"We were four separate guys at the beginning of the afternoon, and by the end of the evening we were a band": Paul Rodgers on life with Free, Bad Company, The Firm and Queen

Paul Rodgers holding a guitar and smiling happily
(Image credit: Sun Records)

'Yow!… all right, all right…’ It’s a timeless performance: Paul Rodgers with Free, playing All Right Now at the Isle of Wight Festival in the summer of 1970. As the band chop away at the riff, Rodgers strikes a pose, with one knee cocked and a hand outstretched, like he’s about to deliver one of Shakespeare’s sonnets rather than ‘There she stood, in the street, smiling from her head to her feet.’ 

Rodgers sang into not one but two microphones that day. The doubling up was due to the requirements of the PA, but also magnified his image as a man whose voice couldn’t be contained by just one. Paul Rodgers launched a thousand imitators, but the man with the flawless delivery (whom his former bandmate Jimmy Page calls “the Sam Cooke of rock”) is a true original. 

Born on December 17, 1949, Rodgers was the son of a Middlesbrough docker, who ignored his father’s advice to “get a trade”, and instead fled to London to try his luck in the music business. Rodgers distilled his love of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Muddy Waters into the hits All Right Now and Wishing Well with the pioneering bluesrockers Free. 

When Free imploded in 1973, Rodgers formed Bad Company and broke America with the charttopping radio staples Can’t Get Enough, Feel Like Makin’ Love and Rock’n’roll Fantasy. Since then, he’s made solo and tribute albums, formed supergroup The Firm with Jimmy Page, and toured the world as guest vocalist with Queen

Midnight Rose is Rodgers’s first album of all-new songs since 2000, recorded with members of his solo group, released on the historic Sun Records label and produced by Bon Jovi/Metallica fixer Bob Rock and Rodgers’s wife Cynthia Kereluk. “Yes, she kicks me up the arse, in every respect,” offers her husband. 

New songs such as Living It Up and Highway Robber either celebrate the music of Rodgers’s youth or reference the outlaws and desperadoes of the Bad Company era, but reimagined through the eyes of their now 73-year-old writer. Resplendent in a blue Hawaiian-style shirt and baseball cap, Rodgers joins Classic Rock from a quiet corner of his home in British Columbia. “I live in the Okanagan Valley, but there’s enough English here for my tastes,” he says. 

While the 1970s were the era of excess and a “blur of fisticuffs”, the modern-day Rodgers exudes a Zen-like calm and talks an awful lot about peace and love. In fact, “fucking” becomes “effing” in some of his answers, even if a glint in his eye suggests the old tearaway is still in there. That voice, of course, is as familiar as ever.


How does it feel to be on the legendary Sun Records? Is this something of a teenage dream come true? 

Who’d have thought it? When I was growing up it was home to Elvis Presley and all these other great artists. In my mind, though, there was never any possibility I would be on Sun Records. 

Sun has a great logo too

Yes, it’s like Harley-Davidson. It’s the HarleyDavidson of record labels. 

This is your first album of all-new songs since 2000’s Electric. What kept you? 

I had no intention of even making a new album. But covid brought everything to a screeching halt, and I was locked down with an acoustic guitar. I had nothing else to do but work on all the material I’d built up. After a while, I’m sitting there thinking: “I wonder if I can go in a studio…” 

Some of these songs sound like a love letter to America

Had I not heard American music – jazz, blues, soul and rock’n’roll – my life would have been vastly different. There likely wouldn’t have been Free or Bad Company. I owe a lot to the unique musicians who created that music. 

You did Straight Shooter with Bad Company, now there’s a song here called Photo Shooter

It’s about all the different places photographers find themselves, from fashion zones to war zones and places and spaces in between. Competing all the while for that prized front-page spot. I compare this to how life can be, always pushing, driving, to be the best, and I wonder: “What does it matter?

Let’s go back to the 1960s. Your teenage group The Roadrunners have moved from the Northeast to North London, and you were all living together. How bad did it get? 

