Gary James' Interview With
He's a Platinum selling singer, songwriter, and self-taught multi-instrumentalist. He's written, recorded, produced and released 30 albums since 1968. He's sold over 90 million records. He's formed and led three bands to worldwide success: Free, Bad Company and The Firm. He's had a Grammy nominated solo career. He's recorded and performed with the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Brian May, Joe Walsh, Charlie Watts, Bryan Adams and the list goes on and on.
We are of course speaking about Mr. Paul Rodgers.
Q - Paul, as famous as you are, you are one of these guys that keeps a pretty low-profile. Is that deliberate on your part or have you been advised by say management to do that? We never hear about you in a nightclub taking a swing at somebody for example.
A - (Laughs). I am advised by management, but not in that regard, more in a business sense. I went through all that period, all that sort of nightclubs and the nightlife generally when I was younger with Free and Bad Company. I think it's a period you go through and I didn't really want to stay with it. I gave up drinking when I met my wife actually, about 15 years ago. That turned my life around quite considerably. I found I had a much cleaner head on what I wanted to do, which was really make music and I'm not really interested in the showbiz side of showbiz, if you like. I'm more interested in just making music and keeping myself really interested in the different things I do.
Q - You recently became a Canadian citizen. What was the thinking behind that?
A - I actually have dual nationality. I became a Canadian citizen a couple of years back. I've been living here for about 15 years. I still have my British citizenship and I still have a home in England. I like it here because there's a lot of space. I find it very English, but with more elbow room.
Q - I see your former engineer / producer Andy Johns passed away just recently. Did he play a big role in the success of Free?
A - Well, Andy Johns was a really good guy. I suppose I'm at that age now where people that I have known and worked together with and have been influenced positively by are passing on. Andy Johns is one of them. He was the engineer on our very first album "Tons of Sobs". Guy Stevens was the producer. The two of them actually did a very good thing for us in that one of the songs we were going to put on there they said, "Why don't you take that one off and put that 'live' song on, the one that you do that everybody loves?" It was called "The Hunter". "Why don't you put that on the album instead?" We hadn't even considered it. It was kind of a no-brainer for us. It was an Albert King song. We did a great version. They did a great production on it. Beautiful guitar playing from Paul Kossoff. Really fantastic high notes. It was one of the strongest songs on the album. So Andy was part of that decision and he was also with us when we recorded "The Stealer". I remember the guys, the band were in the studio. I was in the control room. They were putting the track down and writing it. Then they came back in and we were happy with the track and it sounded good. They said to me, "So, you got the lyrics ready?" (Laughs). I said, "yup." So, I went out there and sang into the chorus, "and The Stealer". Then Andy Johns said, "Stop! Were going to record it right now." I just recorded it in one take. I have fond memories of Andy. I miss him.
Q - Bad Company's first album was recorded in ten days. The Beatles first album was recorded in twelve hours.
A - Oh my God!
Q - You knew that, didn't you?
A - I know, but The Beatles. The Beatles, good Lord. What can you say about The Beatles? They sounded good! I remember listening to them on the radio when they had "Can't Buy Me Love" out as a single, right? They were all set up in the studio and they were chatting away to a DJ called Pete Murray in England at the time. And they were chatting away, being The Beatles, funny and witty and all that stuff and then he says "Okay. You gonna play your new single?" Then they played 'live' and it was perfect. It was just like the record. That's how good The Beatles were.
Q - What I was getting at is, when you have The Beatles going into a recording studio and making their first album in twelve hours and Bad Company recording their first album in ten days, does that suggest that Rock 'n' Roll is best captured in the spirit of the time? You don't need months and months in the recording studio to record an album.
A - I think you are absolutely right. When you say spirit, that's what it's all about. You are capturing the spirit, the mood, the atmosphere of the moment. If you do that, it's forever. What can happen is, we have so much fantastic technology now with Pro Tools, etc, we can iron out everything in a track, every little out-of-tuneness , any little mistake. We can just iron it right out. And you can just iron the guts, the spirit, right out of it if you are not very careful with that. I don't even like to use Pro Tools now. They're handy when you're doing demos; let's just paste all the choruses on just so we know what it's gonna sound like. For a real 'live' thing there's nothing to beat playing 'live'. I was just in Memphis playing with the Soul guys down there in the Royal Studios which was Stax. A lot of Al Green songs were recorded there and Otis Redding and Sam Moore (Sam and Dave). We played 'live' in the studio and it was just a beautiful, beautiful vibe. It was that very spirit that we were looking for. So the short answer to your question is, yes! (Laughs).
Q - Did you know that Frank Sinatra would go into the studio and record 'live' with a full orchestra?
A - Wow!
Q - That's why his records still sound so good today.
A - I think so.
Q - That perfect sound is not necessarily a good thing for music.
A - Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it's the same for Photoshop with photos. You look at all the covers of the magazines and nobody's gotta crinkle. Nobody's got any life. All the photographs are airbrushed or whatever it is they do, to death. I think that can happen to music and that's not a good trend. I think most people crave communication, the spirit of the music as you mentioned earlier, and that's why 'live' shows are so much in demand these days I do believe.
Q - You were born in Middleborough, England.
A - Yeah.
Q - How far as that from Liverpool, England?
A - If you think of England, it looks like a man sitting down, driving a car I suppose. If you think about it, we're right across from there. Almost parallel. Liverpool is on the West Coast and we are on the East Coast. So, you could draw a line more or less between the two. They're very similar areas in fact.
Q - In terms of miles, how far as Liverpool from Middleborough?
A - Probably a couple hundred miles. Not really far actually. See, you've got to remember nowhere is far from anywhere in England actually. It's kind of far away in terms of culturally. There are so many different accents and so many different personalities of city in England. You can go to Liverpool and you know you're in Liverpool because everybody's a comedian, even the little kids are funny. You go to Glasgow, Scotland and everybody's the way they are there. They're very strong people. They have a great sense of humor, but it's different again. You go to Middleborough and everybody's miserable. (Laughs).
Q - Miserable?
A - I'm kind of kidding you there a little bit. In terms of miles, they are not really that far him each other.
Q - In 1963, you are maybe 14 or 15. Did you hear about what was going on in Liverpool or other cities with the music? Did Middleborough have their own local heroes?
A - Oh, absolutely. I think it's fair to say that every city probably in the world, but certainly in England, had their local big bands. They were big in terms of being famous, but locally. We were one of them. We were The Roadrunners. We could play working man's clubs, wedding receptions, youth clubs and pubs and bars and anywhere we could play. We were very young. We were about 14, 15. So, by the time we were 17, yeah, we were very aware of what was happening globally in our own country. The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, everybody. But for us at that time, all the studios and all the music business were in London, so if you wanted to do anything in the music business you had to move out. So, we all moved down from Middleborough to the big city or "the Smoke" as we called it, hoping to hit the big-time. So, we were camped outside all of recording studios in places like The Marquee and all these famous clubs down there.
Q - Did you ever go into a place called The Iron Door?
A - Can't say that I did. Where was that?
Q - I'm not sure. It's a famous club where The Beatles and Stones used to hang out.
A - The Speakeasy was the one. Everybody used to head down to The Speakeasy. We'd all do shows up in Glasgow and then we'd belt down to be back in time to go to The Speakeasy and take in the music there. But actually we had a great club in Middleborough called The Purple Onion. It was run by a guy called John McCoy. He used to play great music and they used to have 'live' bands. It wasn't really a disco, but they used to play Soul music. Otis Redding. That's where I got turned onto Otis Redding actually, and Sam And Dave and all the Soul really. Then we'd have an eclectic mixture of bands. The Who played there. Spencer Davis. You'd see The Ram Jam Band with Rod Stewart would be there. We had some really good people come on through.
Q - Did you ever get to see either The Beatles or The Stones in a club or concert setting?
A - No, I regret to say that other than the TV I didn't see them 'live'.
Q - Did you ever get to meet them later on?
A - Oh, yeah. I met Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I met all the Stones in Jamaica when we were there. Actually, Jimmy page and I did a DVD with Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood. Mick and Keith took a break and we took over their place actually. We did a video together some years ago. I often see Bill Wyman. He's a lovely fellow. I love Bill. He's very knowledgeable, well they all are about the Blues. So it's nice to talk to him.
Q - And The Beatles? Did you meet them?
A - Not really. I've slightly met Ringo Starr at a do once. He's a very easy-going guy. A nice guy.
Q - Alexis Korner gave Free their name?
A - Yeah. Paul Kossoff and I were very keen on forming a band. He used to have this mini car and we used to drive around London with really long hair and we go to places, coffee bars and talk about forming a band. The way I met him is he came to a show I was playing at. I had a Blues band called Brown Sugar. He came along and stepped in for a jam session and I said "We have to form a band." That's how that started. Then we found a rhythm section there. Our first rehearsal was at The Nag's Head in Banersay, which is an upstairs room where they used to have people play, upstairs of a pub. I saw Freddie King there once. There's some really good people there sometimes. We rehearsed there. Alexis was a friend of the bass player. He came there; he came in, in the middle of one of the songs with his wife and kids as it happened. He listened to the song. We took a break at that point and we sat around and he said, "Well, you guys sound good. You're pretty much a band." That was our first rehearsal. He said, "All you need now is a name." We sat for a moment in silence thinking about that. He said, "I don't know if this helps you, but I used to have a band with Cyril Davis, who is a Blues harmonica player called Free At Last. I don't know if that helps you." There was sort of a silence and then there was sort of a unanimous feeling, "You know what? It's got to be Free!" And that's how the name was born.
Q - According to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock: "Neither of Free's first two albums nor a US tour opening for Blind Faith in 1969 made any inroads for them." How can that be? "All Right Now" was such a big hit.
