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Rock and roller Paul Rodgers takes a turn as a soul man

With ‘The Royal Sessions,’ Paul Rodgers pays homage to the soul and R&B music that influenced him — both with the songs and the way they were recorded.

By Jeb Wright

Paul Rodgers is an iconic figure among rock ’n’ roll vocalists. His pipes anchor some of the biggest classics in the history of the genre: Free’s “All Right Now,” Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” The Firm’s “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Whether you hear him in a group or as a solo artist, you know you’re listening to Paul ‘The Voice’ Rodgers from the first note.

While Rodgers found fame and fortune with his vocal cords, he also is a talented songwriter — he has penned and performed dozens of classic tunes over the past 40-plus years — and a multi-instrumentalist.

He credits all he has achieved musically to the music that inspired him as a young man: blues and soul. Rodgers brings it all home with his latest release, “The Royal Sessions” (429 Records), an album dear to his heart and soul. The album is available on CD and as a limited-edition, 200-gram audiophile vinyl pressingwith a digital download card.

Paul Rodgers The Royal Sessions

The music, which pays homage to the music of Stax/Volt, Goldwax and Hi Records, was recorded at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis, Tenn., home of Willie Mitchell and Hi Records. Add in the participating musicians and you get the full musical hat trick. Rodgers was backed by a dream team of musicians, including The Rev. Charles Hodges (Hammond B3), Michael Tolls (guitar), LeRoy Hodges Jr. (bass), “Hubby” Archie Turner (Wurlitzer), Steve Potts, James Robertson Sr. (drums), The Royal Horns and The Royal Singers. Together, they recorded 10 classic tunes from the Stax, Volt, Goldwax and Hi Records era.

(RELATED ARTICLE: Rock stars worship the work of Paul Rodgers)

The track listing drips with classic songs, including “I Thank You” (Isaac Hayes/David Porter), which hit No. 1 on Mediabase’s Classic Rock chart on Feb. 25. (The album itself debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart.) Also featured: “Down Don’t Bother Me” (Albert King); “I Can’t Stand The Rain” (Don Bryant/Bernard Miller/Ann Peebles); “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” (Jerry Butler/Otis Redding); “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (Roosevelt Jamison); “Walk On By” (Burt Bacharach/Hal David); “Any Ole Way” (Steve Cropper/Otis Redding); “It’s Growing” (Warren Moore/Smokey Robinson); “Born Under A Bad Sign” (William Bell/Booker T. Jones); and “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” (Otis Redding).

The sessions were produced by Perry Margouleff, who had crashed an event at the Stax Museum and met Willie Mitchell’s son, Boo, who in turn invited him to record an album. Perry immediately called Paul Rodgers.

Blues and soul music inspired Paul Rodgers to become a singer. And Paul Rodgers’ impressive body of work inspired a new generation of rock vocalists in turn. Photo courtesy Paradise Artists.

Blues and soul music inspired Paul Rodgers to become a singer. And Paul Rodgers’ impressive body of work inspired a new generation of rock vocalists in turn. Photo courtesy Paradise Artists.

GOLDMINE: I love the new project. You stayed true to the musical intent, clear down to how it was recorded.
PAUL RODGERS: We did it in analog. We did digital during the last stage, where we put it on CD. We also are making the vinyl available, which is analog all the way.

GM: I miss the warm sound that comes from analog recording. How did this come to be recorded in analog?
PERRY MARGOULEFF: Is the only way I record. I have never gone to the digital world. I have an analog recording studio in New York. When digital came out, I rejected it, as I didn’t feel it was any good. We maintained the knowledge and the equipment, and now it is coming back again. I never left it. I have been making records in the analog format my entire life.

GM: Paul, how did Perry get involved in this project?
PR: Perry and I have written some songs together in the past. We have done some things in the studio, too. We’ve been working toward doing an album for a number of years, actually. We released a song titled “With Our Love,” which was a song we did, and we sent the proceeds of that to the Seraphim 12 Foundation, which is a horse sanctuary in New York. We rescued some horses in England, which was nice to be able to do with music. I am always saying that my influences, which are soul and blues ... and Perry knows that very well; he was in Memphis to visit Stax Records.

PM: I went down to Memphis for Scotty Moore’s 80th birthday party, and I had a day to do the tourist thing, so I went to the Stax Museum. When I got there, it was closed for a thing they did for the legendary Stax musician named J. Blackfoot. I asked if I could just kindly come in and see the museum quietly in the background. At the end of the tour, I ran into the director of the museum, Lisa Allen, and she asked me how I liked the tour. I told her that I loved the tour. I told her I was a musician and engineer, and that it was hard to look at the stuff through the velvet rope; I would have rather been using it. I told her it was a shame that I hadn’t come to Memphis years before and recorded there. She told me that I could still go to Royal Studios and record and that it was just up the street. She said, “Oh, there’s Boo Mitchell right there.” She called him over and introduced us, and that is how it all began.