We were The Roadrunners but we became the Wildflowers [in 1967], and were introduced to a drummer called Andy whose parents were on holiday and let us stay at his place. We were four teenagers unsupervised, and we ate everything in the fridge and turned the place into a wreck. But Koss [future Free guitarist Paul Kossoff] lived around the corner and came over to jam with us.

What were your first impressions of Paul Kossoff? 

I liked Koss’s style. His playing and his humour. And I admired him because he had the longest, most beautiful hair – like a lion’s mane. He also had flared Levi’s, which you couldn’t buy in the stores. He bought two pairs of Levi’s every time and cut the sides out of one to put the ‘V’ in. I was like: “Wow, that’s so cool.” 

The Wildflowers split, but you stayed behind in London. Were you pushing and striving more than the others? 

My staying behind was what cemented mine and Koss’s relationship. When the other Wildflowers went back to Middlesbrough or did whatever they did, I was on my own with a load of wrecked equipment. I needed to reboot my career, as it were. I had four Shure SM57 microphones. I sold three, kept one and got myself a 50-watt Selmer amp. So I was back in business. 

What happened next? 

I joined a blues band called Brown Sugar, and was playing in a pub, when Koss showed up and asked to jam. He wanted me to join his band [Black Cat Bones], but I wanted us to start a new group. 

Take us back to Free’s first jam together: April 19, 1968, at the Nag’s Head in Battersea. 

That was where I met [bassist] Andy Fraser and Kirkie [drummer Simon Kirke] for the first time. [Rodgers’s mentor, British bluesman] Alexis Korner recommended Andy to us. We just played blues because everybody could play it straight away. Halfway through the day, we were doing Moonshine, one of the songs Koss and I had written together, and just at the point where it goes [sings] ‘I-I-I-I-I-I sit here alone’ Alexis walked in, sat down and said: “You sound like you’re a band now.” We were four separate guys at the beginning of the afternoon, and by the end of the evening we were a band.

Is it true that Island Records, who signed the new group, wanted to call you the Heavy Metal Kids? 

Yes. Alexis told us he used to have a band called Free At Last, so we liked the idea of ‘Free’. Then before we signed to Island Records, they said they wanted to call us the Heavy Metal Kids. I said: “No effing way we’re gonna do that,” even if it means losing the record deal. Andy wrote the names down and put them side by side on the mantelpiece, to see which looked best. We all looked at each other and went: “It’s got to be ‘Free’ hasn’t it?” 

Free didn’t stop during those early years, but you released two albums, Tons Of Sobs and Free, within seven months of each other in 1969.

You know, I wasn’t even conscious of doing two albums in a year. Is that what we did? That title, Tons Of Sobs, was [producer] Guy Stevens’s idea. Guy was a wonderful lunatic. We did the album while we were touring: play four or five gigs, and stop and work on the album for a couple of days. But the studio was so busy you’d have another band sat outside and the conga player tapping on the glass, waiting to come in. 

Free’s single All Right Now reached Number Two in the UK in May 1970, and is still played regularly on the radio today. But Andy Fraser said he never liked Island boss/producer Chris Blackwell’s single edit of the track. How did you feel about it? 

I was going with the flow. I didn’t mind cutting it down, because we wanted to accommodate radio and TV, as long as it didn’t upset the integrity of the song. But we insisted on keeping the longer version on the album. I do remember Top Of The Pops sending a team to the studio, though, because when I sang: ‘Let’s move before they raise the parking rate’, they were convinced I really sang: ‘Let’s move before they raise the effing rate’ [laughs]. The engineers had to pull all the tracks down so it was just the vocal to convince them. 

After All Right Now and hit third album Fire And Water, Free’s audience changed. How did you feel about not being an underground blues band any more? 

Our audiences were always great. But, to be honest, this started the downward spiral. We’d been striving for success – like all bands – and suddenly we had it and… it kind of wasn’t so great. It was nice being an underground band, under the radar. I think I quite liked that. 

Free broke up in May 1971, but reunited in January 1972. What was going through your mind at that time? 

