From Whisky A Go Go to The Royal Studios: Conversations with Johnny Rivers and Paul Rogers, Plus Roy Orbison Reissued
A Conversation with Johnny Rivers
Mike Ragogna: What have you been working on lately, Johnny?
Johnny Rivers: Well, just what I’ve been working on for the last fifty years–music. Doing gigs, working on some recordings, writing a couple of songs. But recently here, we’re working on the fiftieth anniversary concert that Jimmy Webb and I are going to do at the Savant Theater here in Los Angeles. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the night I opened the Whisky A Go Go, January fifteenth, 1964. Hard to believe it’s been fifty years, but I guess it has.
MR: That says a lot about rock ‘n’ roll and what’s been going on over the last few decades since its opening. And you, sir, are one of the pioneers.
JR: When I opened the Whisky, no one was playing any rock ‘n’ roll or blues here in LA. The closest thing to any kind of rock ‘n’ roll was The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, so I brought that South Louisiana funky blues, stuff like that. I even used to close my set at the Whisky with a tribute to John Lee Hooker. I would say, “Here’s John Lee Hooker,” and I remember one night, a guy came up and said, “Hey, play that ‘Join Me, Hooker’ song!” They didn’t even know who John Lee Hooker was, it was so far ahead of when Bonnie Raitt and all of them jumped on the John Lee Hooker bandwagon.
MR: Johnny, it’s great to see how many artists took a cue from you. I think you influenced many artists, especially with the groove and party of your live albums. How many of them did you record at the Whiskey?
JR: I did five albums live at the Whisky A Go Go, but in between, we did some studio albums as well. My third album, In Action, which had “Mountain Of Love” on it, that was a studio album.
MR: And even that felt like it was live. How did you choose the material in the early days?
JR: A lot of the earlier songs that I did were covers of earlier artists’ stuff because I was playing songs that people were familiar with and that’s what they enjoyed dancing too at the Whisky. I was also writing songs, but commercially, we thought it was better to just put out songs that people had already heard–the Chuck Berry stuff and this and that. We kind of stuck with that until I released “Poor Side Of Town,” which was a song I wrote. But I played songs like “Seventh Son” and “Midnight Special,” funky old tunes I used to play in my high school band back in Baton Rouge in the fifties.
MR: Let’s talk about “Poor Side Of Town,” what a classic. Can you remember writing it?
JR: Well, I didn’t write it all in one day. It was one of those things where I had the chord changes and I kept working on it. I had the guitar riff and then I got the hook, “Welcome back, baby, to the poor side of town,” and the idea of a gal taking off with some wealthy guy and really finding out later on that he was kind of a jerk and coming back to her boyfriend on the poor side of town. It’s kind of a story of forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation.
MR: You surrounded yourself with such talented musicians and the like, such as Jimmy Webb, Marty Paich…
JR: Prior to that, even, “Mountain Of Love” was where Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn–who was my bass player at the time, formerly Ricky Nelson’s bass player–and Larry Knechtel came together and became the hot recording trio in Los Angeles that played on The Mamas & The Papas and even Simon & Garfunkel’s stuff and on and on.
MR: Johnny, how did Jimmy Webb come to your attention?
JR: Marc Gordon, who managed The 5th Dimension sent me this tape because I guess they had been associated with Motown and I guess Jimmy Webb had been as well. He’d been writing some songs over there, so Mark sent me a tape of about ten songs and he said, “You’ve got to listen to this guy, he’s a great songwriter, he’s really unusual,” so I had this tape and I was listening to it, but the songs were not my kind of thing. They weren’t real bluesy or funky rock, they were more pop and Broadway sounding. It’s really funny–you need to listen to all the songs on a tape because you never know. I started to get up and turn it off a couple of times but I went, “Eh, I’m going to keep listening,” and the last song on that tape was “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” So when I heard that, I went, “Whoa, what a great song!” It just jumped out because it was such a great classic song. I called Mark Gordon and said, “Hey, I want to meet this guy.” He gave me Jimmy’s number and I called him and said, “Hey, let’s get together, I want to hear some more of your stuff. I really loved your tape and like your style of writing, especially this song, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix.’ I want to cut it.”