A - Well, don't forget "All Right Now" came later. We didn't have "All Right Now" at the time of Blind Faith. That was very early on in our career. "All Right Now" was the biggie, but we split up before we toured America on the strength of "All Right Now". Career wise that was a bit of a disaster for us really. But the song was strong enough to survive despite all of that. It kind of went 'round the world and even now it's played.
Q - It's a classic from a classic band!
A - Yeah.
Q - How fortunate you were to sign with Swan Song Records. That was Peter Grant's (manager of Led Zeppelin) label, wasn't it?
A - It was Led Zeppelin's label. Of course, Pete being the management, was sort of the power behind this fledgling record label he formed called Swan Song. They wanted to share some of their glory I suppose and give people a chance, which I thought and have always thought was just a fantastic, lovely thing to do. I had a friend who was a road manager, Clive Coulson, and he worked with us in Free. He went on to work with Led Zeppelin and he called me up when I was looking for a management firm for Bad Company. He said, "You should call Peter Grant up. I happen to know he's very interested in what you're doing." So, eventually I did call him up and Peter was interested. He came to see one of our rehearsals. We were auditioning bass players at the time. We didn't have a complete band. We hadn't found Boz (Burrell) at that point. He listened outside and liked what he heard and then he said to me, "We could do something, but I don't want to sign a contract. We don't know each other. For six months, let's just do it on a handshake and see how we go." And so we shook hands. There was no contract originally.
Q - What a great story!
A - I know. That's how Peter worked. He was a man of his word. The contract was by the by. If we have to have a contract, so be it. His word was his real bond, and I took that. We shook hands right away and he did great things for us.
Q - Having a guy like Peter Grant in your corner meant what for Bad Company? If you, the band asked for something, whether it be tour support or whatever, you got it, didn't you?
A - Well, it meant really that we didn't have to worry about the business end of things at all. All we had to do was make the music, go in the studio to record the songs, go out and play them and just not worry about anything. All of the transport was taken care of, private jets and limousines on the tarmac and just everything was top of the line, which was something Led Zeppelin had worked to achieve. They had this sort of machinery in place, and we stepped right into that and it was awesome! All of their connections with the people who run the venues was all ironed out. We were a support act in the arenas the first tour we did. Immediately after that we were the headliner, which was a pretty incredible rise to fame actually.
Q - Are there Bad Company tribute acts?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - Do you like that idea?
A - It's a complement I'm sure, as long as it doesn't get too plagiaristic, as long as people aren't actually stealing your stuff. But it's all right. It's a compliment I'm sure.
Q - Have you ever seen a Bad Company tribute act?
A - Can't say that I really have. No.
Q - When people come up to you, as I'm sure they do and say, "Paul, I'm such a big fan of yours. You changed my life. I started the band because of you", does that ever get old for you? Does it still have some meaning for you?
A - I think that's a beautiful thing. I really do. I'm actually quite amazed because I don't think about influencing people. I think about doing the best I can and enjoying myself and hoping that other people enjoy it too. A lot of people say "We have been influenced." I'm kind of like "Wow! Really? Me?" Quite incredible for just a kid from Middleborough. So, I'm quite amazed. It's a beautiful thing.
Q - Paul you were born at the right time, with the right stuff, in the right place, with the right people behind you. It was All Right.
A - Well, yeah. Looking back, I can't say in all honesty that it's been the easiest of roads, but I've always had a sense of direction. I've always had a sense of "this is the way I'm going." I've never really floundered and wondered, well for short periods, "what am I gonna do next?" I've always had a strong sense of direction and I've had my ups and downs, that's for darn sure, but I think I've come out. I'm still rockin' and rollin'. I feel blessed for that. I really do.
Q - It keeps you young forever, doesn't it?
A - We keep our fingers crossed. It's sort of young on some levels for sure. But I think the thing is, you've got to let some things go and grow with age gracefully to some extent. But it's also nice to be still kickin' it out there and we still do and we have fun doing it. As long as it's enjoyable and not too much of a grind, which can happen. I've seen people burn themselves out and it's a sad thing and you don't want to be doing that. As long as you're getting back the energy you are putting in, then you can just keep going forever, yeah.
Q - I take it you will soon be on the road.
A - Well, we're touring with Bad Company as you know. It's been 40 years since Mick (Ralphs) and I put the band together at my country home in England. So it was 1973. It was '74 before we actually went public. We were putting it together in '73. So, it's 40 years now. We decided we would celebrate 40 years. My manager called me and asked me if we would like to do something and I said, "Let's tour." We are doing 25 shows from choice really. We don't want to overdo it. Just keep it nice and exclusive. Some of the shows are with our good friends Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some are just with Bad Company.
Q - Shows with Skynyrd.
A - Yeah. We go back a long way. They introduced me to my wife of 15 years, in Vancouver. That's one of the reasons I'm in Canada actually. So, I've got a lot to thank them for actually.
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Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection