They call him “The Voice,” and with good reason. Paul Rodgers is one of rock’s most enduring and influential vocalists, and throughout a stellar six-decade career, he’s fronted top-flight bands like Free, Bad Company, The Firm, and Queen + Paul Rodgers. Rodgers, 64, sat down with FOX411 recently to discuss Bad Company’s 40th anniversary, the inspiration behind the song “Bad Company,” and whether or not “Shooting Star” would make a good musical.
FOX411: When did you first know you wanted to be a singer?
Paul Rodgers: Growing up in Middlesbrough [in England], I listened to artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Howlin’ Wolf. It was like another world. Something happened to me when I heard that music. It leapt out of the speakers and went straight into my heart. And I thought, “Right, that’s what I’m doing.”
FOX411: Your voice sounds as strong today as it did in 1968. How do you keep it in shape?
Rodgers: Thank you for saying that. It’s important to me to be able to hit the notes and just be able to fly when I sing. There are so many challenges and different parts to the job of singing. When you’re in the studio, you have to be really, really, precise. You’ve got to keep everything clean and nice because that’s going to be something that’s down forever. And then you go onstage, and it’s much more in the moment. You’ve really got to go with it and sock it to the audience, because that’s what they came for. All these things keep you on your toes. And I still feel that I’m learning all the time. I think I’ll hang it up whenever I don’t think I’m moving forward vocally.
FOX411: You’re on tour celebrating Bad Company’s 40th anniversary this year. Did you ever think that would happen?
Rodgers: No, you don’t. I look at John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, guys who had a fantastic longevity, and I learned something from them. They didn’t try to sell records. They weren’t saying, “Ok, what can I write, what can I do in the studio that will sell?” They were just doing their thing, and people picked up on it. I like the idea of that. They have a sense of longevity because they’re just doing what they feel, regardless of fashion, straight down the road. And John Lee Hooker, at the end of his life, was blues royalty. He had his ups and downs, but he stuck to his guns, and just did his thing. That’s really worth something to me.
FOX411: Speaking of sticking to your guns, tell me about “Bad Company.” Did you also have the name of the band in mind when you wrote the song in 1973?
Rodgers: I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a movie called Bad Company with Jeff Bridges. He’s a desperado, and he’s riding alone. In the ad, there was a gun barrel, elongated into the letter “o” and shooting through the words “Bad Company.” Just imagine that. And I thought, “Wow! What a great name for a song!”
It also triggered with something I had seen as a child. We had these Victorian books on morals — good, bad, and evil. I must have been 6 years old, at a friend’s house, and I still remember this one picture. If you could imagine a Victorian punk back in that day — he was dressed like a gentleman, leaning against a lamppost, but he was definitely not a gentleman. Everything about him was totally ragged. The top was popped out of his top hat, the shoes were busted and broken, but he had everything on — the watch and the chain, the waistcoat. He was emulating a dude, a smart gentleman. But he was completely ragged and smoking a pipe. And there was this little angelic kid looking up at him, sort of worshiping him, thinking, “Look at you, man; you’re so cool.” And underneath it, the caption was [says in foreboding tone]: “Beware of bad company.” I’d love to find that picture now. It would make a great album cover. (laughs) I’ve been looking for it, believe me.
So the two things clicked together, and I visualized the words: vast plains, prairies and pioneers, being in the crosshairs, the whole problem of territory and the terrible wars that were fought — all that wildness, and the lawlessness of it. I sat at the piano, and it just kind of wrote itself after that.
FOX411: It’s a 5-minute movie. And you were actually singing outside in a field when you recorded it at Headley Grange, right?
Rodgers: Yeah. When I came to do this vocal, I thought it would be nice to get some atmosphere. We were at an old mansion and we had a mobile unit outside — Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio, actually — and we stretched the microphone leads waaaay across the grounds and into the fields out there. I waited until midnight and the full moon, and then I went out there and sang it. It was very atmospheric.
FOX411: At the end of the song, didn’t you improvise the line, “and the cold wind blows”?
