Recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Free Spirit – Celebrating The Music of Free, the new CD/DVD from legendary singer Paul Rodgers finds the master rock stylist revisiting the catalog of his late ‘60s/early ‘70s group, Free.
The best singer in rock and roll, according to this rock scribe, Rodgers’ remarkable voice remains a marvel, an instrument of power, precision and passion, seamlessly traversing the stylistic dynamics ever present in Free’s body of work. Shortly before heading out on the Stars Align tour with Jeff Beck, Ann Wilson of Heart and Deborah Bonham (sister of the late John Bonham), we sat down with Rodgers for a look back at all things Free.
Rock Cellar: With the new album, Free Spirit, and in your new live show, you’re delving deep into the catalog of Free. Then and now, how do Free songs transform in a live setting from their studio counterparts?
Paul Rodgers: Yeah, they do transform. One of the things that my band, Free Spirit, understand are the dynamics of the original Free band, the light and the shade. I love that. Sometimes you can hear a pin drop and sometimes it roars like thunder. People talk about dynamics but very few bands actually have it. I remember going to see BB King, for instance, and he could take it down to a very delicate, intimate moment and then build it back up to where it’s really throbbing.
Let me just say that I did an all Free tour in the UK and I’m including some of the material I wrote and recorded with Bad Company on this tour. The set list I’ve written out in my mind works pretty well actually.
I think people in America will like to hear “Can’t Get Enough”,” “Shooting Star,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love”; they fit quite well alongside Free songs like “All Right Now,” “Fire & Water” and “Mr. Big.” So that’s how I structured the set so it is different from the Free Spirit DVD.
It’s very interesting to dig back deep into the catalog, because I’m discovering songs that Free recorded but never played live. There’s quite a lot of material that we didn’t really explore beyond he recording so it’s interesting. “Catch A Train” and “Love You So” were among the songs Free never did live. There were many; “Heavy Load” we didn’t do.
I would never have done this without the right band. It’s Deborah Bonham’s actual band, and we got together and did a couple of charity shows. We did one every year for about three years in a private setting in Chichester. The guys dug into the music so well and played the Free material so well that they really captured the spirit for me. I call them the Free Spirit band.
We were doing it for a charity called Willows Animal Sanctuary and Assisted Therapy Unit, which is an animal sanctuary in the UK and assisted therapy unit whose motto is “people helping animals helping children.” Our guitarist Pete Bullick and his wife Deborah Bonham are patrons, as are my wife Cynthia and I. So we did those shows and I said to the guys, “One day we’ll tour this,” and so that day came.
We toured it in the UK and it went over amazingly well. People just loved it and I was really touched by the depth of the love of the music and the way the band responded and the way the audience responded to their playing. I thought, “Well, we could do more with this; let’s tour a little bit more and take it to America.” Initially I was gonna do a small theater tour, but with the addition of Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson and Deborah Bonham opening the shows, we’ll be playing in outdoor sheds. I’m very interested in seeing how it goes and I’m really looking forward to it.
Speaking of dynamics, in Free the fifth member of the band was “space.” Whereas when there are gaps/space in recordings, most artists/bands tendencies is to fill those, Free had an admirable restraint embracing a “less is more” aesthetic.
Paul Rodgers: I’m not sure where that kind of thinking came from but we definitely did think like that. When Free first got together, Paul Kossoff and I would listen to Albert King, BB King, Cream and Hendrix and we could hear that going on; we could hear the question and answer between the musicians and the space in order to have a conversation musically. And then there’s room for the listener to step inside the music. There’s a certain amount of suggestion that something is about to happen and you have to wait for it. You have to wait for the moment.
The music of Free sounds timeless 50 years onward, can you proffer an explanation?
Paul Rodgers: I think we listened to the right people; we were fortunate in that because John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin and those great masters of the genre created emotional music that touches peoples’ hearts. We listened to that and soaked it up and we tried to emulate that. When we were listening to the blues, some of it was 40 years old when we started listening to it (laughs). It wasn’t new but it was new to us and it sounded so different from everything else we were listening to that was around.
We must have picked up some of that, I think.
The band was called Free; when writing and recording, how did you get into a state where there was less thinking and more instinctual musical freedom?