PR: Perry called me from the studio, and he said, “Guess where I am?” I said, “No idea; you could be anywhere.” He said, “I am in Memphis at the Royal Studios, and the place has an unbelievable vibe. It’s still up and running, and it’s all analog. I’ve been speaking to the man who runs the place, Boo Mitchell, who is Willie Mitchell’s son, and he said that he can get a fantastic band in here to play some soul music. How about coming down and doing a couple days of sessions and see how it sounds?” I came down and we did three days, and it was so productive and it had such a good vibe that I decided to come back and make a full album.

GM: Tell me that what I hear is due to the way you recorded this album.
PR: What you’re hearing, I have seen this analyzed ... I’ve got nothing against digital; it’s the future. The thing about sound is that digital goes in steps, and the steps are sharp. Analog goes in waves, and the waves are smooth and velvety. The ear knows this. I have recently rediscovered vinyl once again, and I am collecting vinyl and I am getting into it. The sound is just incredible. It is vastly different. It is the difference between McDonald’s and a really first-class steak.

PM: Anything recorded digitally is like watching a ballet under a strobe light. You are only seeing the ballerina when the lights are on. Whatever the sample rate, there is still information that you’re not getting, because the lights go on and off. With analog, it is continuous. You get all of the information. Humans are very sensitive to this, even though they don’t know it. It is like eating at a good restaurant, and then you want to go back and visit it again. When you listen to a good record in the vinyl world, something happens to you and it imprints on you and you can’t wait to hear it again. It becomes part of your repertoire, and you keep coming back to it.

PR: One of the dangers with over digitization is in the recording process. You can do things with ProTools that maybe you should not do. You can get the harmonies right on the first chorus and go, “OK, guys, you can go home now because we are going to shift them and put them all the way through the song.” That is fine and dandy, but it is not the same as a performance done in the moment, because each chorus is going to be slightly different. As the song builds, so do the harmonies, and they do different things. You get a naturalness, which you can lose if you’re not careful with digital. Compression is another issue that one has. You compress the crap out of it, and then it goes to radio and it is compressed again. It all becomes very flat, and you end up missing a lot of subtleties.

Paul Rodgers publicity photos

Paul Rodgers prefers vinyl records to CD. "The sound is just incredible. It is vastly different. It is the difference between McDonald’s and a really first-class steak." Publicity photo.

GM: Paul, these songs are very special to you, and you are very passionate about this music.
PR: I do have passion for this music. This music really turned me on to becoming a singer — this and blues. I listened to this when I was 13 or 14, and it has always been there in my singing and songwriting. It has been a part of the musical content of all of the bands that I have formed. To come back to it has been really refreshing to me ... it’s been like coming home.

GM: “How Strong My Love Is,” which was famously done by Otis Redding, I heard you did that track in one take.
PR: It was one take. Actually, none of them were a lot of takes, to be honest with you. I approached that one with some trepidation. It is a very big song by Otis, and it is deeply passionate, and it depends on a real connection between everybody playing it. We talked about it and we discussed it, and we settled on a key. Michael Toles kicks it off, and we just launched into it, and it just built and built into this fantastic climax. Then we got a signal from The Rev. Charles Hodges on the Hammond, he’s the MD [Musical Director], and it went WHOP! down to a whisper. And then we built it back up again. All of that was done in the moment, on the fly. When we finished, we went, “Wow, let’s go check that out.” We went back into Perry’s neck of the woods, the control room, and there were a lot of smiles in that control room. We listened, and we were pleased with it, and we knew we were not doing that again. It was a one-take thing.

PM: It was great to do this, because all of these musicians are on records that I have loved for years. I love Paul’s work, as well. To be able to put all of those people together and to orchestrate a recording session for them is a dream come true for me. You never know how the chemistry is going to work. I told Paul when we first went down there, “Let’s not have any big expectations. Maybe these guys are older and they don’t play as well as they used to, or maybe we won’t get along with them ... who knows.” When we went down there and everybody was nice and they played so good, a lot of tension was relieved right off the bat. I knew we were not going to have to worry much. Right from the first couple of notes when they started recording there was an amazing vibe, and we were smiling the whole time. The theme of the whole thing was that everyone had such good energy. I set the situation up, but I didn’t tell them who was coming in to sing. I didn’t want anyone to be anticipating, or expecting or have any preconceived ideas about anything. I said, “Let’s just do this.” Once they played together with each other in the room, the mutual respect was there. They were like a bunch of kids in a candy store; they were having fun. Like Paul puts it — it was a musical conversation and they were all sharing their thoughts together.

