Paul Rodgers was first introduced to the blues the same way a lot of us were, via The Rolling Stones. They made him wonder, imagine and later discover where that music they themselves loved had come from. Of course, this music was American blues and Paul Rodgers discovered for himself what it was all about. He discovered Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. To him, it spoke of something completely foreign — but familiar at the same time. The young man from northeast England was moved and intrigued by the soulful expression of these voices he heard and it left an lifelong impression on him.
It help shape his storied musical career as he went on to start the blues band Free, then on to the legendary Bad Company and then The Firm with another blues loving Englishman named Jimmy Page. This music that he treasures and holds so dear continues to shape his career as he now looks backward at what made him want to play in the first place.
The latest album from Paul Rodgers, The Royal Sessions, was recorded on Willie Mitchell Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee at the historic Royal Studios, where so many incredible songs were born. The Royal Sessions, born in those hallowed rooms that also gave life to the music Ike & Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Bobby Blue Bland and so many others, was a way for Rodgers to challenge himself musically and pay homage to an institution called the Memphis sound. Prior to the recording session the musicians were only told that Paul was a songwriter and singer. After the first song, organist, Rev. Charles Hodges Sr told Paul “you could have a future as a singer”. When they got around to playing the iconic Otis Redding song “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” the tape was running on the first time through. Paul had never sang the song before but he and everyone else in the room knew they’d never be able to recapture what just happened. It was recorded live on one take, first time he ever sang the song.
We found this to be a wonderful piece of music and we got a chance to talk with him about this album and how it came to be.
ABS: Tell me a little bit about the album and how it came to be.
PR: Well the thing about this music, is that this is the music that I grew up on
really, and this music inspired Free and Bad Company. All of my songwriting, this is
where it all comes from, so for me it’s kind of like going back home, and that’s how it
felt walking into that studio, it was just amazing.
The vibe seems like it was incredible.
Yeah. Well what was amazing for us to find, my producer, Perry Margouleff and myself, we found that the Royal studios is as it was, in its hey day in the 50s and 60s and all of that, and the musicians are still there available, and they’re superb. We had Reverend Charles Hodges senior on Hammond, and he is a reverend when he’s not in the studio as a session musician, and it had a really authentic feel to it. Very often with the tracks, everybody would be in the studio and we’d have the brass section right next to me on my right on the other side of the window, so we could see each other, and everybody in the room. So there’s like lots of really strong connection, good eye contact. On I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, I suggested we do this song, and they said okay, so we noodled around with the key a little bit, you know, and they said let’s try one. And we just went into it, it blew us away because we just went with this song and it took us wherever it would take us. At the end of it everyone went ‘wow, we should listen to that. So we sat and listened to it, and we said that’s it, we can’t touch a thing on that, we’re not gonna do it again, that’s as good as it’s gonna get because we just felt we captured the feel of the song and there was no take two on that one, you know?
I think Otis Redding is just one of those guys where if you can’t do it well, it’s better left alone. How do you feel about that?
Well I absolutely agree. And that’s probably why it’s taken me so long, I mean, Otis was sort of in his mid-20s (Editors note: Otis was 23) I imagine when he sang that, but he was really at the height of his powers and that’s hard to get even close to. I felt, you know, if this is not authentic, if this is not capturing the spirit and the spark, then I’m not gonna go with it at all. And that’s why actually when we first had the idea of going down there, I just went down there to see how it was, we did three days of sessions just to see how it felt. And it did feel so good that I had to come back and do another, a full on album. We had real authentic musicians, and they had a thing going because they do quite a lot of sessions together, so they have a kind of groove together. They just sort of gave me really, the freedom to absolutely express the song, and they were right behind me the whole way, it was such a beautiful experience.
What did Otis mean to you as an artist? I mean, he obviously is fantastic. But what did he mean to you?
