As the old proverb goes: “You may know a man by the company he keeps.”
Though his name is synonymous with Bad Company, Paul Rodgers, a consummate songwriter and performer, must be a pretty remarkable man, judging by the company that he keeps – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Slash, Bryan Adams, David Gilmour and Brian May, to name a few. Then again, you could argue that all those musicians are better for having kept company with Rodgers.
Acclaimed as one of the greatest rock singers of all time, Paul Rodgers led three of rock’s legendary bands — Free, Bad Company and The Firm — with total album sales of more than 90 million. He has been hailed as a major influence by the likes of Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, David Coverdale, Guns N’ Roses, the Black Crowes and new retro-rockers The Sheepdogs.
Enduring songs like All Right Now, Can’t Get Enough and Feel Like Making Love have secured his place in the pantheon of great rock vocalists. This June, Rodgers will reunite with the original line-up of Bad Company on their first tour of Europe (outside of the U.K.) since 1975.
Before rehearsals for Bad Company’s summer festival excursion began, Rodgers sat down with Rock Cellar Magazine to chat at length about his four-decade career in music — and the good company he keeps.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You recently performed some songs with the ’70s-inspired indie band The Sheepdogs during Canadian Music Week. What was it like to play with a young band so obviously influenced by your music?
Paul Rodgers: It was a blast for all of us. They told me that they used to close themselves up in a room and listen to all the Free material and how it was highly influential to them. So when we met, they asked if I could play three songs with them, and I said, “Well, how long is your set?” and they said half-an-hour. I said, “If we do three songs that will be half of your set, are you sure you want to do it?” And they said yes – if I want to do it, then they want to do it. So we did All Right Now, I’ll Be Creeping and I’m a Mover, which I haven’t played for a while. They’re really great guys.
RCM: The Sheepdogs picked up four Independent Music Awards that night in Toronto, three Junos a couple weeks later, and were the first unsigned act to land on the cover of Rolling Stone.
PR: I think they’re influenced by the right people, shall we say (laughs). I think what it is, is they’re very genuine and unaffected by all the awards they’re receiving. They’re like, “Wow — I can’t believe this is happening to us,” and I think it’s great. Seeing their success, and how amazing they rock, I feel very honored that all those early Free albums meant so much to them.
RCM: That first Free record, Tons of Sobs, had a really obscure album cover — Mickey Mouse in a glass coffin and a leopard stalking a rabbit in a graveyard. What was up with that?
PR: It was very unique, wasn’t it? We had a kind of crazy producer guy named Guy Stevens, and he had a fantastic record collection. And he would come up with these amazing ideas; it was his idea for the concept of that cover. I still really like that first one, and still today think the artwork was quite impressive and innovative.
RCM: The Firm’s first album cover was also pretty different, with that cube-shaped perspective and 3D typography.
PR: We actually offset that cover, so it wasn’t fully square — it was slightly to the diamond-shape, if you know what I mean. And the record company went nuts over that, and asked us, “How are we going to shelf this, and stack it and pack it?” They went absolutely nuts at first, but eventually they went along with it and did it for us, which was great. Bring back vinyl, that’s what I say!
RCM: Do you remember the first vinyl record that you ever bought?
PR: Yes, it was an instrumental record, strangely enough, by Booker T and the MG’s called Red Beans and Rice. They were Otis Redding’s backing band and I’m a big fan of Otis Redding, especially the album Otis Blue [Otis Redding Sings Soul], with the song Change Gonna Come. I loved Otis Redding and still do.
Albums, for me, are like milestones in one’s life, like Pink Floyd The Wall. You measure your life by those releases, like life before Axis: Bold as Love, or life after Axis: Bold as Love.
That’s how I remember certain things. Like the first time I heard Hey Joe, it blew my mind and still does today. Whenever I hear that song it takes me back to that day when I first heard it.
RCM: Is there a particular record from your career that is most popular among fans when they bring you an album jacket to sign?
PR: I think it’s probably the Bad Company (Bad Co.) album. A silver marker works well signing that one (laughs). I like that album cover.