GM: We know what Paul is like with Free, Bad Company, The Firm and as a solo artist. What is he like in this situation to work with?
PM: For me, I can see where one might think someone is stepping outside of their comfort zone doing something that they are not designed to do, but because they have technical chops, they can pull it off. But that is not true in this case. I say that Paul Rodgers is a soul and blues singer who sang rock music for many years. He stepped into this so naturally. There was not any inkling where he was trying to do something; he just naturally did it. They all instantaneously communicated with each other on a high level, and there is no way that you can fake that.

PR: It felt good.

GM: What did guys like Leroy Hodges Jr. and The Rev. Charles Hodges and the rest of the men and women bring to the table?
PR: These guys are so laid back. There was so much room and space. There was no high pressure, and there was no need to prove oneself or to strive forward powerfully, as we do in rock. There is a lot of real deep subtleties. I am still hearing things when I listen back that I didn’t hear when we did them, and I didn’t hear weeks after I listened to them. I go, “Wow, listen to that Hammond organ part ... I never noticed that.” I have listened to the record a million times, and I am still discovering things.

GM: Did the music fan in you come out?
PR: Without a shadow of a doubt. It felt cool, but it also felt a little bit intimidating. I approach these songs with a lot of reverence. They mean a lot to me. I didn’t want to just do the lyric and just go through the motions. I wanted to be authentic because I know who these guys are. I hoped to match the kind of authenticity they have, so that I would believe myself, as a music fan they were authentic. I had to step up my game, in a way, to really feel it. You had to be very much in the moment. You had to be there. If I sang the line, “If you see me walking down the street,” then I had to be walking down the street, and I was walking down the street. You have to be there. I was there, and so were the guys. We were all walking down the street — or whatever song we were doing, we were very much there, in the moment.

GM: Did they know about your past?
PR: About the jail time, you mean? [Laughter.]

GM: We all know about that!
PR: Just kidding. No, they didn’t. They only knew that I was a singer and a songwriter. They were like, “I wonder who this guy is?” When I came in, there was a moment where I had to prove myself. We did “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and after the first few notes, everyone relaxed and realized that it was going to be a purely joyful occupation.

GM: You did 10 songs on the album.
PR: The idea of putting 10 on there was so that we can make vinyl that reflected the CD. It is the same on the CD and the album. You get 10 tracks on both. I did the track list so that when you turn it over, it makes sense. Back when we did vinyl, you would have Side A and then Side B, and Side B needed to kick off with something, and it needed to be a unique story unto itself. Side B opens with “Walk On By,” and you are off into another story. It has impact. The 10 songs were really done with vinyl in mind. I didn’t want any bonus tracks on the CD ... I wanted the experience of both to be the same songs.

GM: How did you choose these 10?
PR: These 10 tracks flowed well together, that we could put together time-wise. You are limited when it comes to vinyl. I don’t think you want 20 songs on an album, quite frankly. I think you want 10 gems that work together as a complete, cohesive listening experience. Whew ... did I just say that?
PM: Wow, that was good.

PR: [Laughs.] We did it that way just for that reason.

GM: There has been some buzz that there will be a live gig.
PR: What I want to do ... I am touring in April, May and June. I do about 20 or 30 shows a year. I will include some of the songs in my current set. We are talking about putting together a live show in Memphis in a club with the guys and playing this material. We could video it and make a DVD — the idea being to capture visually what we captured on record.

GM: Did you video record the session in the studio?
PM: We did do some filming.

PR: We did, but Perry was concerned that having cameras in our faces during the actual recording might detract from the performance. We had these beautiful things called GoPros. They are a small camera that you forget is there. There is some part of you, when there is a camera in your face, you know that, and you don’t totally relax. You can completely forget about it with these tiny little cameras, and you really get some very natural footage.

PM: The video to “Thank You” was shot with GoPro cameras in the studio during the recording session.

PR: Looking at that video, it is not spiffed up. We didn’t spend a million dollars making it look great. It is just what it is. It is us in the studio with our sleeves up, getting down with the music. It’s kind of nice. We were not self-conscious, because the cameras are so small. You really get natural footage.

GM: The proceeds from this record are being donated to a Memphis music program.
PR: Every day we would get in the car, and we would drive from our very swish hotel, and we would drive into this area which was economically challenged. There was a lot of derelict buildings and trash piled up. Right in the middle of all this is a beautiful studio where Boo Mitchell is keeping the flag flying. We talked about how this music has given us so much and in some ways, just by doing this, in a way, we are still taking from it.
Perry said to me that we should give any profit that we make from this and give it back to Memphis. We shook on it and since we financed this, we could do that. The next question was how we would do that. We looked around, and it turns out that the Stax Museum has a school for music, and we decided to direct any funds we make to there. If felt good to do that, because then we could just really enjoy the process and we could really revel in this great music, made by these great musicians, made in this fantastic studio.