Jimmy and I got together and went into the studio and I recorded “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” the first recording of it. It was actually on the same album that “Poor Side Of Town” was on called Changes. Marty Paich did the string charts for it. But we thought that “…Phoenix” sounded a little bit too much like “Poor Side Of Town,” it had major seven chord changes and stuff, so we decided not to release it and we put out “Baby I Need Your Loving” instead, which took off like a skyrocket. But in the meantime, I was sitting there with this song that I knew was a hit and I had signed Jimmy, I bought his contract from a little studio he was signed to with a bunch of his songs and we had started working together. But I had this song that I knew was a hit and since “Baby I Need Your Loving” was going on the charts, I couldn’t release it. So I was driving down the road and I heard “Gentle On My Mind” by Glen Campbell, which was just coming off the charts, and I went, “Wow, Glen Campbell.” Glen and I used to hang out together; he and I and Jimmy Bowen were old buddies in the early sixties. We hung out around LA and Sunset Boulevard at a publishing company up there, trying to get stuff going. So I called Glen’s producer at Capitol–I had a little office down at liberty records because I’d already started Soul City and they were distributed by Liberty Records–and I asked Al De Lory to come in. I said, “I’ve got a great song for Glen Campbell,” and I had my test pressing for my album. “…Phoenix” was the first cut on it, and I put it on and he goes, “Whoa, what a great song, Glen could really do that,” and I said, “Well here’s my test pressing,” because I published the song. I remember as he left, he put that thing under his arm and walked out of there, and Macey Lipman, who was running the company for us, was across the hall in another office and he came running over and said, “Why in the hell did you give him that song, man? That would’ve been a smash!” I said, “Macey, how many hits can you have at once? I just came off of ‘Poor Side Of Town,’ ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ is heading to the top ten, I think that’d be a great song for Glen.” Sure enough, about two weeks later, I hear Glen’s record on the radio–“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”–and it was an exact copy of mine. It was his first number one record. That really was what got Jimmy Webb going. Then I did an album called Rewind with several of Jimmy’s songs.
In fact, Jimmy wrote the liner notes on the Rewind album. Then everybody started recording “Phoenix.” It was one of those songs that everybody that did an album had to record. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Isaac Hayes, anybody you can think of did their version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” At some point by the end of the sixties, “…Phoenix” was one of the most recorded songs of all time; it was a very important song. That’s how Jimmy Webb got going and then we went from there. At that time, Webb and I started working on a song called “Up, Up, And Away,” something he wrote for a Broadway play that never happened, something about balloons. We started working on The 5th Dimension’s album and that ended up being the title song. Then we released it as a single in the middle of the folk rock thing in San Francisco, the “Wear some flowers in your hair” era. Here’s this Broadway-sounding song that just cut through everything and wound up being record of the year and song of the year and won seven different Grammys for all the different stuff.
MR: And The 5th dimension was a huge act on your label, their having an amazing string of hits.
JR: I produced their first album and Jimmy Webb worked on it with me. I was so far behind on my own commitment with my own albums that Al Bennett–who worked at Liberty Records and was also my partner in Soul City at the time–said, “You’ve got to make a decision. Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a record executive?” I said, “No, I’m an artist, first off,” and he said, “Then you’ve got to get someone else to produce this group.” The natural guy to do it was Bones Howe, who was the engineer on all this stuff and he had already produced The Association, so I turned The 5th Dimension over to Bones Howe who did an excellent job producing hit after hit after hit.
MR: The musical output of your hub of creative people was pretty amazing. The Glen Campbell record of “…Phoenix” mimicked yours, but a lot more started in the Johnny Rivers camp.
JR: Yeah, not only that, but the rhythm section that I wound up putting together and the bass player that I had became the rhythm section for The Mamas & The Papas, who became very successful. It all started off of my sessions.
MR: Right. And those were the days when you were able to have hits over decades and have a nice, long, wonderful career, much like you did.
JR: Those were the days of real radio stations and vinyl records and a real record business before it all went to hell and fell apart. So yeah, it was a different era and the timing was good.
MR: It should be noted that it was you who immortalized quite a few songs beyond their songwriting artists. Songs that immediately come to mind are “Memphis” and “Maybelline.”
JR: Yeah, I was one of the first guys who started doing Chuck Berry material. Nobody was doing it, and then The Beach Boys did their own surf versions, like “Surfing USA,” which is just a Chuck Berry song with different lyrics.
MR: And there’s “Mountain Of Love,” your version of “Cupid,” “Seventh Son,” even “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
JR: That’s me playing guitar, although those were classic hooky riffs. Then of course the big one, “Secret Agent Man”; that’s the riff of all guitar riffs, which I came up as just a steal from the James Bond thing. I run into great guitar players like Eddie Van Halen who go, “Man, it’s really great meeting you, I learned to play guitar listening to Secret Agent Man.”