The designer, Storm Thorgerson was telling me that within the Bad Company logo, that texture you see is actually human skin. When he told me, I kind of recoiled in horror and he said, “No, no, what it is, is it’s my own hand and I photographed it and enlarged it.” So I think on some level, the human mind sort of registers that in some strange way, when looking at the album cover.
RCM: That cover has a stark simplicity, which made it stand out among all the brightly psychedelic album art of the ’70s.
PR: Oh yes, it definitely stood out. Hipgnosis, who designed the cover, were a good company. They did all the Led Zeppelin covers as well. And the inside of the album was different in North America than the one we released in England. In England, we had a more diamond shape inside with live shots of us. In the North American version, there was that posed shot of the band.
Thinking back on that album now, it was a really interesting one to make.
RCM: How so?
PR: There was this mobile studio parked outside a big old mansion down in the south of England – Ronnie Lane’s mobile home — and it was ready for Led Zeppelin’s next album and Peter Grant had just taken over managing us. He said to me that Zeppelin had been delayed, but if we were quick, we could go into that same situation, set up our gear and record a couple of tracks.
We went straight in and recorded the whole album because it was all ready to go, and that’s how it went down. As a result, the album was very organic in nature. We had drums in one room, then vocals up on the veranda somewhere, and the guitar in another room. Which was great, because I always like to record as organically as I can.
RCM: You recorded that album on the Swan Song record label, launched by Led Zeppelin in ’74. Did Bad Company and Led Zeppelin ever jam together?
PR: I remember Zeppelin standing on the side of the stage at a concert in the Finsbury Park Astoria in London, and I waved them onstage because they were just standing there enjoying the show. They looked at me and went, “What!?” because they weren’t at all expecting it. So they came on stage and we grabbed a bunch of guitars and we had the most amazing jam session. It was incredible. The audience was high at the end of our set, but when the Zeps walked on they went absolutely crazy. We played some blues numbers, I think we did Rock Me Baby and if I remember correctly, Every Day I Have the Blues.
RCM: How far back does your relationship with Led Zeppelin go?
PR: Back in the early days I remember meeting Robert Plant in Birmingham before Led Zeppelin were formed, when Free was touring with Alexis Korner. He had a jam session with Alexis Korner and afterwards Robert came back to the hotel with me and had a cup of tea. He said, “You know, I’ve been invited to go down to London and form a band with a guy called Jimmy Page, have you heard of him”” And I said, “Yeah, he’s a session guitarist that everyone is talking about down there,” and he said, “Oh, yeah, well they offered me 30 quid or a percentage — what do you think?” And I said, “Take the percentage, man!” So, yeah, we go back a long way.
RCM: You recorded two albums with Jimmy Page in the mid-’80s as The Firm. Do you keep in touch?
PR: I do. Jimmy is a wonderful, really warm, quiet person. He’s a sweetheart and I always enjoy his company. I play with John Bonham’s son Jason sometimes also. He’s a fantastic drummer.
RCM: You and your wife Cynthia work closely with Deborah Bonham, John Bonham’s sister, to support the Racehorse Sanctuary these days, right?
PR: Yes. The way I got involved was through Cynthia, who got involved through Deborah. My wife said, “You’ve got to come and see these horses, they’re such beautiful creatures.” And what happens is a lot of people think the end of a racehorse’s career is a life running around in meadows and enjoying a really nice retirement. But what very often happens is that the horses are slaughtered because they’re no longer earning money.
So what the sanctuary does is it rescues them – as many as they can. These horses are incredible beings with a fantastic spirit, and all they’ve known their entire life is racing and training, training and racing.
And they’re very high strung, not anyone can go close to them. But what has been discovered is these horses are great with autistic kids, and so they give each other something. There’s a calming measure that happens between the horses and these children. So they found that they can use these horses to help with autistic kids, which is what they’re doing now. And so we said, we want to help with this and do whatever we can. So that’s the story behind it, and I really like being a part of it.