I didn’t want us to become a pop band. That’s what the record company wanted us to be. Free had toured America with Blind Faith, and it was really tough because we were so insignificant and we got kicked around. We suffered a lot because we didn’t have the correct management. I told everyone I didn’t want to go back to America again until we had the right management and we were ready. But they booked America anyway, and that’s when I split. At the time, I thought that was it – it was over.

It’s been said that Paul Kossoff took the break-up badly. Is that true? 

He did, and I feel kind of responsible because he deteriorated very sharply after Free split. I started another group called Peace, singing and playing guitar with a drummer called Mick Underwood and a bass player called Stewart MacDonald. We toured with Mott The Hoople, which is where I met [future Bad Company guitarist] Mick Ralphs, and the rest is history. 

Was this when you and Ralphs had the idea for Bad Company? 

Yes. Before the gigs, Mick and I would gravitate towards each other and go into the tuning room with all the amps and guitars. I had the song Rock Steady, and Mick had Ready For Love and Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love. I thought Ready For Love had everything – the lyrics, the chorus, the storyline… He’d already done it with Mott The Hoople, but I said it doesn’t matter, let’s do it again. 

But before then, Free reunited and had the Top Ten hit Wishing Well

So it wasn’t over yet. We had success with Wishing Well, but at that point Koss was hit hard. He was doing drugs in the studio and falling asleep in the middle of playing a solo. Man, we couldn’t be dealing with that. We tried, we really tried. I remember playing a show in Newcastle, and he went to his amp and couldn’t find the switch. I thought: “Oh gosh, what’s he taken?” The fans were saying: “Come on, Koss, you can do it.” But it was a real struggle. In the end I thought: “I’ve got to get out of this,” and I did.

What did you have in mind for Bad Company? 

Mick Ralphs came down to my cottage in the country, and I thought we were going to get a band together and he thought we were going to be a duo like the Everly Brothers [laughs]. It’s funny how bands can get together and not understand each other. 

Were Simon Kirke and (ex-King Crimson vocalist/bassist) Boz Burrell already involved? 

I didn’t take Kirkie with me from Free. Then he called the cottage and asked if he could come down, because we didn’t have a drummer. That worked out well. We wanted Alan Spenner to play bass because we’d seen him with Joe Cocker in the film from Woodstock. Alan was amazing, but turned up three days late, just wandered into the pub. We said: “Oh, we’d given up on you.” He goes: “Oh, I want it.” We said: “Oh, I don’t think so.” Which is a shame. 

I’d heard you weren’t sure about Boz Burrell. 

Mick loved Boz, but I was kind of on the fence about Boz, even years later. But when we did the song Bad Company, he played lead bass – and you need a bass player who’ll play a bit of lead too. My thing after Free was having a band that was really sharp and together and got it going on. 

How did Bad Company come to be managed by Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant? 

Clive Coulson [who became Bad Co’s tour and day-to-day manager] worked with Free before joining the Zeppelin team. Clive said: “Call Peter Grant, he’s interested.” Peter used to call Clive [pinches nose and makes a nasal Peter Grant voice] ‘Clivey’. But Peter was great. Everything was five stars, and everything was taken care of. We were spoiled rotten, to tell you the truth. 

In 1974, Bad Company made their US debut opening for the Edgar Winter Group, acting like bigger stars than the headliners, flying between states in a private jet and arriving at gigs in limousines. 

Oh yes [laughs]. We were catapulted into America, and Peter Grant put us right where Led Zeppelin were in terms of aeroplanes and limousines. We went into the arenas overnight.

So you were able to do with Bad Company what you hadn’t been with Free in America

America has always been accepting of the evolution of things – bands, companies, people. They were very accepting of Bad Company because we had the goods. But I knew what we needed in America too, because I’d watched Blind Faith from the side of the stage and seen Ginger Baker throwing his drumstick at the back of a policeman’s head, then pick up another and carry on [laughs]. Peter and Led Zeppelin had it all down – the American scene and all the business involved – and we benefited from that. 

Bad Company’s first three albums – Bad Company, Straight Shooter and Run With The Pack – were huge hits in the UK and the US. But did you ever worry about being in Zeppelin’s shadow? 