Paul Rodgers: I think that happens as you go, that evolves. You get the chords right and everybody learns the song but there’s a point where you switch over and you’re automatically there in the song and it takes on a life of its own. Actually the whole Free Spirit set evolved that way. One can write out a list of songs, but until you play them you don’t know whether they work together or not and how that will sit and how that will build. It’s just playing them that will tell you that.
As we progressed through the UK tour I’d switch from opening with this song to opening with another song; I’d switch songs around so the whole set becomes a structure with a purpose. The purpose is to engage the audience and take them on a journey and reach a fitting climax at the end.
In the ‘60s, who were the soul singers you were fortunate to see live? Did you ever see Otis Redding perform live?
Paul Rodgers: No, I never got to see Otis live. Obviously I’ve seen DVDs and all of that. When I was growing up we used to go to a club called The Purple Onion in Middleborough and I saw The Four Tops there and I saw Rod Stewart and his Steampacket with Christine Perfect (Christine McVie) who later went on to join Fleetwood Mac. I saw a lot of great artists there. I regret not being able to see Otis live. I saw him sing on Top Of The Pops on the TV with a couple of English blue- eyed soul singers and wow, his voice was monstrously huge. He had such a big voice.
Speaking of classic soul singers, the great Wilson Pickett covered a song you co-wrote and sang with Free. “Fire & Water.” What was it like for you hear that version for the first time?
Paul Rodgers: When I was writing “Fire & Water” I did think about Wilson Pickett. It was very amazing that he picked up on it without any pushing from our record company.
All of a sudden there it was. It was a dream come true to write a song that Wilson Pickett would record. It was a great version; it’s Wilson at his finest. He’s on fire. I did get to meet him at a show in New York and he died soon afterwards. His last words to me were, “Hey, write me some more songs.”
You were fortunate to have seen Elvis Presley perform live at The Forum in Los Angeles in 1974 (something Rock Cellar’s Steve Rosen experienced firsthand and wrote about in a Behind the Curtain column). Take us back to that night and how “the King” lent some astute advice to you with his autograph.
Paul Rodgers: Clive Coulson, Bad Company’s tour manager at the time, went backstage and met Elvis with Peter Grant (Bad Company and Led Zeppelin manager). (laughing) I couldn’t get through the crowd to get backstage. But Elvis signed something for me and it says, “To Paul, take time to live.” I went to Clive, “Wow, what does that mean?” And he goes, “I don’t know but that’s what he wrote.”
Now I don’t know whether Elvis was actually aware of who I was particularly but I guess it was from one singer to another, which was a very kind message I thought. It was very heartfelt.
Whatever you’re doing, if you’re in the business and you’re singing, take time to live — because maybe he didn’t. I enjoyed the show, but to be honest it was a little bit overkill with too many instruments. Elvis was great but there were a lot of singers and a lot of musicians and I really like Elvis with his original stripped-back band with Scotty (Moore), Bill (Black) and DJ (Fontana). But he was great and his voice was still really powerful.
Many people have asked you about your influences as a singer but I’ve never heard you speak about those influences as a lyricist. With Free, for example, you introduced an economical style, matching the band’s “less is more” music, merging simplicity with a poetic flavor. Using a song like “Soon I Will be Gone” as an example, what inspired you as a lyricist with that kind of writing?
Paul Rodgers: What I do when I’m writing songs is try to create a mood or an atmosphere. With the song “Seagull,” for instance, it’s good to sit by the beach and do that because the atmosphere is there and you just have to sort of capture the moment in many ways. I’m always looking for lyrical ideas and I’m always looking for words that connect well together. I’m always writing songs.
I read a lot and I love a good writer. I love rich, English language that’s very expressive and says a lot in a few words. A lot of the blues guys actually captured a lot in very few words. Like John Lee Hooker, (sings) “when things go wrong, go wrong with you, it’s hurting me too,” I think that says a lot.
When Free broke big, the band members were in their late teens and early ‘20s, how did that youthful naiveté/innocence work to the band’s benefit and detriment?
Paul Rodgers: We went into it with our eyes wide shut. We knew nothing about the music business in terms of contracts and lawyers, the legality of law and all that sort of thing. But you kind of find out. So yeah, the wide eyed innocence was just wanting to play music. I mean, we found each other. We were four individual blues players when we came together in the afternoon and by the end of the day we were a band.