MR: Nice. Johnny, you hinted at your passion for Louisiana blues. Who influenced your guitar playing?
JR: Just like anybody else, Chuck Berry was one of the great influences, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Jimmy Reed… Those were the early artists I listened to. I also listened to Fats Domino, a lot of the New Orleans guys… There were so many South Louisiana guys including Slim Harpo; he was from Baton Rouge. Being a young guitar player, I always gravitated to guitar songs. Back in those days in the fifties and sixties, there were a lot of guitar instrumental hits like “Honky Tonk” by Bill Doggett. That was one of the first songs where, as a guitar player, you’d try to play the little riff on that, but it wasn’t that easy to play. There was “Walk, Don’t Run” and all of these guitar instrumentals.
MR: I just want to throw out there that Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” seem to pay a little homage to Johnny Rivers’ Whisky recordings.
JR: How about Creedence Clearwater Revivial? That was years after I played that rhythm on those Whisky A Go Go albums, you can hear it clear as a bell. I did “Susie Q” on my second album at the Whisky. My “Susie Q” was a copy of the original Dale Hawkins one, and then of course, two or three years later, Creedence did theirs. And “Midnight Special,” I did that one way before Creedence did theirs. As a matter of fact, I rewrote it and it became the theme for the television show Midnight Special. I hosted the second show and I talked Burt Sugarman into letting me bring Wolfman Jack on as a guest. They were fighting me all the way, saying, “Oh, he’s just a DJ,” and I said, “He’s a character, he’s got a record out, you’ve got to bring him on, he’ll make the show really colorful.” So I talked them into letting me bring him on and the next day, they had him up there negotiating taking over the show, he was the host for twelve years. I was thrilled! That meant I was right about bringing him on, he really lit up the show.
MR: I’m a fan of so many of your albums, my favorites being Changes and Rewind, and it seems like there have been many phases to your career. Looking back at where you started at the Whisky A Go Go all the way up to the last few years, what do you think about Johnny Rivers’ career?
JR: Boy, it’s a blessing. How many people have been able to have a career in anything for fifty years? Mine goes even beyond fifty years, because I started playing in Baton Rouge and actually had a little single that was a hit in South Louisiana and Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast back in the fifties, 1957. It’s a blessing. What can I say? I’m just glad to be along for the ride.
MR: What was that song?
JR: It was called “Hey Little Girl,” just a little song I wrote. I recorded it in New Orleans at Cosmo Studio with the same band that played on Fats Domino and Little Richard’s records. At the time I cut that single, there was this young guitar player, just a teenager that they brought in to play lead guitar on it because I was playing rhythm and his name was Mac Rebennack. He became Dr. John, but at the time, he didn’t even know how to play piano. He was just a guitar player.
MR: Hey, what made you decide you needed to make music?
JR: My dad was a guitar player. He had a great ear, he played guitar and mandolin and sat around and played these songs that he would hear, even pop songs. He played a lot of old Italian folk songs, my parents were both Italian. And my dad had perfect pitch. He couldn’t read music, but if he heard a song, he could turn around and play the melody right back, so as a kid, I grew up with that. Then when I was about eight or nine years old, he bought me a little cheap guitar and showed me a few chords and that’s how I got started. My dad was really my main influence, I owe it all to him.
MR: Was he in the background of your career going, “That’s my boy!”
JR: Yeah, exactly! He was really proud. The thing that was cool about my dad was he was a good critic, even when I was rehearsing with my band in Baton Rouge, working on songs in the living room. My dad would go, “Johnny, don’t do that song because you’re not hitting the notes. You’re singing flat.” He would be like a vocal coach! He’d say, “Now that song, you do really well, so keep that song in your repertoire, but that other one is beyond your range.” He’d show me that everybody has limits. It reminds me of that Clint Eastwood movie where he shoots that guy and then he goes, “A man needs to know his limitations.”
MR: [laughs] You and your dad were pals.
JR: Yeah, I idolized him because of his musical talent. He couldn’t make a living at it, it’s not what he did for a living, but he would get together with his uncle on weekends and the two of them would sit together and play stuff and I’d sit there and just watch him. I guess later on, there are things that happen in your life that really are decisive, where you know it’s what you want to do. I’ll tell you a great story. There was a country music show at the end of 1954 that came through Baton Rouge that had Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens and it was at my old high school auditorium. Me and a friend of mine decided we were going to go see this country music show, so we’re sitting there and in the middle of the show, Minnie Pearl comes out and says, “We have a special surprise guest, he’s a musician from Memphis, he’s going to do his new record,” and out comes Elvis Presley with Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black]. He gets up there and people start laughing at him. They thought he was a clown because he was jumping around and wiggling while they were setting up the amps–it was just the three of them, they had no drums and Elvis had an acoustic guitar.