Otis was really my man in many respects, I think he’s definitely, you know, my favorite singer. And there was just something about him, I used to listen to him in the clubs in my home town, and I used to listen to Down in the Valley and Mr. Pitiful, and, of course, My Girl, and all those songs. I sort of stayed away from those ones on the album, I tried to dig a little deeper, but that’s not to say I won’t go back and do those one of these days. But there’s something about his style, the gospel approach and the warmth that came from his voice, and it’s such a big warm voice. I love the heart and the soul in his singing. I can say that about a lot of people but there’s just something about Otis that’s extra super special for me.
And he died so young, right in his prime. There was just so much left in him that we didn’t get to experience.
Yeah, for sure. And you know, the vocal sounds got better and better with each album, they kind of improved their technique, you can hear it improve, you know, it was always good but it just got better and better. The Immortal Otis is really really a nice album.
You talk about how you found the blues through The Rolling Stones. How old were you when that happened?
Oh I would have been a kid in school, I remember running around on the playground listening to I Just Want to Make Love to You. Or at least I had heard it and I was thinking ‘wow, where does that music come from? Because up until then it was the Beatles and it was pop music really, and all of a sudden The Rolling Stones came along and I got their album, and ‘I don’t want you to be no slave,’ and all of a sudden, this is coming from somewhere else. So I dug a little deeper, and you know then I discovered Muddy Waters, and started to dig the blues man, at a very early age. All of the blues, Elmore James, I really love Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them. They spoke of a different world, because they lived in a different world I guess, than somebody like me in the northeast of England, totally different culture, everything. They spoke of a different lifestyle altogether, but they spoke very emotively and very passionately. Paul sings “When things go wrong, go wrong with you, it’s hurtin’ me too,” I mean it’s just simple but really, really to the point. I love those songs.
You called Free a blues band, right?
Yeah, we were a blues band. We totally were a blues band. I mean, I often said we were a rock band with soul, but we started out like a blues band and all of our material was blues. We had a couple songs I had written Walk in my Shadow and Moonshine with Paul Kossoff and also Over the Green Hills. So we had a couple of original songs but all of the rest of the set were songs like The Hunter by Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign, Every Day I have the Blues, Stormy Monday Blues, we were a flat out blues band. That’s the great thing about blues, it lends itself to anybody, played well, it can take you anywhere. You know, if you look at Led Zeppelin, they came out of the blues, if you look at the Stones, they came out of the blues, if you look at the Doors, there’s a huge blues influence in the Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, it’s all people running with the blues, they’ve discovered it, they’ve played it, and then they’ve taken it in their own direction. And that’s what I saw and that’s what I tried to do with Free, so we came out of blues and soul, and made it our own thing I guess.
Blues doesn’t seem to get the respect that other genres do. Why do you think that is?
Well I guess it’s not commercial but you know I’d like to think that we make up for it, because the true professionals and the true believers really really understand, and blues you know, played well, blues played by Buddy Guy, by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, you know, the real thing, is something to be totally respected. I have 100% respect for it. And it has spawned so much, as I was saying earlier really, so much is derivative of the blues and has been borne out of the blues. I suppose it’s true that soul was born out of the blues and rock n’ roll, Muddy Waters said, what was it he said? ‘Blues had a baby and they called it rock n’ roll.’ It’s very very true.
So I think in a round about way it is respected by the public, because of the music that came from it, and is indeed still coming from it. You know, you still get young bands who will play, start up playing the blues, and who knows where they’ll end up?
Classic rockers like you can be the catalyst to get a lot of people looking backwards towards where your music came from.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah that’s true. Well perhaps, you know, this soul album will be somewhat educational in a sense to people, because what we’re doing here is we’re stepping back into a time when music was made differently. It’s not digitized, you know, it’s real in a sense, it’s very authentic, and we could feel the spirit actually, strangely enough you could feel the spirit and that’s what’s music really is, that’s what blues is all about, that’s what music that really counts is all about. Whatever it is, whether it’s country, whether it’s, whatever, if it’s got that spirit, you know? Then it counts, it matters, and it’s important and it’s valuable to people.