Alexis Korner walks in in the middle of one of the songs and he said “You know, you guys do sound like a band, all you need now is a name.” He told us he had a band with Cyril Davies called Free Spirit and said, “I don’t know if that helps you.” And we went, “it’s gotta be Free.” So the idea of being free musically still sticks with me. Right now what we’re doing is not Free but I do feel that the band and myself capture the spirit of Free, that initial rush of energy and creativity.
There’s a kind of experimental energy in what we’re doing that I haven’t heard in a long time.
The records are not set in stone for them. They come to them in a way I describe as very loosely tight and I do like that. I like the feeling that it could go anywhere.
Scientific studies done about music cite musical tastes are formed and strongest between the age of 13 to 21 years of age. Does that hold true for you?
Paul Rodgers: I think it’s interesting. I think music kind of hits you at a certain age, doesn’t it? And it’s whatever’s going on at that time that hits you stays with you for the rest of your life. It has something to do with sexual awakening I think. When that happens there’s a definite connection that stays with you I was about 13 or 14 and I was like, “Aw, look at that girl…hmmm.” (laughs) And then I’m also listening to Otis Redding and all these blues songs (laughs) so I do think there’s a connection.
Had we gone through your record collection back in the days of Free, what albums/singles would have received the most time on your stereo?
Paul Rodgers: Otis Blue, very much. “Red Beans and Rice” and “Be My Lady,” songs written by Steve Cropper, and recorded by Booker T. and The MG’s. I had that single and just bought it again, actually. It’s one of the things that’s amazing about the internet is you can hunt it down. I lost it in my travels and I found it again. I love that track.
Booker T. and The MG’s obviously do “Green Onions” and everybody knows that but “Green Onions” is still cool, there’s still something cool about it. (laughs) I love that band.
I always felt Free was like a hard rock version of Booker T. and The MG’s.
Paul Rodgers: In Free, we all used to listen to the same things and get a lot from them. We used to listen to the things that were current too as well like The Beatles and the Stones and everybody else, things like “Fire and Rain,” (sings “just yesterday morning…”) by James Taylor. All of those things moved us as well, but I think when we sat down and lit the candles it was a lot of soul and blues music.
Given your extensive career in music, Free, Bad Company, The Firm, The Law and as a solo artist, any interest/plans in writing a book?
Paul Rodgers: People have asked me and I am thinking about it, but I honestly don’t think I’ve had that interesting of a life. People want to hear all this kind of stuff going on, but I just played music.
When I set out from home there were three things I set out to do, one was to survive, the second was to find peace of mind and the third was to make music. And that’s what I’ve been doing and I’m still doing it, but I don’t know how interesting that is for a book.
What’s the last song you heard where you said, “I wish I wrote that!”?
Paul Rodgers: Oh, I do that all the time. To this day I still wish I wrote “Free Falling” by Tom Petty. I love that song. I can’t even play it; I must learn to play it one day. The chorus is apparently the same as the verses (sings) “And I’m free…”
Tour Dates for Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson’s ‘Stars Align’ 2018 Tour:
July 18, 2018 West Valley City, UT USANA Amphitheatre
July 20, 2018 Los Angeles, CA Five Point Amphitheatre
July 22, 2018 Chula Vista, CA Mattress Firm Amphitheatre
July 24, 2018 Houston, TX Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land
July 25, 2018 Dallas, TX The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory
July 28, 2018 St. Louis, MO Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
July 29, 2018 Chicago, IL Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
July 31, 2018 Clarkston, MI DTE Energy Music Theatre
August 1, 2018 Toronto, ON Budweiser Stage
August 3, 2018 Boston, MA Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
August 4, 2018 Camden, NJ BB&T Pavilion
August 8, 2018 Cincinnati, OH Riverbend Music Center
August 10, 2018 Indianapolis, IN Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center
August 12, 2018 Holmdel, NJ P.N.C. Bank Arts Center
August 14, 2018 Wantagh, NY Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater
August 17, 2018 Nashville, TN Nashville Municipal Auditorium
August 19, 2018 Charlotte, NC PNC Music Pavilion
August 25, 2018 West Palm Beach, FL Coral Sky Amphitheatre
August 26, 2018 Tampa, FL MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Amphitheatre