By Lee Zimmerman
If Paul Rodgers had only accomplished one thing in his life musically, he’d still be a superstar. It’s to his credit then that after making his mark with Free, he went on to produce hit after hit and attain international success with Bad Company. Yet his track record didn’t stop there. He formed the short-lived groups The Firm with Jimmy Page and The Law with drummer Kenney Jones, made a series of stunning solo albums that bask in the blues, and then took the helm of Queen following the passing of singer Freddie Mercury. A remarkable vocalist and an exceptional frontman, Rodgers is responsible for the sales of over 90 million records throughout his career, and yet remains a modest man, an artist who readily expresses his appreciation for his forebears and those who blazed the trail before him. His Royal Sessions and Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute To Muddy Waters albums are but two examples of that devotion, each offering tributes to the southern soul and R&B that first inspired him and so many of his peers during the musical renaissance that was Britain in the mid- to late-‘60s.
Over the course of that ever-prolific career, which began with the Roadrunners, (later renamed the Wildflowers, it included guitarist Micky Moody, later of Whitesnake, and Bruce Thomas, future member of Elvis Costello and The Attractions), Rodgers has performed with a virtual who’s who of other icons, among them, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Brian May, David Gilmour, Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Slash, Nils Lofgren, Jimmie Vaughan, Levon Helm, Charlie Watts, Steve Vai, Neal Schon, Bryan Adams, Sam Moore, The Four Tops and others.
Not surprisingly, especially in light of his past returns, Rodgers’ latest endeavor takes the form of a salute to Free and Bad Company. Spawned from a series of U.K. shows revisiting the music of Free under the banner of “Free Spirit,” Rodgers reprises his early catalog as part of a U.S. tour dubbed “Stars Align” alongside Jeff Beck, Ann Wilson of Heart and Deborah Bonham. The 20-date tour began in July and will coincide with the release of Free Spirit: Celebrating the Music of Free, a CD/Bu-Ray/DVD/vinyl/digital set capturing a Free Spirit performance.
Goldmine spoke to Rodgers from his home in rural British Columbia and took the opportunity to discuss his accomplishments which lead from past to present.
GOLDMINE: We’ll start by asking how did the Free Spirit shows in the U.K. come about?
PAUL RODGERS: We played a couple of charity shows in the U.K. for Willow Animal Sanctuary and Animal Assisted Therapy Unit whose motto is people helping animals helping children. Pete (Bullick), our guitarist, his wife Deborah Bonham, and my wife Cynthia were all patrons. The band just nailed the material and I promised them that one day we would tour it. And we did. We called it “Free Spirit.” I didn’t want to call it “Free,” because that wouldn’t be quite accurate. A lot of the original members aren’t around anymore, but I do think they captured the spirit. So Free Spirit, that’s what it is. We toured in the U.K. and had a wonderful experience. It was the warmest experience I ever had touring. It was just a small theater tour around England, and I decided I wanted to bring it to the U.S. this summer.
GM: Does the material consist exclusively of Free songs?
PR: Well it did in the U.K. but I was told that in the States they’ll expect Bad Company hits like “Shooting Star,” “Ready for Love” as well, so I think ultimately it will be 50 percent Free and 50 percent Bad Company. Free was never really properly introduced in America. They had the hits with “All Right Now” and “Wishing Well,” and there might have been some interest with “My Brother Jake,” but it was never really promoted. So this material will be new to a lot of people. I find that as time goes by, the influence of Free has impacted so many bands.
GM: As a solo artist you have a very rich catalog, but even with your albums that redefine the old blues songs of yesteryear, the past does seem to loom large in your career. Is that a fair assessment?
PR: There are a lot of records that I heard growing up that were a powerful influence on me. The Royal Sessions that we did in Memphis was such a joy because I was playing with musicians who had played with Albert King, Isaac Hayes… it was the real deal and I was so honored to be in their presence. These guys have it down. They have it together. I told them I would do my best. We just got down to business. We tried this and tried that. It was very exciting, so, yes, to answer your question, the past does loom large for me because there’s so much there for me. I was listening the other day to Jeff Beck’s Truth album. It’s just amazing. It blows me away now more than ever. Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck had that something. They were there before Led Zeppelin. They should have continued. They influenced so many bands. The singer, the guitarist, the drummer, the bass player. They worked together so powerfully. That was the kind of thing that inspired me growing up.
GM: You were a teenager when you started yourself?
PR: Actually, I was only 14. I was still a kid in school when we started a band called the Roadrunners. We were very organized actually. We had our little band, we had our own gear, we worked in the local clubs, at weddings, bar mitzvahs, anyone who would have us. We had a repertoire of pop and blues tunes, and so by the time I went down to London at the ripe old age of 17 and formed Free with Paul Kossoff, I was fairly experienced.
GM: What a remarkable time to start a band and to be in the midst of one of rock’s most prolific eras, the late ‘60s. Were you able to appreciate what was happening all around you and recognize the changes that were occurring at the time?
