We are besieged by rock stars who can’t move beyond their hits. Thank goodness that Paul Rodgers is no such rock star. Sure, if you listen to classic rock radio you’ll hear his iconic vocals whenever Clear Channel decides to play the same handful of (utterly classic) Bad Company or Free hits. But this is a rocker whose recent career has been occupied by “passion projects” focused on those who inspired him. That coupled with a selective touring schedule has not only kept his voice in its arena rock form, but has also kept him from falling into the creative morass of the “oldies” circuit.
His latest “passion project” is his first studio LP since 2000: The Royal Sessions. Recorded at Memphis’ iconic Royal Studios, The Royal Sessions is more than an homage to Stax Records artists like Otis Redding, Albert King, and Sam & Dave; for Rodgers, it is an honest and analog account of following inspiration despite all other plans.
Rodgers was in the midst of recording a long-awaited album of original songs when the opportunity to record at Royal Studios presented itself. The Royal Sessions’ authentic, reverent feel that is due in no small part to the roster of Memphis studio musician veterans, some of whom played on the very recordings that Rodgers honors on The Royal Sessions. (Did we mention it’s available on 200 gram vinyl, too?)
His love of the Memphis sound and the serendipitous way the album came about further inspired him to give back to the city that made the music that inspired his own music. To that end, all proceeds raised by sales of The Royal Sessions will be donated to the Stax Music Academy, which provides music education programs to children in inner-city Memphis. It’s a feel-good record all around. Rodgers certainly thinks so, and was thrilled to talk about its analog recording, his surprise at having a number one album in 2014, and the excitement that an artist feels when they’re onto something truly authentic.
When did you know you had this VOICE?
Well, I felt I could be a singer at a very early age; I think I must have been about thirteen or fourteen. I started life playing the bass, and I used to just sing harmonies and things with my good friend Colin Bradley back in those days.
And then one day, for some reason they asked me to sing a Little Richard song—“Long Tall Sally” I think it was, or “Good Golly, Miss Molly” perhaps. And I felt then that I could sing this…that I could do this thing called “singing.” The other time, actually, which made me think about singing…we used to do a Solomon Burke song called “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” [Starts singing the song.] I used to take the bass off and sing that one, and I used to get a real kick out of that. I think it was during those times that I sort of graduated from playing the bass and focusing just on singing. So, it goes back a long way.
You’re from northeast England. How did where you grew up shape your musical influences?
Well, I was born in Middlesbrough, which at that time was a very heavily industrialized area. There was shipbuilding, steelworks, and chemicals. It’s very much changed now, as a lot of the shipbuilding and steelworks have moved to other parts of the world; the chemical works are still there. But, when I was growing up, it was quite a gritty place. There were a lot of toxins floating about in the air, and the chemical works—we called them “the works”—was the place that you were expected to go once you left school. My school was about three or four stories high, and I used to look out from my classroom on the top floor and I could see all “the works” and the smoke belching out of it. I used to think, “Oh my God, is that where I’m going? Is that the only way?” [Laughs]
I started to hear this music coming out of America—a lot of blues and a lot of soul—and I was particularly struck by Otis Redding, and anything that came out of Stax [Records]. They spoke of a different world, really, and I loved playing that music when I had a band. We also used to play whatever was in the charts as well at that time.
But a lot of the music, it just spoke to me of a different world. I think I saw kind of an escape route through music. Or, at least, I think also I had a lot of wanderlust. I had something in me that wanted to travel anyway, and music was a way of doing that that I could see.
A lot of those Stax songs you loved wound up on The Royal Sessions, many of which are very familiar. How did you set about to add your personal take on these songs?
Well, you know, they’re kind of in my DNA because I’ve listened to them for so long. A lot of them I haven’t performed before until I stood in front of the mic with the guys in the studio. I was very familiar with “I Thank You”, “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” I think the only songs I’d sung before on stage, with a band was “It’s Growing” and “Born Under A Bad Sign.”
So, [The Royal Sessions] was really sort of a test for me and I threw myself into the deep end a little bit. But it was so nice because the guys—the Reverend Charles Hodges and all of the band members—were very, very supportive. The first song we did together was “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” I just love that tune. From that moment, we clicked straight away as soon as we did that song and listened back to it. We had a kind of understanding between us. We were on the same page, we were speaking the same language in a way. It was a very groovy thing. [Laughs]
Going back to your “wanderlust,” was Memphis sort of a mythical place in your mind as an English kid thanks to these Stax artists? Did that move you to record this album?
