"The Royal Sessions" Finds Paul Rodgers In Fine Voice

You can argue over who is the greatest rock singer, but there's no arguing whether or not Paul Rodgers would be high up on every list compiled by music critics and fellow musicians alike. Rolling Stone placed him at #55 in its list of greatest singers male and female all rock era genres but I'm more inclined to side with John Mellencamp who in 1991 called Rodgers "the greatest rock singer ever".

Free, Rodgers' first recorded group, was a critics' favorite though other than the hit single "All Right Now" (which surely spawned AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long" and the very concept of bands like Foreigner), the band met with limited commercial success.

Between 1968 and 1970 the original foursome released four memorable albums, one slower and darker than the next, starting with Tons of Sob (ILPS 9089) the cover of which appears to be a graveyard in which are strewn a stone cross, a rabbit, what appears to be a piece of roasted corn and a grotesque cartoon doll in a clear plexiglass coffin. There's also a leopard. It was a darkness into which you could pleasurably revel.

The band split up in 1970 following the release of the fine Highway (ILPS 9138).

A live set recorded in 1970 Free Live! (ILPS 9160) was issued in 1972 and that year the group re-formed to produce another studio album, after which, the original foursome of Rodgers, guitarist Paul Kossoff, bassist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke broke up for good.

Ironically, Alexis Korner had named the group Free after a band featuring Ginger Baker and Graham Bond called Free at Last, which was the title of the group's final album Free at Last (ILPS 9192).

Guy Stevens, who produced the group's first album had suggested the name Heavy Metal Kids, but the quartet hated that one so Free it was, not that a different name would have changed the group's commercial appeal, which was a damn shame because those albums so well stand the test of time. The problem was that they were dark, brooding and distinctly non-commercial.

You can go back now and still marvel at Kossoff's guitar playing, Kirke's drumming and especially Fraser's bass playing. Like the late John Entwistle, Fraser's bass was more of a second lead guitar. Fraser's still with us, surviving AIDS and the self-realization that he was gay.

The guitar great Kossoff died in March of 1976 of a heart attack related to his long struggle with heroin during a flight from Los Angeles to New York. His cremated remains were interred at the Jewish Golders Green crematorium under an epitaph that reads "All Right Now".

I walked past that place many times while staying with a friend. Had I known Kossoff was there, I'd have paid my respects.

A reformed Free with Rodgers and Kirke joined by Tetsu Yamauchi on bass and percussion and Texan John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards produced yet another outstanding album, Heartbreaker (ILPS 9217). So many outstanding tracks, so little commercial success yet again.

In 1973 Rodgers, Kirke, Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell formed Bad Company. Managed by Led Zeppelin manager and music business force to be reckoned with Peter Grant, Bad Company was all about commerciality and after all of Free's struggles, who could blame Rodgers, Kirke and the others?

The commerciality spawned some big hits and classic rock radio perennials like "Can't Get Enough" and "Feel LIke Makin' Love".

I only insert the following anecdote because some analogplanet readers say they enjoy them: when Bad Company came to Boston in 1974 I was on WBCN and assigned to take the boys around town and show them "the sights".

After the concert I made my way to their Holiday Inn room where Rodgers was sprawled out on a bed. The thinning singer took one look at my enormous Jewfro and exclaimed "Can I have your hair"? to which I replied, "If I can have your voice, you can have my hair" and as vain as I am, I would have made that deal in a second!

The evening driving around in the group's black Cadillac limo was pathetic as there was absolutely nothing to do at night in Boston at that time, other than visit gay bars like The Other Side where David Bowie and RCA had somewhat cynically held the record release party for Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. I went with a girl friend of mine and we maneuvered our way on the dance floor right next to the "dancing queen" Bowie and danced with him (along with many others!).

With nothing to do that evening I remember ending up in an empty lot by the waterfront and maybe drinking beer with the guys thinking “what has happened to rock glamor”? But of course by 1974 the glamor had mostly gone from rock, which was in transition and it certainly was gone at that time from Boston.

Post Bad Company, Paul Rodgers was in The Firm with Jimmy Page and later The Law with Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones arguably one of rock’s greatest drummers. These bands could have been called “Good Company”. Rodgers also toured with Queen, which was an unusual choice for a Freddie Mercury replacement but most fans thought it worked especially since Rodgers and the surviving band members respectfully billed it as Queen + Paul Rodgers.

In 1997 Rodgers released on vinyl, CD and cassette Now (SPV-008-4661 LP) co-produced with Eddie Kramer and Dan Priest with all songs by Rodgers (one co-written with Journey’s Neil Schon and If’s Geoff Whitehorn). All tracks were recorded at Parkgate Studios, Catsfield, Sussex engineered by Eddie Kramer except for **, which was recorded at Pie Studio, Glen Cove. The weird thing is no songs have ** next to them on the label, the jacket or inner sleeve. However—and remember this is 1997—the inner sleeve takes care to indicate that “This album was recorded ‘Live’! 24 track analogue on Ampex 499 tape at 15IPS, with Dolby SR, on a Studer A 800 machine. Through a Neve VR60 desk with vintage Neve, API and Neumann mic pre-amps, vintage valve mic’s; Neumann U47’s, U67’s, Telefunken 251’s as well as contemporary mic’s, including Shure’s SM91, SM98’s, Beta52, Beta56, and Paul’s trusty SM57 for vocals. As well as the latest digital Otari Radar technology. Mixed onto a Ampex ½” ATR machine at 15IPS, on Ampex 456 tape with Dolby SR. Mastered from the ½” analogue at the very last moment, using the SADiE digital editing system with a Prism A to D converter.” We’ll forgive all of the apostrophes!

Cataloguing all of Rodgers’ activities between the breakup of Free and this latest project would take up too much time and space. Suffice it to say that Rodgers has never stopped performing and recording. He’s not “gone away” so if you’ve been away, this album isn’t a “comeback.”

This latest Rodgers album has him at age 63 traveling to Memphis to record an album at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, home of The Memphis Sound® with an all-star cast of musicians who played on so many great soul records that the credits would take days to list but just a few: Bar-Kays guitarist Michael Toles, Reverend Charles Hodges who provided those unforgettable Hammond B-3 parts on Al Green’s albums, LeRoy Hodges Jr. on bass, "Hubby" Archie Turner (Wurlitzer), Steve Potts and James Robertson Sr. (drums), plus The Royal Horns and the Royal Singers. Most of these folks played on the iconic Hi, Stax/Volt and Goldwax ‘60s singles that we all know and love.

Producer Perry Margouleff who owns Pie Studios and Rodgers chose to record basic tracks and Rodgers’ vocals live in the studio, overdubbing strings and background vocals. And it was all recorded and mixed analog.

But forget that and consider this: the Memphis veterans hadn’t a clue about who Paul Rodgers was or what he’d done in his career so when he chose to start the first session by covering Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” they were no doubt skeptical but Rodgers nailed it the first take and turned the veterans into believers.

Rodgers chose a varied grouping of songs from Hi, Stax/Volt, Motown and one from Scepter. The electricity jolts on the opening cover of the Sam and Dave chestnut “I Thank You”. If you wonder how Rodgers’ voice has held up over the years and how in God’s name he is going to deal with “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, never mind “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” you’ll drop your guard when you hear how he nails “I Thank You”. The guy sounds as powerful and assured as he did at 30 and that’s not hyperbole.

Rodgers' cover of the oft covered Albert King tune “Down Don’t Bother Me” nicely propels the set forward, followed by a percolating remake of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. And then, once you’re in a firmly established comfort zone, Rodgers tackles “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and maybe you’ll say to yourself “What is this guy going to do when he gets to that first big “tired” and then the vocal cord stretching second one, not to mention when the song key shifts?

Following Otis is a fool’s mission but Rodgers pulls it off, daringly and generously leaving some less than pretty vocal strain remain in the closely miked first take mix. It’s real. It’s true and if you feel a bit of discomfort the first or second play it will be gone by the third one leaving you to fully appreciate how he deals with the song’s powerful ending.

“That’s How Strong My Love Is” is a piece of barbecue after what preceded it. That appropriately ends the first side of the vinyl.

Side two opens with a re-imagining of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” as a wah-wah pedal-drenched Hi Records release. It’s one of the set’s most atmospherically rich tracks in my opinion both vocally and instrumentally. The wah-wah was supposed to be played by Skip Pitts who did the honors on “Shaft” but he passed away two days before the session, leaving it to Michael Toles to play as a tribute to his band mate in Isaac Hayes’ group. Everyone went to the funeral that took place the first day of the session.

Otis Redding’s “Any Ole Way” from 1966’s The Soul Album is an exuberant, happy, Smokey Robinson influenced tune that ups the mood followed by Robinson’s “It’s Growing” originally performed by The Temptations on Sing Smokey and why hasn’t this been reissued on vinyl? Rodgers is “in the pocket” throughout as he is on every track here.

The CD version closes out with a simmering “Born Under a Bad Sign” (it was omitted from the LP due to space considerations unfortunately) and the denouement ballad “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”.

Rodgers doesn’t try to “sing black” on this outing. He expresses an honest soulfulness that knows no race. We can’t know what were Rodgers’ expectations for these sessions but it would be difficult to believe that he didn’t come away thinking that he’d fulfilled them completely and reached a significant pinnacle in a long and distinguished career. Of the album his old band mate Jimmy Page said "Paul Rodgers has created a timeless masterpiece in The Royal Sessions". I agree. I just wish, after seeing Page spin some vinyl on an SL1200 in "It Might Get Loud", that he bought a better turntable. He can afford one!

Sonically, what do you think results from live in the hallowed studio basic tracks and vocals recorded all analog, mixed to analog tape and cut from analog tape? It’s spectacular! Play this record and then the CD for your friends who think CD is transparent to the source. Let them compare the drum sound, the cymbal crashes, the space and the image three dimensionality. Let them consider Rodgers in the room and then on CD not quite in the room.