RCM: You recently released a new song called With Our Love, available exclusively online, with all proceeds going to the Racehorse Sanctuary, along with the Rocking Horse Children’s Charity and the Seraphim 12 Foundation (a not-for-profit organization helping stop abuse, neglect and unnecessary horse slaughter). Tell us a little about it.
PR: It was co-written with my friend Perry Margouleff, and I wish to pursue more of that, writing songs together. We put this song together and we just wanted to release it, which is one of the great things about technology nowadays, you don’t really need a record company necessarily to release new music.
RCM: Are there any rare and unreleased Paul Rodgers gems out there, waiting to be discovered?
PR: People tell me there’s a version of House of the Rising Sun out there, from a show I did as part of some radio broadcast while on tour. Strangely enough, I’m not sure where and when it would be from, but fans tell me they love it (laughs). It’s a great song!
RCM: Do you still listen to the radio?
PR: I do. I like listening to music on the radio while I’m driving around in the car. It’s one of my favorite places to listen to music, actually, because your mind can just wander and you can picture all the characters in the movie of the song, if you like. And it’s not all laid out for you by some video producer.
In the old days, in the ’70s, we used to sit around and smoke a little something and listen to the radio or listen to records, and you would imagine what was happening. And there was something nice about the theatre of the mind, where you’d sit around like that, and that’s something that’s gone I think. At the same time, I think music fans today may be tired of music videos.
RCM: That’s what the song Radio Ga Ga by Queen is about, right? What was it like performing with Queen in the Ukraine a couple years back, in front of 350,000 people?
PR: It’s like standing in the centre of a volcano, really, it’s so hot! And it’s hot in many ways other than physical heat – it’s kind of a spiritual heat and it’s an uplifting place to be. I feel very privileged to have actually been there, and what an amazing energy point to be in the center of it all.
RCM: You’ve played some of the biggest stadiums in the world, as well as smaller theatres. Do you prefer one over the other?
PR: I played recently in Canada at Victoria’s Red Robinson Theatre and that was actually better than performing in Kharkiv [Ukraine], to be honest with you. You can still experience this tremendous spiritual heat in a smaller venue, if I can describe it in that way, that is even more fantastic because the people are so close and you can really feel their energy. Having said that, one of the things you try to do in a big arena is try to create a sense of closeness. That’s part of the art in a way, is to turn it into a place where you feel that you’re a part of something, no matter how far back you are.
RCM: How challenging is it to put your setlist together, with 30 albums of material to choose from?
PR: Well, that again is an art in itself, actually. Because you’re creating the show, and you want it to have all the ingredients. For me, a good show has to have light and shade, and it has to have impact at certain points in the set. You need to come on strong. I think it needs to have intimacy at some point, and that’s why I like to reach an acoustic point somewhere in the set.
I also like the audience involved so they feel they’re part of the event, which they very much are. And the show has to move very fast and be very exciting. So all those ingredients are what you’re bearing in mind when putting a setlist together. I find that at the beginning of a tour, I’ll start off with what I think is the perfect set, and then as we perform it, I’ll make adjustments and move a song here, or move a song there — organically gravitating to a different place in the set. The setlist grows and evolves.
RCM: Your song Seagull, from the first Bad Company album, has really evolved over the years when you perform it live.
PR: It’s almost a different version nowadays compared to the original. It’s only when I listen back to the original that I realize how much it’s grown. It’s kind of grown into this giant song, which really surprises me, because initially I wasn’t even sure whether to put it on the album or not. But I thought, well, I like it, so I’m going to put it on because it made for a nice contrast to all the rock and roll on that album.
Seagull does have a simplicity and a certain magic to it. I wrote that song sitting on a beach, strangely enough.
RCM: Who were some of the main influences on your early songwriting?
PR: When I first started writing songs, we were listening to The Beatles and the Stones and all that, but I was also listening to a lot of blues and soul as well. And there’s something about that material – like Albert King – and those very old classic blues songs and their longevity that remains fresh even after all these years. I think some of that rubbed off on my songwriting, early on. It’s quite incredible, really, how Free’s song All Right Now has endured and remained a radio staple after 40 years. It has really stood the test of time.
