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Interview – Paul Rodgers

Interview – Paul Rodgers

Last year former Free and Bad Company front man Paul Rodgers went to a classic soul studio in Memphis and hooked up with the ‘house band’ to record the songs of his youth. That studio was the home of Hi Records, Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, and the people backing him up were the same ones that played with Hi Records’ best known artists. And, as that roster included Ann Peebles and Al Green, these are first rate musicians; people like Hammond B3 maestro Reverend Charles Hodges and his brother bass player LeRoy Hodges, as well as a horn section and backing singers. The Royal Sessions, as they have been dubbed for Rodgers’ latest release, were captured by producer Perry Margouleff, who discovered that the studio was still running and used analogue tape. The sessions were recorded live with the minimum of overdubbing and mixed in analogue, without recourse to Protools or its ilk. As a result, the album has a warmth and vibrancy that is rare. The songs he covers include ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’, ‘Walk On By’ and ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’. I caught up with Paul and asked him what it was like to make an album as unusual as this.

Jason Kennedy: Was this a labour of love?

Paul Rodgers: I’m still enjoying what I’m doing. I loved recording this album, it was something, it’s been 50 years since I was sitting in my little room in Middlesborough and going out to clubs and listening to this music. From Middlesborough to Memphis is like 50 years and in between I’ve done all this other stuff like Free, Bad Company, The Firm and QPR and that kind of stuff, so its amazing to come full circle in many respects.

Did you ever play this material in the early days in the Wildflowers (the name of Paul’s first band, or one of its names at least)?

[Laughs] It’s such a funny name when I look back now. It was such a great idea at the time, we were the Roadrunners but we changed our name to hit the big time when we went down to London. We were only the Wildflowers for a couple of months really but that’s the name that sticks. I thought it was a perfect name at the time what with flower power. I used to play ‘It’s Growing’, probably that’s the only song I’ve done with a band, with the Roadrunners. Even though I’ve absorbed these songs into my DNA in many respects I never really sang them full on. It was only when I stepped to the microphone in Memphis, at the Royal studios with these guys that I did a proper version.

I tell a lie, there is one other one, there’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’, we did that with Free. ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, we did that in one take, I suggested we do it and the guys noodled around with the arrangement and stuff like that for ten minutes. Then we went straight into it and recorded it. We finished it and everyone went wow! We listened to it and said that’s it, we’re not going to really be doing that in more than one take, it’s there. That sometimes happens, it’s a sign of a really good session.

 

It must be quite exhilarating recording live like that, do you do that often?

I try to record at least the basic tracks live, with any of the bands I work with it’s what I try to do. I have tried the layering idea in the past and I’ve found you get what you might call perfection, but the spirit of the thing is missing if you don’t have everybody playing together. Something sparks when there’s a band playing live. There’s a lot of ad-libbing on here which you couldn’t go back to and overdub because it’s so out there.

What was it like working with such legendary musicians?

They’re all masters of their craft. You’ve got the Reverend Charles Hodges senior who is a preacher when he’s not doing sessions. You’ve got LeRoy Hodges on bass, his brother, and Hubby on Wurlitzer, so we had two keyboard players, which I wondered about because they might have got in each other’s way. But they actually orchestrate and listen so closely to each other that they’re almost one instrument. It’s superb! During the mix Perry was telling me that you can’t split them up, they work so well together. With a completely different sound, the Wurlitzer and the Hammond organ are very different. On ‘Down Don’t Bother Me’ when the Reverend Charles opens up and does a solo, it’s wow! It’s just so much of a groove it’s incredible, words fail me, it’s beautiful.

What was it like working in that studio, does the history of the place affect you?

Oh absolutely, it dripped atmosphere. You drive through this very run down area, there’s a lot of derelict buildings and empty shops and right in the middle of it all is this oasis of music. It’s been there since the fifties and it’s still there and it still resonates with that amazing music that’s been made throughout the years. You walk in and, I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I could just feel the spirit of blues and soul.

I notice you used analogue tape, was that because they had the facilities or was it something that you and Perry wanted to do?

Perry has completely turned me back onto the whole analogue approach. I went with everybody else along the digital route because that’s ‘progress’. You go into a studio nowadays, you’re not looking at a desk anymore: you’re looking at a screen. We did some editing but we had to cut the tape the old fashioned way, doing it properly. It was very organic from start to finish, everything was analogue and recorded live and mixed that way. We went digital to get it onto CD at the very last stage but it is available as a vinyl album too. I love vinyl. I’ve got right back into it. I’m buying all my old records again; I just got Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells. It’s a great album. You can tell that they’re all playing live in the studio, it’s going down so smoothly. I re-bought Red Beans and Rice by Booker T and MGs, which was the first record I ever bought back then. I’m so pleased to say that it sounds as good as or even better than it did when I was 14.

Paul Rodgers Copyright Jim McGuire

You’ve probably got a better record player now.

[Laughs] I think so, I had a little Dansette, it sounded great to me.

Do you have a decent turntable?

I got one recently. I went to what they call a garage sale out here in Palm Springs and I picked up a Yamaha from this guy. It’s middle of the road but it’s pretty good and it enables me to go vinyl collecting.

Were you ever an Elvis fan, did you get to Graceland whilst you were in Memphis?

We certainly did. Every time we go to Memphis we make the pilgrimage out to Graceland, it’s always unique. When I first went there many years ago I went with my bass player in Free [Andy Fraser] and we tried to climb over the wall because it was closed. The security guy caught us and was like “Can I help you guys?” We said we were Elvis fans and he said jump in the car and he drove round the grounds, he said “I can’t get you in the building, Elvis is not home” but he was telling us it was floor to ceiling with gold albums, so we were terribly impressed. It’s got quite a bit more commercial since then and they’ve moved Elvis’ grave, so that it’s on the premises. They do get a bit Disneyland but in a funny sort of way it works. One of the things I like about the Elvis house is, although it looks like a big mansion and it is, it’s very homely inside, the rooms are quite small. It’s really worth a visit.

Do you think you’ll be touring this material?

I’m touring in May in the States and I will include some of the songs. I’d like to do ‘I Thank You’, some of the songs we’ll include in the set. One of these days, one of these minutes I’d like to find a really good club in Memphis, of which there are many, and play a show there with the guys from the session, do a DVD there. I think that would be the next step for capturing the atmosphere of this music. Rather than trying to do it in a concert hall which kind of takes it out of its home ground, it’s home is clubland.

What motivates you to carry on?

I love playing music and I love playing live. I do about 20 or 30 shows each year and that’s fine for me, that frees me up to do other things, like this for instance.

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