A musical triumph and a sonic "in the studio" spectacular.

Incidentally, Rodgers and Margouleff are donating all proceeds to the Stax Music Academy.

Glotz's picture

and you danced with David Bowie?!?  Pretty damn cool. 

Michael Fremer's picture

Well sort of!

Paul Boudreau's picture

The intro to "All Right Now" was also appropriated, or so it seems, for a popular Steve Miller song, whose name escapes me at the moment.

Free was/were much bigger in Europe than in the States.  I was there at the time and can attest to that.  The space in their music is one of the things that always brings me back to them.

Michael Fremer's picture

Good point...

Michael T's picture

I have been eyeing this release for a few weeks now, and just put it on hold at my local record store based on your review!

Lazer's picture

I love it when you take shots at Technics, brings a smile to my face.  The disciples get so worked up.  It must be fun to push  their buttons.  BTW, one would think Page would bring a better table, that borders on embarrassing.  That's what I spun my first Led Zeppelin album on. Loved it then, don't anymore. 

mraudioguru's picture

I listened to this last night and really enjoyed it.  Excellent song selection and performance. Highly recommended!

Bix's picture

Ooh, I may jump on this one.  Where was it pressed?  QRP since it's 200g?

DigitalIsDead's picture

Not sure why, I've always been a huge fan of the band FREE.  I am sure a large part of it was the combo of Paul Roger's incredible vocals and the guitar tone of Paul Kossoff.  While their brief moment of fame has mostly faded, record labels in Europe continue to not only rerelease/repress their entire catalog with significant bonus tracks, fans like me have been treated to one of the best box sets ever with Songs of Yesterday and the BBC release.  And to vinyl collectors, their 1st pressings can still be had at a reasonable amount.

Pedal's picture

Love the anecdotes. Keep them coming!

BTW, was Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars released as late as 1974 in the US?

BB's picture

I'm glad others think Paul Rodgers singing is among the very best in rock-n-roll. Off the top of my head, I'd also have to add Eric Burdon and Steve Perry to my top ten, even though Journey was not my thing (while the Animals were).

Dancing with David Bowie trumps my pathetic story about Elvin Bishop sitting in my wife's lap while playing a guitar solo. A long story, but true.

Lazer's picture

Freddy Mercury and Robert Plant.  They have to make anyone's top ten.  

MrRom92's picture

Very cool to see these songs covered, and even with some of the original session players.... Last year I got a crate of various masters from hi/stax, and the sound is beyond amazing. The musicianship shines in a way it never could on CD or LP

Mendo's picture

Where to purchase? I can only find on ebay UK.



BTW, I had a chance to see him a decade ago or so, and I can only say he can sing. Anyone who has the balls to be asked to step in for Freddie (or who thinks they can) must be good.

Devil Doc's picture

...because I wanted to hear Rodgers make a fool of himself singing Otis Redding songs. I was disapointed. It's rather good and it's everything Mikey says it is.

rakalm's picture

Took me a few listens for this one to grow on me but it has big time.  I had been listening to Otis Sings Soul (great $15 mono LP) and a Wilson Pickett (Best of, another bargain $10, Mono, Joe Reagoso/Kevin Gray).  So, to shell out $30 was a bit of stretch for me.  I usually save these splurges for known reissues when I can't find clean originals.  But, I have not been disappointed by Mikey's recommendations ever, and this is no exception.  Rodgers really delivers.  Very clean, detailed recording.  Love his take on Walk on By.  Initially, I wanted him to sound more "soulful", but after the 3rd listen, I really began to appreciate his approach.  He's a great vocalist and he was smart enough not to imitate but to give it his own take on these classics.  Minor complaint, why only 9 tracks and the CD people get the extra songs?  QRP certainly knows what they are doing and maybe that would have comprised the quality, I really don't know BUT thanks again Michael for a spectacular recommendation.  My wife loves it too and she's a real R&B fan (she never or rarely sings but I have heard her singing along with this one). 

Michael Fremer's picture

Yes "Born Under a Bad Sign" is on the CD only, left off the LP because it would have compromised the dynamics, level and overall sound of the LP.

BB's picture

I think Mikey hit it on the head in describing the music and especially Rodgers' fine singing on this LP. This is one classy album. Glad I bought it. I'll bet those seasoned Memphis cats were indeed surprised to hear this English dude handle these classics so well.

On the sound: "11"? Really? It is fairly clean and well defined, but also a bit dead and soft. I'm comparing this LP to other fine analog recordings played on LP, not raspy digital. Just lacks some life and sizzle (in the good sense of "sizzle"). Maybe an excellent  "8" or "9". The next album in my stack was Brubeck's "Time Further Out". The contrast in excitement and goose bump level between these two albums was striking. Maybe too many older opamps in the vintage MCI gear at Royal?

orangeaudio's picture

I hear a great recording, but i miss a little bit depth and low end.