band.” They couldn’t find me, and they got in an argument, and they went home. But the thing is, I don’t join bands, I form bands. I formed Bad Company, I formed Free. Queen was the only band I joined forces with, so the idea of joining a band is not something that I’d do lightly. Although I have been asked by a lot of people.