I’ve listened to the Royal Sessions a lot of times already, from the first time I put it in I knew you guys hit upon something really special.
Thank you. Yeah. Yeah it was special from the moment I walked in. When I walked in they hadn’t been told who I was. They were just told that I was a singer and I was a songwriter. And so there was no preconceived idea, so they said ‘okay, let’s hear what you got bro,’ you know? I walked up to the mic and I suggested we do ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is,’ that was the first one we did, and you know, they were very, very welcoming actually but they were uncertain, you know? Who’s this guy, is he gonna be able to sing? Hey, what’s going on. But it just completely fell into place, the first couple of notes really, we were like ‘boom,’ we were just locked together. We just looked at each other and went ‘wow, this is cool and I liked them, they also liked me, let’s go with this thing. You know, it was a good feeling.
So the Royal Horns, those guys are like serious music geeks, right?
Yes, yes they are.
Talk about them a little bit.
Well you know, I had the horns right beside me on I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, with the horns right there, that was the one we did live. It’s great actually because they do, they speak a different language, they’re like “you go to second, I’ll go to first, blah, blah, blah” and all this, and everybody’s looking to make sure, and we’re looking at them thinking ‘what are they saying?’ And then they play, and then you go ‘ah, now we see.’ And it’s cool actually, if you listen closely sometimes you can hear them. I’ll let you into a secret, if you listen closely you can hear them conversing in the quiet bits. And it sounds nice, so we left it on there because it’s very atmospheric, it’s like it’s live, which it is of course. It’s cool.
The ladies, their voices were heavenly.
Well you know, they did create a beautiful blend. The Royal Singers, two of them are sisters and they had a fantastic blend. It was really lovely just seeing what they did on Walk On By for instance, they were so great and it was an awesome track. That was the only track I actually overdubbed the vocals because I had to take it away and think about the arrangement. I wanted to be very careful what I did there and I wanted it to be simple but effective and I didn’t want to sound like it was bolted on and jarring. It had to be smooth, to be part of the flow. So I did that vocal up in Perry’s place and I must say having the girls there was really great, because they were great counterpoints, and it was perfect for me to blend with their blend. You know. I really, really love what they do.
How was this project different than doing a Bad Company album?
Well it’s my roots really and you know, these musicians are masters of their instruments, they’re absolute masters, I mean, they were in the pocket all the time. Everything we played was just right ‘boom,’ right there, you know? I loved the bass, that slide that Leroy does. They’re so professional and they create such a subtle bed of music on which I can sing, I mean I’m hearing things even now, after how ever many times have I heard it, that I didn’t hear at the time. Revered Hodges solo in Down Don’t Bother Me, is freakin’ awesome man. I really just wanted to create something that you put it on and you let it run, and it just takes you with it.
Any thoughts of doing another one of these albums, and if so, do you have any songs picked out?
Every day, to be honest with you. I don’t know when,though, I don’t know how it’ll do commercially, but I know from a spiritual and from a creative point of view, it’s like the best thing I’ve done. I just love doing it, and I love to hear it, and I’m very, very proud of having gone down there and sung with these guys who are really for me the authentic real deal. And I’d love to do another one, and we may well do that, but we’ll see how we go, you know?
Are there any plans to do any live shows with this music?
Well what I’d like to do is make a DVD and we do have some great ideas on this. In a club in Memphis say for instance and just play this music as a set as if it were live on stage and play it the way Otis[Redding] might have done in the day, at a club. We also have some really good camera ideas for that idea.
So that will have the whole crazy Memphis vibe on it?
It will, there’s something in the water isn’t there? You know, you could talk about it, we’ve said this before, you can say it’s this, it’s that or the other but you have to really go there to feel that warmth and the love that’s there and I don’t know what it is man, it’s a funky place. I love it.
What about other tours? Where are you at, where are you heading?
I’m touring this May. I only do about twenty or thirty shows a year. I’m looking at doing the soul DVD and that’s my focus this year.