PR: Absolutely. We were the typical starving musicians, but we had a good time. I remember walking down the Portobello Road and hearing the music coming out of the windows. You’d hear Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Joe Cocker… there would be a new act that would blow your mind every five minutes. There were always amazing people coming out and doing amazing things. And those musical achievements — a lot of them — still stand up today.
GM: You’ve been in the midst of it all during the course of your career. You personally played with a lot of those iconic artists, and what you established with Free and Bad Company ranks so high in that rock pantheon. Those bands had tremendous success.
PR: We learned from a lot of those people. The Jeff Becks and the Rod Stewarts. There was a lot of jamming going on. John Mayall and his band the Bluesbreakers spawned so many bands — Cream, Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, who later joined the Stones. It was all happening. We’d stand outside the clubs and listen, because very often we couldn’t afford to go in. The windows were open and you could hear what was going on. I recall standing outside a club when the taxi pulled up and Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding got out and walked through the crowd, and everyone was gobsmacked because they were so amazed to see them. Then another cab pulls up and Jimi Hendrix gets out, and everybody just about fainted. He had the full regalia — the hair, the amazing waistcoat, all the gear — and they went straight on the stage and, of course, blew the doors off the place. That was a typical night in London in those days.
GM: It was an amazing time indeed.
PR: But it was also very loose in those days. Everyone was jamming away.
GM: Still, Free attained remarkable success in the U.K. in a very short time. You played all the major festivals, supported practically every band of note, and yet you yourself was still just a kid. How were you able to soak in that success once you reached that upper pantheon. What was that like?
PR: I suppose you only see what’s right in front of you. Looking back, you can see how amazing it was at the time. It was what was happening, what was right in front of you. That was the world at the time. For us, it was all about breaking in America. I remember when we were with Joe Cocker on Island Records, and the guy at the record label said, “Joe is off to the States for a three month tour.” I was amazed! Three months! We would do our gigs on the weekend and then come back home. There was a whole other world in America. That was the holy grail to get to America and go out and play the big venues. With Bad Company, we did that. With Free, we went out with Blind Faith, and suddenly we were plunged into these huge venues after playing these little tiny clubs and rooms in top of pubs back home. Suddenly we were playing Madison Square Garden in the round.
GM: That must have been quite a culture shock.
PR: We were like deer in the headlights. I learned from that when we were putting Bad Company together.
GM: You have the Stars Align tour with Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson. With Beck in particular, there seems like there would be a natural connection. Do you plan to perform any songs together?
PR: Jeff, Ann and myself want to make it clear that this is not a supergroup. We’re all doing our separate sets. I originally had the idea to make this an intimate show. I wanted to recreate what I had done in the U.K., and play more intimate theaters. But with the addition of Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson, and now Deborah Bonham, it’s grown into this large venue kind of thing. Jeff and I have worked together in the past. We’ve done things musically. He played on three tracks of my tribute to Muddy Waters album. He wanted to do more, but by the time he called me, other people had committed. I couldn’t say, “Oh, Dave Gilmour, we can’t have you.” I couldn’t do that, so I gave him as many tracks as I could. We have done some soundtracks together as well, and I’ve always been delighted whenever I’ve had the opportunity to play with him.
GM: Who is in the band?
PR: I have Pete Bullick on guitar, Rich Newman playing drums, Ian Rowley on bass and Gerard G Louis on keyboards. They also have their own band and they go out and do their own shows. They back up Deborah Bonham quite a bit, and they’re her band when they’re not mine. They’re absolutely soulful. They love the Free material and they sound very close to the original Free. A lot of people have tried to copy that sound, but they actually own it.
GM: Was it a bit intimidating for them at first, knowing the shoes they had to fill? Did you sense any trepidation?
PR: Yes, I do think they had that. They have a lot of respect for the history of the music, but they also have a lot of self respect too, and I think on balance, it makes them perform excellently. They understand that it’s about the feel and about the mood and it’s about communicating with one another and with the audience through the songs. They also understand the dynamics as well. They can take it down to where you can hear a pin drop. I remember being at the Marquee, and Peter Green was playing with the original Fleetwood Mac. They could take it down to a pin drop. Everybody was holding their breath. So they’ve got that quality, too. You don’t hear that a lot these days, that sense of dynamics, that sensitivity. Bringing it down and then bringing the whole thing out again. B.B. King used to do that tremendously. They have that feeling.
GM: Out of curiosity, did you reach out to the other surviving members of Free — Simon Kirke, “Rabbit”?
PR: I am in touch with Simon Kirke. We’ve done several Bad Company shows, and in fact, we’re going out to do some shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who always admitted they were hugely influenced by Free. It all goes round in circles. But I didn’t want to invite Simon or Rabbit (keyboardist John Bundrick). I must admit Rabbit and I have not been in touch. We’ve lost touch over the years. Besides, I didn’t want to break up the chemistry of this band or alter it in any way, because I just like what it is. The musicians have known each other for so long. They’ve been on the road together for a long time. There’s a rapport between them and a tremendous sense of humor, and I didn’t want to upset that chemistry in any way, shape or form. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
GM: Who else is involved involved with Bad Company these days?