GM: I am a rock guy, so I have a couple of questions on some of the songs. Two became well-known rock songs. I first heard the song “Thank You” by ZZ Top and then discovered Sam and Dave.
PR: Sam and Dave’s version is the only one I have ever heard. As you mention, ZZ Top did a version, which is a band I love. I love Sam Moore. He’s still around, and he comes up and plays with me and drops in for shows. I had a pool of about 20-odd songs from which I would be choosing to play. The guys were very giving and very easy to work with, so anything suggested they would do. I suggested doing “I Thank You,” and we just rocked into it. I was very pleased with the result, and the feel is so good. At the end of the solo I am supposed to come back in singing straight away, but I was so enjoying the groove I didn’t come back in. I just let it flow for a minute.

PM: All of these songs were like that. These guys have been playing together so long, there was not one song that we called out that they didn’t say, “We know that.” The horns knew the arrangements by heart. The only thing we spent any consideration on at all was choosing a key, and that was it. Otherwise, they would just whip it out and play. The sense of dynamics between the musicians was phenomenal. Mixing it was so easy, as you just basically put all the faders at zero and all of the dynamics were built into the parts that they were playing. Nobody stepped on each other’s toes anywhere. They have played together so long together they were telepathically connected.

PR: Exactly, there was a lot of telepathy. I felt part of that, too, instantly, which is a very groovy thing. Can we still say groovy?

GM: No, but I will let it slide [laughs]. Tell me about doing “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
PR: I had played that before. I used to play it in the very early days with Free, when Paul Kossoff and I got together. We would listen to Albert King. We made a big thing of “The Hunter” back then. We would play “Born Under a Bad Sign,” as well. I also revisited that song on my tribute to Muddy Waters. I was a little hesitant to do it again on this album, but, as Perry said, this is an opportunity to play it with the authentic real deal. I love the version we did. It is very smoky and very dark. It came out great. Perry actually plays guitar on that song. Tell him how you played guitar on it, Perry.

PR: It was good fun. We cut the track. I can tell you the real story ... we got down to Memphis, we set up in the studio and we met all the guys. We recorded “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and we found out that we needed to take a break from the studio, because the one person who was not on our session, Skip Pitts, had passed away. Everybody in the band had to go to the funeral. We stopped the session and went to the funeral. Because the connection was so good when we recorded the first song, they said we had to go to the funeral with them. After we were at the funeral for about 20 minutes they said, “Pitts wouldn’t want us to waste a whole day; we’ve got to go back to the studio and record,” which felt even more cosmic.

PR: We said, “No, you guys don’t have to do that.” But they insisted.

PM: We went back to the studio, and they said, “What is the next song you want to record?” Paul said, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” It was kind of heavy. I was in the booth getting it all together. We didn’t have the solo guitar part, and we cut the song, and afterwards Paul said, “Why don’t you cut the solo?” Suddenly, I felt that pressure that Paul talked about. I had to step up to the plate and play up to the level of these types of characters. I was very happy when Paul and everyone else were very accepting of what I did.

PR: Perry did a really great job.

GM: I would have never thought it was a studio rat from what I heard.
PM: Well, I am not a studio guy. I am more of a rock and roll guy.

PR: Perry is a wizard, and he’s from another planet.

PM: I am not telling you which one [laughs].

GM: Tell me about the final song on the album: “Dreams to Remember.”
PR: That is an Otis Redding song. I think I am correct in saying that he wrote that with his wife. It is one of the few songs that Otis used backing vocals on the original, and they are superb — they really matched his voice. We knew we better have some great voices, which we did have. We had a beautiful blend from two sisters. They are called The Royal Singers. Sharisse Norman, Cherish Norman and Stefanie Bolton are their names. It was lovely to sing with them. It was great to intermingle my voice with their beautiful blend. It was another one where we built the song up, and I am thinking we were heading to the end of the song, and then all of a sudden it would go down to a whisper, and it was time to testify. It was awesome.

PM: That song is, to me, maybe the smokiest and deepest one of the lot. The way the singers tied into what Paul was doing ... in the middle bit where it drops down, if you really listen, you can kind of hear the horn guys kind of chitter-chatter about where they are going to come back in. We left the whole thing in, and it kind of reminds me a little bit of the second side of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland on “Moon, Turn the Tides ... Gently Gently Away” where you can hear people playing and then stop and then come in. Everybody is so in their own zone, they are not worried about anything.

PR: Those guys talking were part of the atmosphere. It was like hearing the audience during a live take.

GM: Did this project in any way, light a fire to inspire you to write some music, so maybe we can get a new album from you?
PR: It could be. We are writing new material all the time. It is a question of getting focused. This caught us by surprise. Although we have been working on this for two years, it seems like a short time that we did this and put this all together. Basically, the answer is yes. GM