He goes into “That’s All Right Mama,” and me and my buddy looked at each other and said, “Wow, that’s that record we really liked from the radio! That’s that guy!” To me, that was so important. I went, “That’s what I want to do,” after seeing Elvis on stage playing his own record. We went backstage and he had a ’54 Cadillac with a trailer where they were putting the bass and the amplifiers and guitars and stuff and Elvis is standing around talking to some of those country music guys talking about cars. I was a little kid and Elvis was about eighteen or nineteen years old at the time. I was thinking, “This guy is really cool” because he had the greasy hair and sideburns and s**t. It was something I’ll never forget. It was a real typical moment when I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.” Later on, I became friends with Elvis. I told him that story, I said, “Man I saw you when I was just a kid, you were playing at Baton Rouge High School. That was really influential for me, man. It made me want to do what you were doing.”
MR: Did Elvis ever cover any of your songs?
JR: I don’t know. I used to go up to his house in Bel Air in the early sixties because I was friends with Ricky Nelson. That’s how I first came to California; I met James Burton when I did the Louisiana Hayride, which Elvis had done too, that’s how I kind of got started. James Burton was there, he was Ricky Nelson’s guitar player and I had written a song that I thought would be a great song for Ricky, so I told James. He was there on a vacation and would be coming back out to LA to work with Ricky, so I sent that song to him and about six weeks later, he called me and said, “Hey, that song you sent me, I played it for Ricky and he really likes it.” I went, “You’re kidding!” That was big because Elvis was in the army and Ricky was the man at the time. When he was singing his new records at the end of The Ozzie & Harriet Show. Those were like the first music videos.
MR: Was that the song, “I’ll Make Believe?”
MR: Interesting, I never attributed Ricky Nelson’s success to Elvis going in the army.
JR: He was in the army. He was already gone, so Ricky took over and became the big teen idol. He filled in that void that Elvis left when he took off. Ricky was natural, he stepped right in there, it was perfect. When James told me that Ricky was going to record my song, I saved up money and flew out to LA and hung out with those guys for about two weeks and got the California bug. I said, “I know I’m coming back,” and I did in the early sixties and hung out with Jimmy Bowen and Glen Campbell and all of those guys who were trying to get stuff going. I put a little band together during “The Twist” thing and went up and played in Vegas at The Lounge. I actually played at The Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas from twelve midnight to six o’clock in the morning, switching off with Dinah Washington. Can you imagine listening to Dinah Washington singing the blues, one of the greatest blues singers of all time? All of this stuff influenced me, man.
MR: Getting back to the Whisky A Go Go, when does that come into your life?
JR: I was working at Jimmy Bowen’s at the time, who was producing for Frank Sinatra’s new label, Reprise. He had cut a new single with Dean Martin. Jimmy and I were roommates and I was kind of helping him out in the studio. We would go to a little restaurant down on La Cienaga Boulevard near Beverly that stayed open late, a place called Gazzarri’s–the original Gazzarri’s, not the one that eventually opened on Sunset. Gazzarri was a big Frank Sinatra fan, so he would always come over and bug Jimmy Bowen about Frank Sinatra when we were trying to eat our late dinner. Bowen would go, “Listen, I never see Frank.” One night, we went in there and Gazzarri was all upset because his little jazz trio had left and he couldn’t find a band to replace them. He looked at me and he said, “Well you play, why don’t you come in and help me for two or three nights until I can find a band?” I said, “You don’t want the kind of music I play in here while people are trying to eat dinner.” He said, “I don’t care, just play anything, but don’t play too loud.”