No. Honestly, I had no problem with being on [Zeppelin’s vanity label] Swan Song. I thought it was absolutely the bee’s knees. I used to go into the Swan Song office from time to time, down on the King’s Road opposite the World’s End pub, and I’d bump into Jimmy [Page] and Robert [Plant].

At the time, you and Robert Plant had that swaggering rock-god frontman thing off pat. 

Ha ha. He had more swagger. Robert was a good lad. Zeppelin were total gods. They were so big it was astronomical, but they were very down-to-earth and good to us. 

Robert Plant wiggled his arse more than you, but you’re being very modest here. 

Well, thank you, it’s nice of you to say. I just copied people like Otis Redding, Ray Charles – I loved Ray Charles’s Crying Time – Wilson Pickett, Stevie Marriott and Rod Stewart. Actually, Rod Stewart with the Jeff Beck Group doing Rock My Plimsoul on the Truth album.

After such a positive start, where did it begin going wrong with Bad Company? 

For the fourth album, Burnin’ Sky [1977], we came straight off a tour, where we’d been playing the hits, and were booked into a studio. We weren’t ready, we didn’t have the songs. Me and Mick decided that if we didn’t make a good enough album we wouldn’t even release it. 

What happened? 

We were recording in France [at Château d’Hérouville studios, aka the ‘Honky Chateau’]. We’d work during the week but take the weekend off, and I’d go to Paris and stay in a hotel. I thought if we’re making all this money I’m going to stay somewhere nice, because the studio was a bit rough. I just had the chorus for the title track – ‘The sky is burnin’, I believe my soul’s on fire’ – but I wrote the verses and chords one weekend and came back to the studio and said: “Okay, I’ve got one.” They put the red light on, and I had no lyrics at all, and just made it up on the spot. But it turned out to be a good song.

Did you seriously consider not releasing the album? 

No, that went by the by. The record company and the management wouldn’t let us not release it. But our energy was not what it should be. The wheels were turning and we just pressed on. We always pressed on. 

And you’re wearing your karate gear on the LP cover? 

Actually, it’s a happi [a traditional Japanese coat], like a dressing gown. I just liked the look of it. But Peter Grant did not like it at all. It was different, I suppose. 

But you were practising martial arts at this time. 

I certainly was. I did wado-ryu [a style of karate], which means the way of peace. Suzuki Sensei was a wonderful guy and I learned a lot from him. 

You also boxed. Is it true that you sparred with future super-featherweight world champion Cornelius Boza-Edwards? 

Yes – and [British boxing champion] John Conteh. I used to drive over to a gym in East London. It belonged to our security guy’s dad. All I remember about the sparring is a blizzard of fisticuffs. Those guys are so fast, you don’t even see it. You’d think: “I’m going to run away now because there’s no way I can get through that.” 

It’s the 1970s, the music business was awash with booze and cocaine, so was wado-ryu your healthy alternative? 

Yes. And I did all the above. Lots of cocaine, lots of booze, just lots of everything. Suzuki Sensei gave me a sense of discipline and I stopped taking cocaine. That’s why I am still alive today. I think Burnin’ Sky was the last time I did cocaine. But I used to have nightmares afterwards where I dreamed I’d taken some again.

That lifestyle change must have taken some discipline to maintain on tour. 

Yes. I took one of my karate teachers out on the road with me. We used to clear the furniture out of the hotel room so we’d have space. I never got very good at it, but I learned discipline, meditation and the importance of stretching. 

Did your abstinence drive a wedge between you and the rest of Bad Company? 

Yes. That was the beginning of the end, really, because they were still doing it. I don’t know if I’m talking out of turn here… But I used to say to them: “I’m not concerned with what you do. I’m only concerned with what I do. My peace of mind is my business, your peace of mind is yours. It’s fine with me.” But they were sneaking around doing it. I’d say: “Guys, you don’t have to sneak around.” But it did separate us. 

Bad Company’s next album, Desolation Angels, was bigger than Burnin’ Sky, but punk had happened in the UK. Were you aware that the music was changing? 