RCM: Case in point: All Right Now received the BMI “Million Air” award in 2010, acknowledging 4 million radio plays. Do you ever get tired of singing that song?
PR: Well, no, because I didn’t play that song for some 20 odd years. People think I’ve been playing All Right Now all this time – forever, my whole career – but I didn’t play it for a long time after I left Free in 1972. I moved on and formed Bad Company with Mick Ralphs and we went in that direction. And then I did The Firm with Jimmy Page, and then I did a blues thing after that. So it was 20 years later before I discovered that song and found it still had a lot of power.
RCM: Your voice seems to grow more powerful with age — it really soars on that Bad Company Live at Wembley concert.
PR: I like to think it’s improved. I try every night to find different ideas and ways of doing things. I love singing, so for me, it’s like flying and I’m always trying to find ways to improve. When I’m working solo with my band, I do songs from all of my albums — Free, Bad Company, The Firm — and I think with my voice, the songs mix quite well together, as I strive to create a really great set that I can change up quite a lot.
RCM: What have you changed in your songwriting process over the years?
PR: I think over the years I learned that when you’re writing songs, you have to open your mind to everything that’s going on, everything you’re thinking, everything that people are saying to you, everything that’s happening with the weather, and everything happening around you. And that’s something I learned along the way.
A song like Shooting Star – the thought process behind writing that song was that I looked around and thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of people dying at that time in the music business.” But even now, when you think about it, they’re still dying — Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and Whitney Houston. They’re dying way too young, and I think to myself, “The entertainment business is not a war zone — why are all these brilliant musicians dying?” And that’s what triggered the idea behind Shooting Star, all those years ago.
RCM: Is it true The Doors wanted you to replace Jim Morrison on vocals after he died?
PR: Yes. I found that out years later when I played with another version of The Doors about five years ago.
Robby Krieger came up to me and said, “I’ve got to tell you this, but when Jim [Morrison] died, we all jumped on a plane and went to London and were looking for you. We were going to ask you to join us but we couldn’t find you.
I was gobsmacked when I heard that, I must admit, but nobody could find me at that point because I was deep in the countryside. Mick Ralphs and I were forming a band and writing songs for Bad Company, so we were kind of “incognito” as it were.
RCM: Had they found you, would you have joined them?
PR: I don’t know. All these years later, I really can’t say. But I was more into forming bands rather than joining them; I know that much. I just felt really honored though when I found out, only a few years ago, that they were considering me to join The Doors.
RCM: No regrets, then?
PR: No. When I look back, I’ve always followed my heart and gone to where it feels right at that moment. I’ve stepped away from bands when it had become too stereotyped or too burned out. I always knew when it was time to step back and replenish my energy and recharge my creative batteries. Take stock of where you’re going from there, because it all just flowed for me, and it’s still flowing. That’s why I still love writing music, or playing live with my solo band or with Bad Company this summer. Music — it’s a very positive thing.
RCM: In closing, can you share a favorite concert memory with us?
PR: There have been many, many, many, so let me think about that. (Long pause)
The one that just popped into my mind, I was playing in Spain one time and there were four girls at the front of the stage. They were young and beautiful, and they were dancing away right in front and it was packed. I remember trying to make eye contact with them, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make eye contact and it was really strange.
So at the end of the show, we got changed and everything, and went out the backstage entrance where there were a lot of people waiting around to get autographs and photos. And there were these four girls, and as I approached them, I realized they were all blind.
So I went over to them – they spoke Spanish, and I spoke Spanish a little bit, and I just held their hands. It was the most amazing experience and then I said, “I have to go now.” It was so touching. Everybody around us just stood back and applauded, and it was a feeling like nothing I’ve ever felt, and I think everybody else felt it too.
RCM: Sounds like you were in good company?
PR: I really was, man. I’ll never forget that, it was so beautiful.