I called Eddie Rubin, who was a jazz drummer playing with Don Randi. I said, “Eddie, you want to play a gig for a couple of nights at this little place down in La Cienaga?” We talked about it and he said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” because they were playing in a place up on Sunset called Sherry’s Lounge–which was a jazz club–two or three nights a week. I’d go in there and listen to them, that’s how I met Eddie. I called Eddie and we started playing and the second night, some people got up and started dancing. It was a teeny little dance floor, something like ten square feet and a bandstand that was big enough for three pieces, but it was just me and Eddie, we didn’t even have a bass player. The third or fourth night we were there, Natalie Wood came in with a bunch of her friends and got up and started dancing and it got into trades like Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The next night you couldn’t even get near the door, so Bill had to hire a guy at the door. Now I’m going, “Hey, Bill, I’ve got to get back to my gig with Jimmy Bowen,” and he goes, “No, no, you’ve got to stay in here,” because it’s packed and it’s making him all this money. People were getting up and dancing, but it was like a steam room, it was so small; it was packed. All of a sudden, it became a little hot spot in town.
So one night, in walks this guy and introduces himself to me, his name was Elmer Valentine, and he was one of the owners of a club called PJ’s, which was the hot spot prior to Whisky. It was on Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. Trini Lopez had recorded a live album there. Well, Elmer came down to Gazzarri’s to figure out what the fuss was all about because I guess we were taking some of their business away. So he comes in and he waits and he talks to me on my break and says, “You know, there’s a club up there on Sunset that me and my partners are looking at, it’s called The Party. This guy put a lot of money into it, but it’s not doing well, so we’re thinking about taking it over and I want to call it the Whisky A Go Go.” I go, “What kind of name is that?” and he says, “I was just over in Europe on vacation and in Paris, there’s a little club that only plays records and people dance to them and it’s packed. It’s called the “Whisky A Go Go” and it’s called a ‘discotheque.'” I’m going, “What the f**k is he talking about?”
He says, “Look, if you’ll sign with us, we’ll take over that place on Sunset, we’ll give you a full contract with options out to a year. We’ll pay you a lot more money.” I said, “Elmer, let me think about this. I’ve got to go to Bill Gazzarri.” I said, “Bill, I need a raise, man. I lost my job with Jimmy Bowen, I can’t even buy gasoline for my car.” He said, “Well, there are a lot of people here, but they’re not spending.” He gives me the old poormouth story, and I said, “Bill, you think about it.” I thought about it for a while, but what really made my mind up was that on November 22nd, 1963, Kennedy got assassinated and Bill Gazzarri wanted me to come in and play that night. I said, “Bill, there’s no way in the world I’m going to play a thing tonight.” Everybody was shut down, the world was crying and mourning and in shock, and this guy wanted me to come in, so that made my mind up. The next day, I called Elmer and said, “Hey, do you still want to do that thing with that club on Sunset?” He goes, “Sure!” I said, “Okay, let’s do it,” and we signed a contract. That’s how the Whisky A Go Go came about. They wouldn’t have even taken over that place if I hadn’t agreed to sign with them. I also took my following from Gazzarri’s. The night we opened the Whisky, January 15th, 1964, Bill Gazzarri’s place was empty. The following just came up to the Whisky A Go Go. It was a smash opening night.
MR: Wow. Did you ever mend fences with Bill?
JR: No, not really. He and I had a bad falling out.
MR: These are just such amazing stories.
JR: I’m working on a book! I’m just in the first draft stage.
MR: Well when you have your book let’s do this again, these are great stories.
JR: Yeah, this is rock ‘n’ roll history. Not that I made it, but I was part of it. I brought blues and rock ‘n’ roll to the Sunset strip. The funky stuff that I had been playing in my old band back in Baton Rouge, people had never heard that stuff out here. Like I said, I’d play that John Lee Hooker riff to close out at the Whisky, we’d play it for fifteen or twenty minutes and people would dance to a big crescendo at the end and that guy would still call it “Join Me, Hooker.” They didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, they just heard the word “hooker.”
MR: How did The 5th Dimension end up on Bell Records after Soul City? They had such incredible success on your label.
JR: We made that deal with them. Their contract was expiring and I was so far behind on my personal commitments, me and The 5th Dimension and Marc Gordon all got together and I negotiated a really good deal for them at Bell Records–a higher royalty rate and all of that–and we signed Bones Howe as their producer and actually wound up selling their contract to Columbia Pictures Industries, which owned Bell Records. That was a big sale, but it was great for me and it was great for The 5th Dimension. We put it together properly; I didn’t just sell it down the river the way Berry Gordy did with the Motown guys.
MR: Bell set the group’s Portrait album up well by having The 5th Dimension appear on It Takes A Thief, their recordings of “One Last Bell To Answer” and “Puppet Man” actually worked into the plot.