Yes. At that point we became dinosaurs in many people’s eyes, and we did not like that at all. I remember a review of [Bad Co’s 1979 single] Rock’N’Roll Fantasy that began: “The coffin opens… and out comes this music.” I was like: “Oh my god.” But I still do Rock’N’Roll Fantasy with my band even today. 

You parted ways with Bad Company after 1982’s Rough Diamonds and made a solo album, Cut Loose. What were you hoping for at the time? 

I stepped back from touring with Bad Company because it was getting too much. When John Bonham died [in September 1980], I thought something’s going to give with us too. People were dying, and dying so young from overdoing it. So I decided to make a record in the studio at my house on my own but not to go on the road.

Jimmy Page says that when you and he formed The Firm in 1984 you never intended to make more than two albums together. 

That’s right. What happened though is Jimmy came round and said: “What are you up to?” I played him some things. So we started to write songs together. But once you start writing songs together, that’s the nucleus of a band. 

What do you think of those albums, The Firm (1985) and Mean Business (1986), now? 

[Long pause] I haven’t listened to The Firm for a while, but I think some good things came out of it – Midnight Moonlight, Radioactive, Satisfaction Guaranteed, which I played for a long time with my solo band. 

You revived your solo career in the 1990s, one of the albums you made was the Grammy-nominated Muddy Waters Blues tribute record, you toured again with Bad Company… and then in 2005 you surprised everyone by joining up with Queen. 

It was a very interesting experience [laughs]. Bad Company and Queen were like separate entities in the seventies. I thought there was no connection whatsoever. Then when we played together and did We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions and All Right Now, I realised there was a connection. It was all classic rock. 

Before you played the first Queen + Paul Rodgers shows, you told one interviewer that you would not be wearing tights on stage, à la Freddie Mercury. 

Ha. And I didn’t!

Queen + Paul Rodgers toured the world, played arenas and even made an album (2008’s The Cosmos Rocks). How do you look back on that collaboration now?

It was a good time. But to start with, Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor] wanted to do a lot more Free and Bad Company songs because they were big fans. I said: “Look, the world has been waiting to hear you and your songs, so let’s keep it Queen-heavy.” So we only did a couple of mine: All Right Now, Feel Like Makin’ Love and Bad Company – and when Queen do Bad Company they know how to put on a show.

In what way? 

We used to do Bad Company with a lot of smoke and lights and me at a piano coming up on a riser from under the stage – all very dramatic. One night I was playing away, and realised the piano hadn’t reached the top of the stage. Instead, Brian had fallen down the pit and landed on top of the piano, but like a trooper, with his guitar neck unbroken and still in tune. The roadies jumped into the pit and dragged Brian out. I’m sat there thinking, “What the fuck do I do now?”

What do you make of Adam Lambert? 

I haven’t checked him out too much, but from what I’ve seen I think he’s a good match. I think he’s what they need. When I became a part of Queen I had a lot of respect for Freddie, but when I left I had even more, because I now know what he went through. 

Boz Burrell died in 2006, and Mick Ralphs suffered a life-changing stroke in 2016. Are you still in touch with Mick? 

We try and look after Mick from a distance across the Atlantic. We do what we can. I love Mick, he’s a beautiful guy. 

Could you see yourself going out on tour again? 

There are no plans. I’ve sort of retired from touring. And I didn’t mind being locked down, because it gave me the opportunity to sleep in my own bed. Three things I don’t like about touring: not sleeping, not getting enough pure oxygen, because there’s no air in the hotel room or the plane, and the lack of nutrition, because you’ve got to take what you can get, like a pizza at four o’clock in the morning. Now, at last, I’ve got peace [laughs]. 

This seems to be a theme in your life and music now. 

There’s a song on the new album, Living It Up, and it’s a long story told in three minutes about me being at home and searching for three things: my love of blues, soul and, of course, rock’n’roll, a “thank you” to the countries that gave me all that, and to find some peace of mind.

Paul Rodgers’ Midnight Rose is out now Sun Records.

Mark Blake

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and the magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock, Music Week and Prog. He is the author of Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen, Magnifico! The A–Z Of Queen, Peter Grant, The Story Of Rock's Greatest Manager and Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.