© Dave Ling - May 1997 - previously published in FRONTIERS magazine
The question most asked of the music journalist is, ‘Who’s the most famous person that you’ve interviewed?’ And having pondered awhile, yours truly will now probably have to answer with the name of Paul Rodgers. Granted, Rodgers might perhaps lack the glamour of a W Axl Rose, a Ritchie Blackmore, a Brian May or an Angus Young, but an extraordinary 28-year career has seen him notching up sales that better or match those of equally legendary stature.
Over the course of stints with Free, Bad Company, The Firm and The Law, as well as three solo albums (1983’s ‘Cut Loose’, 1993’s ‘Muddy Water Blues’ and the just-issued ‘Now’), Middlesbrough-born Rodgers has shifted in excess of 125 million records. “And that was just yesterday, mate!” the singer quips when reminded of the fact.
It has been claimed that Free’s ‘Alright Now’ – a song from their 1970 ‘Fire And Water’ album – is heard somewhere in the world every 45 seconds, and the tune was recently recognised by music copyrighters ASCAP for achieving over a hundred million radio plays in the USA alone. Not too shabby, huh?
Unfortunately, Rodgers isn’t able to offer anything like a detailed breakdown of those 125 million albums, although the Free and Bad Company stuff inevitably account for the lion’s share of the total. That said, ‘Muddy Water Blues’ was nominated for a Grammy award, and the reviews of ‘Now’ have been unanimously positive.
“It’s amazing, yeah,” agrees Rodgers happily. “I cannot believe the feedback that we’ve been getting.”
Paul uses the ‘we’ collectively, as opposed to ‘I’, because ‘Now’ was recorded with a steady backing band of guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, bassist Jaz Lochrie and drummer Jimmy Copley. All have worked with the likes of Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Crawler, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Procol Harum, Seal and Go West; Rodgers favours experience over the ‘young guns’ scenario that Robert Plant has worked so well. Whitehorn even gets a composition credit on the new album, as does Journey guitarist Neal Schon who co-wrote ‘Saving Grace’. Rodgers describes ‘Now’ as “blues and soul crossed with rock ‘n’ roll” and stylistically it doesn’t throw up too many surprises. So what kind of things does he listen to these days?
“Probably the same kind of thing I enjoyed 10 years ago – I still break out the vinyl and have a wallow when I get the chance,” replies Paul. “But there’s some great talent out there now, and funnily enough the music I’m enjoying most is being made by girl singers. Tracy Chapman’s really got something special, Alanis Morissette is a great songwriter and I love Cheryl Crow. It’s great to see the ladies doing well.”
“When I first heard W Axl Rose sing I thought, ‘Who’s that shrieking perv?!’”
Obviously, Paul Rodgers has become celebrated as a singer’s singer, and it comes as no shock that he had little fondness for grunge, a movement in which any kind of vocal ability was frowned upon. So it’s perhaps unlikely that he would turn out to be a fan of Pearl Jam’s resident king of misery, Eddie Vedder.
“He’s great and I love his band, they did some good things,” reckons Rodgers. “But the grunge thing wasn’t for me at all. Part of what I do involves getting into the wall of sound thing, with plenty of distortion, but you shouldn’t do that all night. It shouldn’t become your whole act. Throughout whatever I’ve done there’ll always be a Gospel influence thrown in, or an acoustic song or two. I believe in dynamics, and grunge didn’t have that at all.”
To spice things up a little, I wonder if Paul will give us his opinions on a few other noted vocalists. What about former Deep Purple/Trapeze bassist/singer Glenn Hughes, to start off with?
“He’s great, actually. I’ve been out in Europe doing promotion for my record and I’ve been hearing a lot about Glenn. People are saying I should check out his latest album [‘Addiction’] and I probably will.”
Rodgers shouldn’t have too much trouble in getting hold of a copy, as he’s currently a label-mate of Hughes on SPV Records. Moving along, what about the singing style of Guns N’ Roses frontman W Axl Rose?
“When I first heard him I thought, ‘Who’s that shrieking perv?!’ Oh, that’s rotten of me to have said that [Too late! – Ed], but he’s very distinctive – the kind of voice you either love or hate. But I love Slash [GN’R guitarist] to pieces, he’s a very good friend of mine. A lot of people expect him to have an attitude when they meet him, but he’s a lovely guy. A real sweetheart.”
Chris Cornell of Soundgarden?
“I have to profess ignorance on that one; I don’t know who he is.”
After the last Whitesnake tour, some people said that David Coverdale’s voice had seen better days, but Rodgers – whose gravely, blues-drenched tones have often been likened to those of Coverdale – tactfully refuses to be drawn on this issue.
“David Cover-Version?” he muses. “Well, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who’s a singer because it’s not the easiest job in the world. When you pick up a microphone, you set yourself up to be shot down in flames. So I really wouldn’t knock him. He’s done some good things in his career.”
To these ears, Rodgers’ voice has altered little in the past 28 years.
“People often ask me if I think it’s changed and it’s hard for me to say because I’m so close to it,” he reflects. “My influences have stayed the same; Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. I think I’m still trying to sound like them.”
“I don’t know what they’ve actually achieved by persevering as Bad Company.
They’ve stagnated and let themselves down. At least I’m trying to move into new areas”
Another pleasing aspect of Rodgers’ career is that he finally feels comfortable again with his past. The singer recently toured the UK, choosing to reinstate several classic numbers like ‘All Right Now’, ‘Fire And Water’ and ‘Feel Like Making Love’ into his set. Paul admits to “mixed feelings” about this move, but cannot argue with its popularity among the fans.