Well, I read various articles about Stax and how it was a converted cinema, and all of the atmosphere that was generated from that. I never really thought that I was worthy, really, of ever visiting it. It used to be a place somewhere, in my own mind, in another world. Coming from a heavily industrialized [English] town, even going to London was kind of a big deal. I didn’t ever think at that point in my life, while I was being influenced by this kind of music, that I would ever really go there. But somehow, I did. Somehow fate has led me to those studio doors. It took forty-odd years from Middlesbrough to Memphis. It’s been a long journey.
When I set off, I went down to London because that was the place to be in those days. All the record companies were down in London, and the big clubs were down there, too. The scene was down there—Carnaby Street and Portobello Road and all that. I just kind of joined in with the general musical atmosphere at that time. It seems to me, looking back, that there was music coming out of every window. As I walked down Portobello Road and Carnaby Street…it was really exciting to be there. And I just really followed my heart, I suppose, in terms of the music I was playing. It was only afterwards that I realized how much this [Stax] music had influenced me—in my songwriting, in the sound I wanted from a band, in Free and Bad Company—in everything right the way through.
I realized when I was working with Perry Margouleff, my producer…we were working on songs and things…we were talking about the influences of the past, and I was always talking about Otis Redding and Stax. And he called me from Memphis and said, “Guess where I am? I’m at the Royal Studios!” [Laughs] And I said, “Tell me about it!” And he said, “It’s unbelievable. The atmosphere is so resonant of those early times.” The guy that runs it is Boo Mitchell, who’s Willie Mitchell’s son [the original owner of Royal Studios]. He runs it now and he said, “If you ever want to do any sessions, trust me, I can get you the finest musicians in the area.” I said to Perry, “Let’s do it,” and I flew down. We tested the water for three days, and in that three days I became convinced we had to come back and make this album because it was just so nice.
This was a strictly retro recording, too. Your site describes it as “an old-school, analogue, live on the floor recording.” Why did you decide to go analog?
Well, you know the thing is there’s a general trend—and it’s not a reversible trend, I don’t think—is towards digital now. But I think we’re missing something. If we say goodbye to analog, we say goodbye to something we mustn’t lose because the quality is so superior. It comes at you in waves, whereas digital comes at you in sharp steps. The ear knows this on some level.
I’ve always recorded the way we recorded this album, actually—all of the Free material, all of the Bad Company material. We recorded it analog, on the floor, this way. Having listened to these [Stax] records, I felt that was the only way to do it. You don’t analyze things too much. You go for the emotion, you capture the song or the version of the song with the most spirit, regardless of the occasional unintentional…you can call it a “mistake,” but I don’t think that all mistakes are mistakes sometimes. They are part of the character of the spirit of that song sometimes.
And you sort of take all of that into consideration. I’ve always done that. This was really like going back to the old days of my early days of recording, and it felt very comfortable. But going back with really authentic musicians that actually played this music in the day, so it was doubly fantastic for me.
There are a ton of guest musicians on this album. You’ve got quite the roster of talent…
Oh, yeah. It was so great that they all stepped forward and everybody was so…you know, they’re humble and they’re modest, and they’re the greatest musicians! Lester Snell is somebody who played piano on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”…he’s a keyboardist who played with Isaac Hayes, and he played on the original version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long!” It was fantastic, fantastic to have him on the album. He was so cool. He came in and didn’t even take his jacket off, really! [Laughs] He played the track, he was always smiling, and was really nice…and then he left! I was like, “Oh, he’s gone!” [Laughs]
But the core band, which was Reverend Charles Hodges on the Hammond, Leroy Hodges on bass, and Archie Turner on Wurlitzer, Michael Toles on guitar, and Steve Potts on drums. Sometimes we had James Robertson on drums on some tracks, too. And the girls, you know, and the brass…I think they work together quite a bit, so they had a great chemistry between them.
As far as going out on tour and playing these songs, will it feel like something’s missing without all these amazing guest musicians?
Yes, well, that’s a great point, actually, because I want to include a couple of the songs in my solo set when I go out in May. I’m thinking in terms of “I Thank You” and I’d like to take a look at “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” But without the brass, it’s going to be interesting to see if we can recreate the atmosphere of the song without the brass. Otherwise, I might go to something I know we can do, like “Born Under A Bad Sign” or “Down Don’t Bother Me,” which is in that blues-rock genre rather than a brassy-soul kind of song. But I’m going to look at doing a couple of songs live.