JR: And the thing with that, David Geffen was a young manager at the time, he had Laura Nyro as his artist and that’s where those songs came from, “Stoned Soul Picnic” and all that stuff. It was a perfect connection, it worked great.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JR: Always take your wallet on stage.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Paul Rodgers
Mike Ragogna: Hi Paul, just how royal…hmm, maybe “regal” is the better word…were these Royal Sessions?
Paul Rodgers: Oh, they were very royal. The studio is called The Royal Studios, so we called the album The Royal Sessions in honor of the studio, really. I suppose that’s it, really. I could make some comments about my connections to royalty, but no, perhaps not.
MR: How did you decide on a project like this one?
PR: Well, this is special because soul music and blues music have been at my roots for as long as I’ve been in business now, some fifty years. It’s amazing to me that I haven’t really done this earlier, but I think I’ve been getting ready to do it for some number of years. I honestly haven’t really felt worthy of attempting Otis Redding songs. With some of the songs, like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” I felt I needed more experience before I could really sing those, even though Otis himself was probably in his mid-twenties when he sang them, but there was such a wealth of inborn soul in the man and all of his music, really. I think I’ve been practicing over the years.
MR: Speaking of Otis Redding, you recorded three of his songs on this album. Surely, you like this man and his music.
PR: Yeah, Otis Redding is my man, really, as far as singers are concerned. I was influenced and sort of had my mind blown many, many years ago when I first heard him singing “Mister Pitiful” and “Down In The Valley” and “My Girl” and songs like that. There’s something about the way he sang, the depths of the way he sang. I also loved Sam Moore and I loved Wilson Pickett, but there was something about Otis Redding that seemed to come from a spiritual place as well as a rockin’ groove. There was something even deeper to what he was saying and it touched me on an emotional level that other artists haven’t done, actually.
MR: It seems when we get to sixties and seventies singer-songwriters who were saying profound things lyrically, utilizing the words over their voices in many cases, on an equal level, R&B artists were saying things just as profoundly, their method of communication being soulful expression as opposed to being overt cleverness with lyrics.
PR: Well, there are some great messages that come across lyrically. “I Thank You” has a beautiful message, “I think we should all be grateful.” I’ve come to a stage in my life where gratitude for all of the great things in my life, I need to feel that. That’s one thing that comes close. Some of the messages that Otis Redding delivers to me–“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” I mentioned that one earlier–the way he puts it across, you are taken on an emotional journey and it’s really important to understand the depth of love that this man feels for this woman. He takes you to that place with him very often.
MR: Obviously, Isaac Hayes was the inspiration for your approach on “Walk On By.”
PR: Oh, without a doubt, although I loved Dionne Warwick’s version and I accepted it as the version until Isaac Hayes came along with this one. When Dionne Warwick sang it, it was light and nice, but when Isaac Hayes sang it, suddenly it was heavy and laden with passion. Again, the man took you to that place. Listening to singers deliver that kind of message, that’s what I want to do. I want to be in that place. The only way to take anyone there is to actually go there yourself. So when I’m singing these songs, I’m on that journey, I’m walking down that street and I am passing the girl that I loved and I am walking on by. All of the emotions I feel when I’m doing that, I deliver. The musicians, too, are superb in the way that they walk with me down that street. I don’t think anybody gets out of life without experiencing pain of some kind, especially in the love area. All of us experience rejection as well as love and it’s something we all have to handle. These songs deal with that. It’s very powerful.
MR: Paul, there were tons of Temptations songs to cover, but you grabbed “It’s Growing,” which, to me, has a subtle message happening in the performance in addition to the blatant message of the lyrics.
PR: Yeah, I like that one. I used to perform that when I was a kid of about thirteen or fourteen. I remember learning the [vocalizes beat]. The way they do that, it’s very different from the normal soul arrangement that you normally hear. It sort of steps away from that.
MR: Are there other songs on this album that connect with you from your youth?
PR: They’re all songs that have struck me and stayed with me. There must be hundreds of songs that I could say the same thing about. If you stop and think about it, there are songs that hit you like a ton of bricks. You just go, “Whoa.” You never forget them. When I first heard “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, that did it. But I don’t want to do songs that everybody’s done a million times. I wanted to get a little bit away from “Dock Of The Bay” or “My Girl.” I wanted to dig a little deeper. That isn’t to say I would never do those songs, I just wanted to do that on this particular series of sessions.
MR: Do you feel like you’ll be taking this approach further? Will this influence projects down the line?