Rodgers: Yes! You could hear the wind blowing across the microphone. You’re so in the moment. You’re right there: “And the cold wind blows.” To me, that’s what music is: creating a mood, and taking the listener to the place that you’re going.
FOX411: Tell me a little bit about the idea behind “Shooting Star” [from 1975’s Straight Shooter].
Rodgers: This was a something I had been thinking about: Why are so many people in the entertainment business dropping like flies? You know — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, just to name a few. And it still goes on, strangely enough. It was going around in my mind, and I was walking around my cottage in England, and I went [sings], “Don’t you know that you are…” And then I thought, “Oh, I must have heard that on the radio. I wonder when I heard that? [pauses] No, I haven’t heard that on the radio.” I grabbed a guitar and worked the chords out and everything. It just sort of flowed out. It’s still a big song live. People love to sing along with that one.
FOX411: In a recent documentary, you said you’d like to see “Shooting Star” become a musical. Is that still the case?
Rodgers: There is potential there. I probably shouldn’t say that, because somebody else might jump on it. (laughs) But anyway, it’s an expandable story, and it happens a lot in all kinds of fields, that people can burn themselves out. I mean, I’d love to see Jimi Hendrix now. If he would have reached John Lee Hooker’s age, he would be so amazing. [Hendrix died at 27 in 1970; Hooker was 83 when he died in 2001.]
FOX411: Another single we have to talk about is one of the first 45s I ever personally bought — 1979’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy.” You picked up one of the early Roland guitar synths and did something pretty amazing with it to get that song.
Rodgers: It did amaze me when I purchased it. I do have to say the trouble with the Roland is you couldn’t take it on the road with you because it was so sensitive; it didn’t like being knocked about. But that aside, I was playing around with it and got this amazing sound and I went, “Wow, this thing is a rock ’n’ roll fantasy.” It came right from that.
FOX411: In the mid-’80s, you played with Jimmy Page for a little while in The Firm. What can you tell me about “Radioactive” [from 1985’s The Firm], since you still sometimes play that one in some of your solo live shows?
Rodgers: I do sometimes, yeah. I was putting together a studio in my house in Kingston, just outside of London, and my producer said, “What do you want to record?” And I went, “Oh, great, I don’t have anything to record!” So I sat with a guitar and wrote that song, and we put that one down. I played it for Jimmy when we got together, and he said, “Well, I like that. Let’s do that.”
FOX411: Have you spoken with Jimmy recently?
Rodgers: Yeah, we keep in touch, absolutely. Jimmy’s a great, great guy. He always comes to the shows whenever we’re at the Royal Albert Hall or Wembley. He’s always there. He’s unbelievable. Jimmy is such a hard worker in the studio, man. He will spend days, just days, doing stuff.
FOX411: Do you feel as a songwriter that you’re channeling a wave, and sometimes things just hit you and you have to get them out?
Rodgers: I do. Yes, I do. I’ve been asked to analyze what it is, but I find the more you analyze, the less you really know. You just kind of open yourself to it, I think.
FOX411: Both Bob Dylan and Keith Richards have said something similar. There’s a wave up there, and when you’re ready to “receive,” you have to let it flow through you. You can’t force it. It just comes out.
Rodgers: Yeah, wow. That’s how they do it too? That’s so interesting that they experience the same thing. Amazing.
FOX411: You’ve received well, then. You’ve written songs over a long period of time that continue to have impact on people.
Rodgers: I think part of the art is simplicity, really. The simpler the message, the broader the meaning, in many respects. I think about a song like Free’s “All Right Now,” which I’m often asked about. It’s that sort of song.
FOX411: I think my favorite line in that song will always be, “Let’s move before they raise the parking rate.”
Rodgers: Isn’t that funny? What, that’s like 40 something years ago — and it’s still the case, right? (laughs heartily) [“All Right Now” was released in 1970.] It’s a story that happens all the time: boy meets girl, and boom. But each time it happens, it’s a brand new story. That’s what’s I find interesting.
Mike Mettler is the former editor-in-chief and current music editor of Sound & Vision, and he interviews artists and producers about their love of music and high-resolution audio on his own site, Soundbard.com.