I would like to say that we had a party at Stax just a couple of weeks back, Lisa Allen very kindly opened the place for us and there’s a room there—we had a release party. The room was absolutely packed. We actually all played live together on stage in front of an audience. Perry has mixed some of that, so that should be out on YouTube or out there somehow. But it was really exciting for me.
You were working on another album before The Royal Sessions—an album of originals, I’m assuming. Do you have any plans to resume that?
We are; actually, Perry and I have been working on that said project for several years now. We do it in between whatever else we’re doing. It’s always been a slow but sure process. We haven’t really ever said, stop everything—we’re gonna do this. It’s always kind of been in between. So, right now—and I’m really happy with a lot of the things we’ve done—but in order for that to really come to fruition, we’d have to take some serious time and really get down to it. But we’ve been totally sidetracked by the soul album because it almost came to us like the stars aligned and said [makes whooshing sound], “You’ll make this album!” We were like, “Okay! Sounds good!” We followed that momentum that it created itself, and here we are. I’m quite taken aback at the reactions we’re getting in terms of radio play and reviews and stuff of the album. It’s been quite fantastic.
It debuted at number one on the Billboard Blues Albums chart, right?
I know! How about that? [Laughs]
Did you ever imagine that you would be putting out number one albums at this point?
Well, no! Not really! You know, that was never our intention. We just said, “Let’s do this thing because we want it so much.” I think we struck a nerve out there, because perhaps this kind of level of intensity of feeling the love of the music… there’s a need for it.
One of the things that I find very admirable about you, from an artistic perspective, is that you go where the music calls you. You tour very selectively, and seem to do projects only when they feel right to you. I find that really commendable, especially when there’s such pressure to do otherwise.
That’s a great comment, Jennifer…that’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me. It really does crystallize my approach to music. I do—I do exactly what you said, I go where the music calls me. That’s a lovely expression. I like that. It’s made me, ultimately…it’s kept me happy that way. I’ve gone as far as I could go with Free, as far as I could go with Bad Company, and I reached a point where I just felt we’re getting so commercial, I wanted to step away from it. Bad Company…it’s something I do occasionally because there’s a huge demand for it, but I do… yes, I go where the music calls me. Thanks for that.
Well, you’re welcome. Music seems to be more and more commercialized as the years go on, and it’s difficult for artists to resist it if they want to be successful.
Well, yeah, I do think it’s a little sad, really. I had a conversation with Perry today about how the digital [format] is so convenient that it’s swept everything away as far as analog is concerned. Because you could say that analog is such a problem; you’ve got to put the record on, then put the arm down, then turn it over when it’s time for the side two and all of that. But the actual sound of it is the difference between a really great Le Cordon Bleu meal and an instant thing at McDonald’s. And yeah, McDonald’s sells millions and millions of hamburgers, and there’s always twelve cars around each one, so it’s hugely popular everywhere. But all the same, I think, people are missing the real feast of sound which is the analog.
I’ve never heard the comparison of analog to digital quite that way before!
I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about “mistakes” giving character to songs. That’s something that you really isn’t part of recorded music anymore. You don’t hear anything as great as “My donuts, god DAMN!” at the end of “Sweet Home Alabama” anymore.
[Laughs] Yes, that would have been cleaned up! We had examples of that as well [on The Royal Sessions]. The brass section, they speak their own language. We’re mixing away and all of a sudden, we can hear they’re having a conversation while the rest of the band’s playing. We felt—leave it! It’s part of the atmosphere that went down at the time.
There was something on the end of “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix, and they play that in the studio, and Chas Chandler, the producer, is obviously in the control room. “Red House” is so amazing; you can tell it’s one of those one-take miracles that sometimes happens. At the end of it, if you listen very carefully you can hear Chas Chandler say “That was good, that one. I think we should put that one on.” And then you can hear Hendrix go… [deep voice] “Yeah.” It was so cool! When I bought the digital version, I thought, “Are you kidding me? It’s not gonna be on there.” And it wasn’t. Little things like that, I love. You feel very close to the moment that the thing was recorded. You feel part of it.
Paul Rodgers’ brand new The Royal Sessions is on store shelves right now. On vinyl.