Paul Rodgers talks ‘All Right Now,’ rock
Paul Rodgers set the standard for classic-rock front men. Over the past five decades, he has not only commanded the mic for Free and Bad Company, but also for bands featuring Jimmy Page (The Firm), and Queen (sitting in for the late Freddie Mercury). Now he’s on tour with another lion of British rock, Jeff Beck. The tour, which also includes a set from Heart front woman Ann Wilson, backs Rodgers with a band named Free Spirit, which aims to channel the soul of Free. A live album/DVD from Free Spirit’s U.K. tour last year has just been released. Here, Rodgers talks about reconnecting to Free’s material live on the 50th anniversary of their founding, as well as his connections to Beck, Plant and more.
Q: You’ve titled this tour the “Stars Align.” But just how “aligned” will you be in the actual show?
A: There’s a tendency to think we’ve formed a super group of myself, Ann and Jeff. But we’re each doing our own sets. There’s also a short acoustic set from Deborah Bonham (sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham).
Q: Have you ever recorded with Jeff ?
A: I’m proud to say he was on three tracks on my 1993 “Tribute to Muddy Waters” album and he nailed every performance. I saw The Jeff Beck Group at the Marquee Club in 1967, when he was with Rod Stewart and, holy smokes, they were amazing. Jimmy Page looked at that band and said ‘that’s a great blueprint for what I want to do with Led Zeppelin.” I actually first met Robert Plant up in Birmingham before that band even started. He said, “I’ve been offered a job in London with a guy called Jimmy Page. He said he’d been offered either 30 quid a week or a percentage of the band.” I told him, “Take the percentage.” Years later I told that to Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant and he said, “Oh, so you were the one!”
Q: Free started in 1968, the same year as Led Zeppelin. In England, people recognize the depth of that band’s talents. But in the U.S., you’re treated like one hit wonders for “All Right Now.” Why didn’t you become bigger here?
A: I think we could have if we had stuck with it — and if we’d had proper management. But we tried to manage ourselves and we didn’t have an Atlantic Records behind us.
Q: When you wrote “All Right Now” with Andy Fraser, did you have any sense it would become one of the most enduring rock songs of all time?
A: We were writing so many songs, in some ways “All Right Now” just seemed like another. But when we first played it in a little venue, we opened with the song and at the end of the set, we asked if anyone had any requests. Everyone started shouting, “Play that first song you played!” That was our hint.
Q: Free countered the prevailing bluesrock sound of the day, which was fast and busy. Instead, you presented a lean, sinewy sound that was slower and more open. How did that develop?
A: Alexis Korner, a jazz musician who was our mentor, told us, “Sometimes it’s the space between the notes that’s more important than the actual notes.” A lot of musicians try to fill any gap in the music with a guitar lick or a bass run. But it came naturally to us to leave lots of breathing room for the listener to enter the music and become part of it. That sound affected so many bands. Lynyrd Skynyrd said they were influenced by our “Fire and Water” album. Queen told me it was their bible, which you wouldn’t think because it’s so far away from their music.
Q: You’ve worked with so many great guitarists, from Jimmy Page to Brian May to Free’s late lead guitar player Paul Kossoff, who had that poignant tremolo sound. Who is your favorite to work with?
A: Koss will always be my favorite. When we first played together at a little blues club in London on “Stormy Monday Blues,” people came up to us and said that time stood still. Koss always thought that his tremolo was too fast. But Eric Clapton told him, “No, that’s your sound.” The guitarist in my new Free Spirit band, Pete Bullick, is kind of like Koss. His playing has that vulnerability, but with power too. In our new show, we will do about six Bad Company songs and other things, but when we play the Free material, it has that old magic.