ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN EXPERIENCE HENDRIX MAGAZINE, WINTER 2000
By Steve Newton
If you polled all the music fans in the world and asked them to name their fave party tune of all time, you can bet that there’d be more than a few votes for Free’s “All Right Now”. That ultimate ode to chasing chicks has garnered more than a million radio plays in the U.S. alone. But back in 1969, cowriter Paul Rodgers didn’t imagine that “All Right Now” would ever be so huge. It was just another much-needed addition to his band’s live show.
“At the time we were writing fiendishly all of the time,” says Rodgers, on the phone from an unspecified location “in the wilds of Canada somewhere.” “We discovered this new toy, songwriting, and we were just writing, writing all the time. And it turned out ‘All Right Now” was probably the peak of our relationship as songwriters together–and of the band–although we didn’t realize it at the time. It was just one of many songs we were writing.But I do remember the reaction from the audience when we first played it.
“But I do remember the reaction from the audience when we first played it,” he adds. “We used to do what were called two forty-fives, which were two 45-minute spots and a break in between. The song was very rough and unrehearsed, but we opened the first show with it, and then three hours later we got to the end of the second set, and I said to the audience, ‘It’s request time. Does anybody want to hear anything?’ And all these people start shoutin’, ‘Play that song you opened with!’. And I thought, ‘Wow, first time hearing it and they remember it. That’s amazing.’ So I had a feeling then that it was something special.”
While Free guitarist Paul Kossoff’s chunky power chords on “All Right Now” have launched a million air-guitar gestures, the song wasn’t built around them. Rodgers was just searching for a catchy phrase that would instantly connect with his blues-loving fan base.
“We started out as a blues band and then phased in our own material,” he explains, “but some of the blues survived, one of which was ‘The Hunter’ by Albert King. And we could never get off the stage up in the northeast of England without playing this song. And we loved it anyway, but it ticked me off a little bit that it was our biggest song and we hadn’t written it, you know. So I said to [bassist] Andy [Fraser], ‘We’ve gotta write something that can top that. Maybe if we had something that everybody could sing along to, like say, [sings] ‘Allright now, baby it’s a…’ and I picked up a guitar and I went, ‘well maybe that could be the chorus,’ and worked the chords out for that. And then Andy went off and he came back a coupla days later with the whole, ‘Pow, bo-pow bom.’ So I sort of wrote backwards from the chorus, you know. It was really a very easy song to write once I’d written ‘There she stood in the street’. The whole thing just went dodaledledelewdelew—done, you know.”
Rodgers, who is currently touring behind a new solo CD, Electric (CMC International), still includes “All Right Now” in his set, although it doesn’t sound exactly the way it did when first released on the 1970 Fire and Water album. “I play with it a lot,” he says. “With all of the songs from way back, I experiment with them and do different things to put them across. 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.”
1979’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 last year of high school, 1975, 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. But each one means something special; they were all of their time, you know.”
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’ 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 guitar slingers, starting with Free’s Kossoff. But he feels the latter guitarist–who died in ’76 of heart failure–was somewhat underrated.
“He probably underrated himself as well,” cites Rodgers, “he didn’t have a great deal of confidence. In the very early days I used to tell him, you know, ‘Man, you could be up there with Clapton and the guitar heroes, gods, if you will. You just gotta believe in yourself.’ And I think that [lack of confidence] was a little bit of his problem. But it seems to me his mystique has grown, if anything, since those days, and he’s more acknowledged now, in some respects, than he was perhaps then.”
After spending time in bands with Kossoff, Bad Company’s Ralphs, and the Firm’s Page, Rodgers continued to surround himself with rock’s finest pickers on his 1993 Muddy Waters tribute, Muddy Water Blues, in which he enlisted the likes of Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Brian Setzer, David Gilmour, Brian May, Neal Schon, and Buddy Guy. That same year he performed Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today” with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and former Band of Gypsys members Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, on the Hendrix tribute Stone Free.
“I remember discussing with Slash what song we should do,” says Rodgers, “and I just felt that we could really nail that one. It’s a great song.”
Rodgers paid an even bigger tribute to Hendrix when he hooked up with former Journey guitarist Neil Schon to record the five-track Hendrix Set (Victory), also released in ’93. “Hendrix was a very strong influence,” notes Rodgers. “When I first saw him, I was just so blown away that he was such an amazing guitar player, and not only that–he looked incredible. He was just awesome. And he brought a lotta things together, a lotta styles. You could hear blues in there, you could hear soul in there, you could hear James Brown in there, to an extent, you know, and almost you could almost hear Bob Dylan-type things in the lyrics. He just brought it all together, and just everyone’s mouth was just hung open.
“So I’ve always had enormous respect for him,” adds Rodgers, “and so have all the guitar player I’ve ever met, actually. I was playing with Neil Schon at the time, and during soundcheck, just for fun, we’d play a lot of the Hendrix things. You know, he’d go into [sings] ] ‘Let me stand next to your fire,’ and of course I’d start singin’ it. We’d be playing these songs for soundcheck, and they gradually worked their way into the set, so that the set got to be like two-and-a-half hours long or something, doing all our favourite songs. And Neil said to me, ‘It would be very nice to record these songs, because you’re probably gonna go on and do something else, and I’m probably gonna do something else, and we should catch it while it’s hot.’ And so I went to the record company [Victory] and asked them if they’d like to do that, and they said, ‘Well we don’t want a full CD, but we’ll release like a sort of EP’, so that’s why it was just a five-song set, you know.”
All of the tunes on the Hendrix Set, except for “Little Wing”, were performed the way Hendrix originally arranged them. When it came time to record “Little Wing”, Rodgers surreptitiously melded it with Hendrix’s posthumously released “Angel”. “It just felt natural,” he explains of the resulting song combination. “That little thing where [sings] ‘When she’s walkin’ through the clouds…’ It just seemed to go right into [sings] ‘Fly on my sweet angel’. I think it was almost a subconscious connection, because when I first did it I thought that’s how it went, and then I realized afterwards, ‘Oh, they are two separate songs’.”
While Rodgers never got the opportunity to perform with Hendrix, he can’t complain about the guitar greats he has shared the stage with. 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 grand opening of King’s new nightclub on 42nd Street 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’ on this thing, and I thought, ‘Okay, what do I do?’ 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.”
While Rodgers jumps at the chance to perform with the likes of B.B. King, his own recording career is very much a priority. The first single from Electric, the hard-rocking “Drifters”, made it to 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.”