PR: Well, we’ve yet to see. I must say, it did feel like it was coming home. When I first went down there, they specifically hadn’t been told who I was. They only knew that I was a singer-songwriter. There was a moment when we weren’t sure of each other, so I suggested we do “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” that’s the song we kind of kicked off the sessions with, just because I love that song so much and I’m so confident with that one. I thought, “I know I can do this one.” It was an icebreaker in many respects because after that, we looked at each other and we knew we were speaking the same musical language. They went, “Okay, this guy has obviously listened to our material. He knows it. He knows where we come from with this and we can open up to him.” And we did, we opened up to each other and went on a musical journey.
MR: Right, the musicians at The Royal Studios. Okay, you’ve covered pure soul on this project, being Paul Rodgers, lead vocalist of many groups and solo outings. It’s almost like this album is more about what Paul Rodgers that can’t be communicated with original material. Do you feel that might the case?
PR: Maybe. Everything that I’ve done as a singer-songwriter has a relationship to this music. I did feel that playing with Reverend Charles Hodges and all of the guys, I was with the authentic, real people here. I wasn’t emulating, I was with them. I’m here right now. These are the guys that made all this music all those years ago that moved me so much. I felt I really had to be on my game, and that meant really being present in the moment with the song. As I said, it was a very authentic feeling.
MR: This was recorded, of course, in Memphis at Willie Mitchell’s studio. As you mentioned, that added to the vibe and to the authenticity…
PR: …oh hugely, yes.
MR: So were you all in the same room together or was there a lot of layering?
PR: Oh, there was very little layering, actually. I think there was one vocal that I did outside of the studio for “Walk On By” but everything else was pretty much the take that I did with the band. So I’m standing there with a brass section beside me, Leroy Hodges in front of me playing bass; I have the Reverend Charles at the far end of the studio at his organ conducting the band and right beside me, I have Hubby on the keyboard, the Wurlitzer. Everybody was in the same room and we all had eye contact with each other and with the engineers, the producers in the control room, so it was really organic and it was a real musical feel. In fact, at one of the record companies who shall remain nameless, who we took these tracks along to, there was a young guy in there who said, “Of course, you have to have used Pro Tools to get this sound on here” and Perry [Margouleff] was very happy to say, “Well, actually, we didn’t use Pro Tools at all in the whole process.” It was purely all analog.
MR: You’re celebrating all sorts of interesting soul traditions like Stax and Atlantic, which also evokes the old Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals history. Are you a fan of that musical lineage as well?
PR: Oh yeah, very much so. I remember touring way back with Traffic and we had the Muscle Shoals band out with us. It was really interesting to meet those guys and see them play.
MR: With regards to your own original music, and I’m not trying to be funny here, but do you feel what you perform and record is “soul” music?
PR: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve often said that I’m a soul singer in a rock band. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The great thing about soul and blues is that if you look at a lot of the bands–Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones–so many bands have taken blues and soul in a different direction, in what we call the direction of “rock ‘n’ roll” I guess. But if you go back far enough, you’ll find that the Stones were a blues band when they started out. There’s a lot of blues and soul in their early recordings and that’s where they got the feel from. I think my music is rock infused with the heart and soul of blues. Or something like that. [laughs]
MR: Okay, let’s go into Free and Bad Company. There was something that was easily identifiable as “Paul Rodgers” in Free. In other words, if nobody knew you, they would say, “That’s the sound of ‘Free,'” but if they examined it closer, they’d say, “Oh, that’s the sound of Paul Rodgers.” I think that was the same when you moved on to Bad Company. What do you think of all that? [laughs]
PR: Wow, there’s a lot in there, me old mate! Let me think. With Free, I felt it very important in my early days to be part of a band. I think The Beatles influenced me in that respect. I didn’t really want to step out and be a solo singer that much, you know? I wanted to be part of a band, and that’s what we did with Free. I wrote a lot of the songs in that band so my influence was very much stamped in that. The same thing happened with Bad Company, I was the singer and I had written a lot of the songs so again my character was stamped on that, and I wanted to be part of a band. It was only later on that I wanted to find my own identity a little bit more and I suppose doing this now is part of that.
MR: But I would say classic Bad Company is stamped with your sound. I’m not trying to stir up an ego here, but what is it about Paul Rodgers that creates such a unique, desirable sound?