“I hadn’t done those songs for such a long time,” he recalls. “Free did Free songs, Bad Company did Bad Company and ne’er the twain would meet. I’ve always tried to keep those things separate, but when I was touring ‘Muddy Waters Blues’ it kinda seemed okay to mix in a few oldies. The audience was requesting them and the band wanted to play them, it was only me in the middle that didn’t want to.
“So we tried a few of them out, and after such a long time it turned out to be fun,” he adds. “It helps to be playing them again with different band members, it gives a different slant. What I’ve been doing on my latest tour was something from all my past bands. A few highlights from each and then onto the ‘Now’ stuff. It would be a lot for the audience to swallow if I just played the entire new album. When the next one comes along, I’ll gradually introduce the new songs.”
With such a vast catalogue of quality material, Rodgers could well be up onstage for several hours at a time. In the days of, for instance, Free, was he aware of the importance of what he and his colleagues were doing?
“Well, it was important to us,” he reflects. “We grew up in a time when rock ‘n’ roll was like yesterday’s newspaper – here today, gone tomorrow. That was the sum total of its significance. But it wasn’t like that to us, we really felt it. And we really believed it. We had to have a lot of heart and soul if we were to get a record company interested and really get out music out there to those people. But have said that, I am surprised that ‘All Right Now’ is still out there and kicking.”
You might like to know that Rodgers was as appalled as you and I when the aforementioned Free anthem was used to advertise chewing gum. How offensive!
“Yeah, and I was surprised to say the least because nobody told me about it,” he reveals. “But you must realise that when we very young, Free signed a contract which pretty much gave our lives away.
It was a stupid thing to have done, but unfortunately we were naïve and have paid the price. I believe it was there in the small print that our songs could be used in commercials, but they were supposed to inform us of what they were planning to do. The first I heard of it was when ‘Whoa whoa whoa’ came out of the TV and I thought, ‘That sounds like me’. To be honest, I do find it a bit insulting.”
Paul’s also less than chuffed about the continued existence of Bad Company, last seen being fronted by Robert Hart (formerly of a hugely underrated act called The Distance) after several years of ex-Ted Nugent mouthpiece Brian Howe filling the Rodgers role.
“I admit that I’m not overly thrilled about that,” he sighs. “They did call and ask if they could carry on using the name after I’d left. I wasn’t very keen on the idea, but they didn’t have anything else to do, so I agreed. But I don’t know what they’ve actually achieved by persevering as Bad Company. I really don’t. They’ve stagnated and let themselves down. At least I’m trying to move into new areas. Although I’m playing a few of my older songs again, it’s very important that I provide a bit more than mere nostalgia.”
“When we very young, Free signed a contract which pretty much gave our lives away.
It was a stupid thing to have done, but unfortunately we were naïve and have paid the price”
Whilst we’re on the subject of ex-bands, Paul takes the opportunity to explain the dissolution of his short-lived project The Law, which he formed with ex-Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones back in 1991. A self-titled album was cut and received favourable reviews, but the band eventually fizzled out.
“The problem was a lack of gigs,” he recalls. “We had a big build-up and then it went off like a balloon without a knot in it. The irony was that Kenney and I formed that band to get us back on the road, and the only date we ever played was [at Milton Keynes Bowl] with ZZ Top, which was reasonably well received. We had great management with ZZ Top’s people and the record company [Atlantic] seemed to be behind what we wanted to do, but I don’t know whether the problem was political or financial – it just didn’t happen.”
A partnership with ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, The Firm lasted for two albums – ‘The Firm’ in 1985 and the following year’s ‘Mean Business’ – and a couple of world tours. It would be fair to state that The Law were just about the only non-starter in Rodgers’ long career. Considering all the records he’s sold, is he bothered by the more negative traits of fame?
“Not really,” reflects the singer. “I can walk down the street without being bothered. I look so different to the guy who was in Free and Bad Company because my hair’s now really short. I prefer it that way. It means I can still travel on public transport and I still do; only yesterday I came home to Guildford from London on the train. It was to see a very nice chick… but that’s another story!”
“I’m still trying to sound like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf”
When asked to isolate just one moment of which he is particularly proud, Paul selects a jam with Otis Redding’s backing band.
“That was absolutely awe-inspiring,” he enthuses. “It happened in New York, at Madison Square Garden. Even though the venue is a legendary one and I’d already played it before – with Bad Company, and I think we did four or five nights – that one show and that one song was extra special to me because I did it with those guys. It was a real goosebumps moment, and I’ll never forget it.”
The official Paul Rodgers website
In 1999, the readers of Classic Rock voted Paul Rodgers as the best rock vocalist of all time, an honour that he thoroughly deserves. In common with Ronnie James Dio, Rodgers has a voice of gold. Like a fine wine, it only seems to improve with age. While his rivals are forced to use a lower register, or to cast aside certain songs that they can no longer do justice to, Paul Rodgers continues to defy the ravages of Old Father Time.
Since this interview took place in early 1997, Rodgers has issued another solo album called ‘Electric’ and went on to astound fans by returning to Bad Company, taking bassist Jaz Lochrie with him. A bigger shock was still to come. After jamming with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor at a British TV show, Paul has agreed to front a Queen tour of Europe in early 2005. The combination of these three talents is pretty mouth-watering, I’m sure you’ll agree. ! (19th December, 2004)
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