Something Else! Interview: Paul Rodgers on Bad Company, Free, Queen and that Memphis magic

Paul Rodgers’ trip to Memphis to record his forthcoming Stax-stuffed Royal Sessions album quickly took on all of the religious overtones of a pilgrimage. That’s how strong his connection is with these R&B classics.

The former frontman with Free, Bad Company and Queen ended up taking on 10 of them, including a handful closely associated with Otis Redding, in sessions at the still-operating Royal Studios in Memphis, where Willie Mitchell once oversaw iconic recordings by Al Green, Ann Peebles and Syl Johnson.

“Sometimes, you just close your eyes — and you’re in another world,” Rodgers tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “We definitely took a trip into the songs, and followed it where ever it took us.”

Rodgers tells us about the lucky accident that led to this emotional trip back to his earliest influences, how Memphis R&B connects into his work with Free, and what led him to donate all proceeds from Royal Sessions to Memphis-based music-education programs. Rodgers also reminiscences about career intersections with Bad Company and Queen …

NICK DERISO: Clearly, this was a labor of love. Explain the connection you have with the sizzling Memphis sound.
PAUL RODGERS: This definitely was a labor of love, there’s no doubt about that. My influences, way back when I first started out singing and playing bass actually, I listened a lot to Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave — a lot of soul and a lot of blues. To come back to Memphis and make a record with the guys that produced, that really created this form of music in a way, it was a like coming home.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Producer Billy Sherwood takes us inside the sessions for Paul Rodgers' blues-rocking 1993 Muddy Waters tribute album, 'Muddy Water Blues.']

NICK DERISO: What moved you to donate all proceeds to local music education programs?
PAUL RODGERS: Every morning, Perry Margouleff, my producer, and I; and Bill Wittman, our engineer, and Wes (Havanec, the assistant engineer on Royal Sessions), we’d all get up from the hotel and drive to the studio and we’d drive through all of this poverty, really. We’d get to the studio, and we’d record — the whole time thinking: “Wow, this music has given us so much, and here it is giving us more. Let’s give it back.” If we make any money from this, let’s put it back into Memphis music somehow. So, Perry and I have financed this whole thing ourselves, personally. So, it was something we could just do. It looked as if Stax itself was the best way to do it, because they run a school where kids can learn to play music.

NICK DERISO: Playing in that setting, at Memphis’ Royal studios with those 1960s-era sidemen, must have stirred up a lot of ghosts. I can’t imagine you recording this album anytime before dark. It’s got that late-night feel.
PAUL RODGERS: (Laughs.) Yeah, well, the whole studio has that vibe to it. It’s a very economically challenged area, where the studio is situated. There’s a lot of derelict buildings. But it’s vibe-y, very edgy, indeed. And the studio itself is real funky. It has, more than just the knowledge of its history, it has a vibe to it when you walk in. It’s as if the walls kind of seep this history. And, like you said, the ghosts of the past sessions are ready to be woken up. I think we did stir up some fantastic spirit feeling in that room. I don’t think we could have quite done it anywhere else. It’s a very special room.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Otis Redding producer and sideman Steve Cropper delves into mythical Memphis sides like “Soul Man,” “Knock on Wood” and “Dock of the Bay,” among others.]

NICK DERISO: The album is powered along by a series of tracks from the Otis Redding songbook. Clearly you wore out your copy of Otis Blue, right?
PAUL RODGERS: (Laughs.) That’s exactly right! I used to, when I liked on Portobello Road (in West London) and I was just forming Free with Paul Kossoff and we were thinking about what the band would be, I would play that album back to back. When one side was finished, and I just turn it over again — on and on, all day. I loved that album. The theme for this album was actually Stax, generally. I was even going to call it Stax, at one point. But I thought the Royal Studios, as a title idea, was the way to go ultimately. All of the tracks have been released on Stax, except one — Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” The reason for doing that one was, I saw the 24-tracks of songs that had been recorded there — and that was the one that jumped right out at me. I said to (Lawrence) Boo (Mitchell, son of legendary Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell), the studio manager: ‘Is that the master?’ He said: ‘Yep, she recorded that here — and we’ve still got the electric bongos that she used on that track.’ So, I said: ‘We just have to go it.’ And everybody was great. Perry is a wizard with technical things. When they found the electric bongos, they didn’t really work. They had been stored in a cupboard for many, many years. He got it going, and we put it on the track. That was quite a triumph. Isn’t that cool? (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: You certainly can hear an R&B influence in songs like “I’m a Mover” with Free. Losing Paul, it seems, can’t be overestimated. There was a blues-based symmetry between you two in Free that has never quite been replicated.
PAUL RODGERS: We really, in a way, we copying Albert King and B.B. King. We’d have these discussions about how those guys, and a lot of blues guys in general, would interplay. They’d sing a line, and then answer themselves — and that’s what Paul and I would do, between us. We’d do exactly that. It’s quite a fine art, really. Koss was also playing rhythm, so he couldn’t really lose the rhythm, either. We took a lot from blues and soul, absolutely. I think what the band became was a kind of rock band with soul.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Bad Company, like so many great classic rock-era bands, was torn apart by drug use. Other than the odd reunion, they never recovered.]

