ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 21, 2000
By Steve Newton
Anyone who’s ever raised a frosty Molson Pilsner to the bluesy riff-rock of Free or Bad Company would do well to attend the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (September 22), when the singer from those bands, Paul Rodgers, shows off the voice that launched a billion basement beer parties. On the phone from an unspecified location “in the wilds of Canada somewhere”, the British crooner explained that his set will include hits from his 30-year recording career, along with tunes from his new solo CD, Electric. He might even throw in “All Right Now”, although it won’t sound exactly the way it did back in high school.
“I play with it a lot,” Rodgers says of the ultimate ode to chasing chicks, which has garnered more than a million radio plays in the U.S. alone. “With all of the songs from way back, I experiment with them and do different things to put them across,” he relates. “I was in the Cavern in Liverpool recently, playing on the stage where the Beatles played, and I wanted to do some sort of tribute to them, but I didn’t really want to do too many Beatles songs, ’cause I’ve got so many of my own. So at the end of ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’ I did a little Beatles medley, because to me the Beatles are part of my rock ’n’ roll fantasy—as well as blues and soul and a lot of other things, you know—and it took the roof off the place. So that’s something that’s stayed in the set too.”
Nineteen seventy-nine’s “Rock and Roll Fantasy” was one of the major hits Rodgers enjoyed with Bad Company, the quartet he formed in ’73 with ex-members of Free, Mott the Hoople, and King Crimson. That band went on to release six studio albums, chalking up such radio staples as “Can’t Get Enough”, “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, and “Shooting Star”. Back in this scribbler’s senior year at Chilliwack High, the party album of choice was the band’s sophomore disc, Straight Shooter, but Rodgers leans toward the band’s self-titled 1974 debut when pressured to pick his fave.
“The first one was very organic in a way,” he says. “We’d only just thought of the band name, and we hadn’t sold any records or toured anywhere—we were just four guys with a bunch of songs that liked each other’s playing. I mean, we were writing songs in the studio, actually. I was writing ‘Rock Steady’ while we were all plugged in and the tape was rolling, you know. So I liked that album for its rough, casual approach.”
After Bad Co. broke up in ’82, Rodgers went solo with the aptly titled Cut Loose, which he recorded in his home studio and played all the instruments on. Then he hooked up with former Swan Song labelmate Jimmy Page and established the Firm, which released two albums and scored a hit with the Rodgers-penned “Radioactive”. Most people probably thought that the off-the-wall guitar solo on that tune was played by Page, but it was actually performed by Rodgers, who had previously stolen the lead-guitar spotlight from Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs on “Rock and Roll Fantasy”.
“I had one of the very first guitar synths,” he explains, “and it was in fact the inspiration for the song, because it was like a rock ’n’ roll fantasy—you could hit all these buttons and it turned into different things. It would be the bass, it would be a harpsichord, it would be a raunchy guitar, you know. So I worked out all the guitar parts for it and played ’em on the record.”
While Rodgers’s soulful vocals have always been his calling card—he can say more with one “ohh-whoa-yeahh” than most anyone—he has also managed to stoke his bands with choice guitarists, from Free’s Paul Kossoff to Bad Company’s Ralphs to the Firm’s Page. On his 1993 Muddy Waters tribute, Muddy Water Blues, Rodgers enlisted a who’s who of guitar greats, including Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, David Gilmour, and Buddy Guy. Still, he’s quick to rattle off the names of Carlos Santana, George Harrison, and Keith Richards when asked who he’d most like to perform with in the future. Rodgers managed to cross B.B. King’s name off that wish list last June when he joined the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Dr. John at the opening of King’s new nightclub in New York.
“I was there for the David Letterman show,” explains Rodgers, “and somebody said, ‘B.B. King’s opening his new club, wanna come down?’ I was like, ‘Whoa, hold me back!’ A whole bunch of people were there, and it turned into a little bit of a jam session. I must admit I was a little nervous, you know, ’cause he called me up on-stage, and they were jammin’.…So I went up to the saxophone mike and I bent down and I went ‘Every day! Every day I have the blues!’ and B.B. goes, ‘Whoa, hey, you can take my mike, boy!’ And he gave me his mike, which is, like, a great honour.”
It’s not just legendary musicians that Rodgers has been blown away by recently. Vancouver woodwind player Tom Keenlyside blows flute on a new ballad from Electric, “Over You”. “It was an honour to have such a superb musician on the album,” raves Rodgers, “and he interpreted my feeling of the song just perfectly. I used a 12-string acoustic and I put it through a Leslie cabinet, which gives it that swirling, ethereal sound, and the flute just floated right in there beautifully.”
Rodgers also acknowledges the contributions to Electric by local vocalists Saffron Henderson, Catherine St. Germain, and Tanya Hancheroff, saying that they “added a lot of spark and a lot of spirit” to the songs “Find a Way” and “Love Rains”. Bryan Adams also earned a thank-you in the CD credits, as Electric was mixed at the latter’s Warehouse Studio in Gastown.
The first single from Electric, the hard-rocking “Drifters”, is sitting at No. 8 on Billboard’s classic-rock chart, and the even stronger “Deep Blue” is set to be the follow-up single. But whether or not his new album reaches the commercial heights of past ones doesn’t concern Rodgers much. He comes off as a down-to-earth bloke who’s just happy to be making records and playing concerts at this stage of his life, which he describes as “19 going on 50”. Besides, if he had to, he could no doubt sit back and live comfortably just on the royalties from “All Right Now”.
“I probably could, at that,” he concurs, “but then what would be the point, you know. Making music has always been my life, and it always will be, actually.”