PR: Howard Leese is involved. Mick Ralphs is still technically with the band, but after that last tour, he had a stroke and was in hospital. He’s doing as well as one could expect. Dear old Mick. He’s still got his sense of humor though.
GM: Given your amazing career, are you a nostalgic sort of fellow?
PR: That’s a hard question for me to answer because when I listen to something that excited me back in the day and it still excites me now, for me, it’s not nostalgia. I’m actually reliving it right now. When I mentioned Jeff Beck… the timing between drums, guitar, bass… the things that they captured on record, it’s still there for me and it still moves me. There are a lot of records we play before we go on, the house music, and there’s so many songs I still love. I think of Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. His guitar playing is amazing. They called him God at the time, and time stood still. It still does. His guitar playing on those records is effortlessly dipping into the cosmos and relaying this thing in our direction.
GM: But personally, do you ever find yourself drifting back to the early days, that time and place, and find yourself awed by what you accomplished?
PR: I don’t get nostalgic in that I wish it back in any way, but I still like the moment. I live for the future really, but I do have a lot in the past that still moves me, that moves me today. I’m perfectly happy to revisit the music, but it has to be fresh. It’s not a nostalgia trip. It’s a today trip. It’s acknowledging the past, but there’s a fresh energy that’s there. Whenever I do a show, people ask me since I do the same numbers night after night, do I get tired of them. Of course you do, but the thing about a show is that people are all coming together from their separate lives. They’re coming together in one place and their energy bonds together and that’s fresh and new and different every night. So no matter what you play, you’re playing into that new energy. Even if you play the same venue, the audience is still bringing their different experiences and that’s what the magic of a show is. You arrive separately, but in the end, the common energy makes you one with everybody else. It’s the same thing at a sporting arena. The focus is on the game, so whatever the focus is, you are one with it. That’s the attraction of live performances, whether it’s sporting events, live music or theater.
GM: So apparently you still love what you do.
PR: Oh yeah! I’m still very excited by what I do. I feel blessed and fortunate that I’m able to do it because it keeps me excited and it keeps me young I suppose. (chuckles)
GM: So what’s next after the tour and after the release of the live album? Are you looking further towards the future?
PR: If I have a plan, it’s to let it happen and be what it is. I’m open to every opportunity that comes along. That’s the great thing about living a musical life — there’s always the possibility of bumping into someone that really turns you on and leads you in a certain direction, and that generally does happen all the time if you let it.
GM: It would be wonderful if you and Jimmy Page would consider reconnecting for another round with The Firm.
PR: I love Jimmy. Brian May, too… Pure genius. There are a lot of people who are masters of their craft and still doing it.
GM: As are you. You have the chops and the history. It would seem the future is wide open. as far as teaming with your peers.
PR: I do agree. And thank you. I like to keep musically in shape if there is such an expression and always be ready to go.
GM: Speaking of which, when the idea of the Queen connection came up, were you ready for that? On first glance, it did seem like an unlikely connection, did it not?
PR: I said to myself, how are you going to do this? Actually, my first reaction was I don’t think so. And yet, when we first did “We Will Rock You” and “All Right Now,” the songs went together seamlessly (sings) and I thought maybe there is a way to do this. But the only way to do it is to be myself. I’m not going to wear Freddie’s clothes or any of that nonsense, because that would just look ridiculous. So I decided just to bring my own thing to it. There were a lot of songs that they had — “The Show Must Go On” in particular (sings) — and I particularly liked doing that. On the one hand, it’s a pop song but on the other hand, I do think no matter what you do in life, whether you’re a plumber or a taxi driver, or whatever you do, one must go on. You must keep it together and put food on the table for your kids. Your show must go on. I thought there was a deeper meaning to it than just being a pop song. I liked the fact that I could just step into the song.
GM: So is there any possibility of reconnecting with them in the future?
PR: Well… Here’s the thing. When Brian called up initially, he said, “Let’s just do a few shows for fun.” And I said, “Well, that sounds interesting. It will definitely be challenging.” When I showed up for rehearsal, they had the most amazing stage set-up. Lights like cannons! There was a real commitment to the show. And it grew, from a few gigs to when we actually toured the whole world twice, and we went to places in Eastern Europe that I had never even heard of and thousands and thousands of people came out. There was one place that was so big, they say you could even see it from space! And everyone there knew all the lyrics, and a lot of the audiences knew the lyrics a lot better than I did! (sings “I want to break free…”) I just let them sing it. They were so happy to see Queen was back. A lot of them were very young, but their parents had loved Queen and so they were grateful to see the band no matter who was singing. It was great! I really enjoyed it. Obviously Queen lost a bit of confidence when Freddie died, and they only did these one-off shows with Elton John and George Michael, but they weren’t touring. With me, I assured them that they could actually tour. They could do it night after night, and that’s what they’re doing now. So I feel in a way like my job is done. I did come to the point where I felt like I couldn’t do that forever. I had to get back to my own thing.