NICK DERISO: The summer found you reuniting with Bad Company for a 40th anniversary tour. That led to questions about new music with Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke. But you seem more focused on your own career right now.
PAUL RODGERS: I think so. You know, with Bad Company it was a great tour, it was a successful tour — and the fans were fantastic. It was really touching, actually. Half the tour, we did with Lynyrd Skynyrd and we were exchanging headliners. The atmosphere, every night, was unbelievable. And we played very well. Half of the band, I brought in from my solo band. It was great to bring them in. A lot of the arrangements that we had developed live, we used for this Bad Company tour. So, it was good. It was good to be back with the boys.

NICK DERISO: Your four-year stint in Queen seemed fun, but ultimately there was only so far that could go too. Did you feel like you added a new wrinkle to their legacy along the way?
PAUL RODGERS: Not everybody can do that. Before that, I think Elton John described it as having a fantastic car in the garage, but with one part missing — so you can’t take it out, you know? They had all of the machinery: They had all of those songs, wonderful musicians, a great light show. It’s all ready to go, but they were missing that one piece, which was the frontman singing. There wasn’t anyone who was really willing to pick up that baton, and run with it. I did, and we did that together — and it lasted a lot longer than I had planned. Originally, we were just going to do a tour of Europe just for fun, because it was so enjoyable to play together. And that turned into four years, during which we toured the world twice, and I went to all kinds of places I had never been before. We recorded a few live DVDs and finished off with a studio album of original material, at which time I felt it was time for me to get back, full on, to be own thing — my own music.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Should it have been called Queen? Ask yourself this: Does the name really mean anything? Isn’t it the music that means the most?]

NICK DERISO: Certainly, with Cosmos Rocks, there was an effort to combine your two very different styles.
PAUL RODGERS: It was, very much. The song “Voodoo,” I had written that and we were just kicking ideas around when we played it. It had such a great groove to it, but Brian always said to me: “I can’t really play blues.” I said: “Yes, you can. Just play.” And he played a fantastic, very voodoo-like solo, right in the middle of it. I thought it was pretty good.

NICK DERISO: Did the work you did on The Royal Sessions have an impact on your original material? I understand you’re working on a second new release.
PAUL RODGERS: Perry Margouleff and I, we actually got sidetracked. We’d been writing songs and making demos, with a view to putting an album of original material together at some point. But the Memphis thing came up, because we’ve had lots of conversations about our influences. I’ve often said to Perry how I was influenced by soul, and he happened to visit Memphis and was looking around at Stax and the museum. And there’s a picture in the museum of the Royal Studios, and he said to Lisa Allen, who runs the museum: “Oh, it’s a pity that these studios aren’t still around, because it would be great to go and record.” And she said: “Oh, that’s studio is still fully functioning.” Just, as it happened, Boo Mitchell walked in at that moment, and she said: “That’s Boo Mitchell, and he runs it. Let me introduce you.” So, Perry called me and told me about this fantastic, vibe-y studio that was still functioning and had all of this history. I came down, and we did three days initially, to see how it went. And I loved the atmosphere, and the musicians, everyone was so welcoming. Somebody made a lemon pie, and it was to die for. It was just really lovely. So, I decided I had to go back and make a full attempt at an album, and that’s what we did.

NICK DERISO: So how far back did that push the original release?
PAUL RODGERS: The album that Perry and I have been working has been something we’ve been doing between other things. I tour with my solo band and, obviously, we had the Bad Company tour, and other things are going on. Now, we have got this in this mix, and the record company would like me obviously to promote this. We would like for it to do well. I think one of things we will do is do a show, at one of the iconic clubs in Memphis, and record that so that we will have a DVD that’s really representative of this music in action. That would be kind of cool, and that would be a good way to promote it. Also, I’m touring with my solo band in May, solidly. So, we’ll get back to that (laughs), but all in due course.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.