PR: Well, thank you. I think I’ve been blessed with the ability to sing; I discovered that from a very early age. I had a bass player that, when we were listening to The Four Tops or something and when one of the singers would do something smooth vocally, he would say to me, “Can you do that?” I would attempt it and I wouldn’t be able to do it at first, but I would keep trying and I found that I could do these intonations, so I gathered a lot of licks, really, a lot of influences and inspirations and I listened to these people and I found that I could copy them. From there, I sort of built a library of vocal techniques just by listening to these people. I’d listen to them and say, “Wow, how did they do that?” It wasn’t just vocal gymnastics that I like. I hear a lot of people fabulously swinging about and doing these great vocal things, but somehow, they don’t connect with the band. I found when I listened to a lot of the black singers–and to be honest with you, there are good white singers, too, but it tended to be Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett–they seemed to merge with the music. It’s something that you have to practice doing. You have to lose your ego in many respects because you are becoming part of the music. It was very much evident when I was playing with the Reverend Charles Hodges and all of the guys; we gelled. Yes, I’m the singer, but there’s a great drummer, too. There’s a great bass player. There’s a great keyboardist. The whole thing is gelling together and telling a story and creating this atmosphere and this mood. You mentioned it earlier about the studio having its own atmosphere. It was like the walls were seeped in this beautiful feeling and we were wrapped in this blanket making this amazing music in our own world. I don’t know if that answers your question, but you sort of become part of the whole picture. I never see myself as the starring singer. I’m part of the overall picture and that’s where I try to place myself.
MR: But you were blessed with a voice that’s so unique that even when you were singing with Queen, it was your voice, not some reverence for Freddie Mercury, that affected the listener. Paul, what are your thoughts when you look back at your career? What is it about your sound and talent that becomes the story?
PR: Thank you for the question, because I don’t think I’ve ever been asked in that manner before so that I’ve had to find “what is it?” The idea that you gel with the band, I’m going to think more on it so I can articulate it further, but that’s what I listen to in singers. That’s what I love about great singers. Paul McCartney can do that. Steve Winwood can do that. Rod Stewart can do it, too, where you lock tight with the band. That’s the difference between a great voice and a great singer, I think. It’s almost like how you’ve got your center forward in football, but without the team, they’re nothing, really. We’re all together. That’s sort of how I feel about it. Not to pigeonhole myself; I follow my heart and I work on projects I feel and if it changes, that’s when I move on.
MR: You also were part of The Firm with Jimmy Page. Has your relationship with him continued through the years?
PR: Oh yeah, Jimmy is fantastic. He comes to all the shows whenever we’re in London and sometimes in New York. He was at the Albert Hall when I played there last. Blowing my own trumpet a bit here, I received an Ivor Novello Award and he was there and he sat at the table with me, with Chris Blackwell and he sat at the table with me. And then I was presented with the award and Jimmy presented that along with Jeff Beck. I love those guys. What I was talking about vocally they do with their instruments. What I said about the vocal thing applies to every instrument, you know? I think with each instrument, its player sings through that instrument. It’s a conversation, really.
MR: Beautifully said. What’s your advice for new artists?
PR: Don’t do it. [laughs] I’m just kidding. It’s such a different world since I started. It was like a village when I started out, and now it’s a great big corporate city and you’ve got to be very careful. There’s so much to watch out for but I think you must remain true to yourself. I know that’s a little bit of a cliché, but you’ve got to follow your heart and do that which you feel is right for you. So many people can pull you in different directions. You can stand there and go, “What the hell, I’m totally confused.” So that’s the point at which you have to do exactly that. Follow your own instincts and your own heart, and even if it fails, you’re still you. You haven’t sold yourself away.
MR: Right. Paul Rodgers five years from now?
PR: Wow. I’ve just turned sixty-four, so in five years… [laughs] Music has kept me very young, though, I have to say, so I hope it will keep doing the job and keep me young. I would like to be still very creative and very active. I look at McCartney and the Stones, they just keep rolling. I think that’s what I’ll do. I’ve got a new solo album I’m working on in between everything else, so yeah. Maybe it’ll be out in five years.
MR: Well, you’ve got a new album to go record, so I don’t want to take any more of your time. [laughs] This has been beautiful, I really loved talking with you, you’re one of my favorite vocalists ever, and I so appreciate the time.
PR: Oh, well thanks Mike. I appreciate speaking with you.
MR: All the best.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
ROY ORBISON IN 2013
Roy Orbison received a sweet reissue treatment this year with a bunch of projects that included an upgrade of his star-studded Black & White Night concert that guested folks like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. Also released were his re-recorded Greatest Hits–not a good idea for most artists, perfect for Orbison–and The Last Concert, all of which cap the career of this founder of heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll. Required listening for all new artists, no, make that everyone.