PAUL RODGERS (Live at The City Hall, Sheffield, U.K., May 17, 2017)
Photo: Mick Burgess

As lead singer in Free, Paul Rodgers built his reputation as one of the finest singers the UK has ever produced. He went on to form Bad Company and The Firm before embarking on a successful solo career. He’s heading back to his roots with his Free Spirit tour celebrating the music he created and performed in Free. Mick Burgess spent some time with him to talk about the tour and to take a look back on his days in Free.

In a couple of weeks you’re back in the region with your solo band for the Free Spirit tour. Are you looking forward to touring again?

I’m really looking forward to it. I’m actually borrowing Deborah Bonham’s band and she’s opening the show with Doug Boyle who is Nigel Kennedy’s guitarist and she’s doing something slightly different. I’ll be joined by Pete Bullick on guitar, Ian Rowley on bass, Rich Newman on drums and Gerard Louis or “G” as well call him on keys. It’s going to be a great show.

Have you played together before?

We have done a couple of charity shows together playing Free material in support of Willows Animal sanctuary and Assisted Therapy Unit there in Scotland which we support and are patrons of. Their motto is “People helping animals helping children”. They do great work and are not government funded so supporting almost 300 animals and running a self-funded program for all ages and ailments is a financial challenge. This tour is in support of Willows. Back to the band, I had such a blast doing those shows that I thought one day we’ll tour the UK with this band and here we are.

This tour is a celebration of your work that you created when you were in Free between 1969-1973. Why have you decided to do this?

I thought it was the right time to do this as a lot of things came together. What happened up in Willows is that they rescued a little Shetland pony that had been abandoned and it was pregnant. She was in a terrible state and we thought she’d at least lose her foal due to the medication she needed. Against all the odds the foal survived. Jenny, who runs the Willows decided to call the little foal Free Spirit and I thought maybe that was a sign. In any event I thought it was a great name if ever we did that. It really started to come together along those lines in my mind. I know when we included The Hunter just in Newcastle when we played with Bad Company last October, people just loved it and there’s a depth of love for the Free material that I thought would be really nice to revisit.

Did you consider asking Simon Kirke to join you on the tour?

I wanted to keep it the way we had done it already as that was the springboard for the whole idea and it had worked so well so we thought we’d just go with that.

You have six albums worth of material to choose from. How are you going to decide what to play and what to leave out?

I’ve had some thoughts about the setlist but I’ll have more of an idea during rehearsals what we’ll be doing. There’s a lot of songs I have to include like Little Bit of Love, Be My Friend needs to be in and I’m A Mover. I’d love to do Come Together In The Morning as I don’t think we ever performed that live if I’m not mistaken. I think that may be the best record Free ever made. I just hope we can do it justice live. We’ll have to do Stealer of course and we’ll dig a little deeper too. There’s just so many songs we could play. People keep coming up to me asking if we’ll play Magic Ship or Travellin’ In Style and all of these songs that I hadn’t thought of. A lot of songs didn’t get played live one way or another so we’ll have to see how it pans out.

You’ve also toured a few times with your daughter Jasmine and son Steve. Will they be at your shows this time?

Steve is touring and releasing his own album this fall and now lives in California so can’t make the tour but Jasmine, who also has a new album out called Blood Red Sun, still lives in the UK and is going to open the show before Deborah Bonham at the Royal Albert Hall. We will be recording the Albert Hall show for a DVD to be released later this year.

On 7th May you’ll be back in the City Hall in Newcastle. You must have played there a fair few times over the years?

We’ve played there many, many times and tread those boards. It’s a beautiful hall and I love that size of the venue too. It’s very intimate and very close. We go back a long, long way with Newcastle. I played there with Free, with Bad Company and I’ve played there with my solo shows too. It’s going to be great playing there again. The crowd is always amazing there.

Although you live in Canada now, you still have strong links to the North of England with family and friends still here. You recently recorded a song with your son Steve called This Place Called Home. It’s a song about the North’s industrial heritage. What made you decide to do that?

The writer of that song, Adam Dennis, sent me a demo and explained what had happened as I wasn’t aware then that the steel works had closed down in Redcar. I grew up in the region and my father worked there and his father before him. He asked me to sing the song. My son was with me at the time in California and the lyrics talk about father and son so my wife Cynthia suggested doing a duet with Steve and I think it turned out really well and it raised money for a charity in Normanby called Zoe’s Place Baby Hospice too. Steve, being a single father of two young children visited Zoe’s Place with my eldest daughter Natalie and was so moved that he became a patron.

It must make you feel quite sad to see much of the industry and so many jobs gone from the area?

It does but I suppose you can’t stop progress and it all seems to be towards information technology now and the change has hit the North of England hard. I just hope we can adapt and thrive again.

Also linked to the North East was your classic live record Free-Live which was partly recorded in Sunderland. Why did you decide to record a live album in Sunderland?

Part of that was recorded at the Locarno in Sunderland. When we played up there Melody Maker called it Freemania, like Beatlemania. We had to sneak in and out of the venue through the kitchen and the back door. That was always such a great place for Free so it just made sense to record a show there. The fans created an electric energy that we felt. They were wonderful times and I’m so glad we were able to capture that. I remember Geoff Docherty announcing us onto the stage and the whole place went crazy. It was absolutely incredible. They were good times.

For the original album you could only use a couple of the Sunderland tracks for the live album. Was there some sort of technical fault that prevented them being used at that time?

There was a problem with the microphones that caused some interference with the recordings so we couldn’t use some of the recordings for the album. Later when technology developed we were able to remove the distortion and restore the recordings and put some of those songs not included on the original live record on the box set Songs of Yesterday and the re-release of Free Live.

There’s also another key link in your history with the North East. Is it right that the roots of All Right Now were created at Dunelm House in Durham?

I think that did happen in Durham but everybody sees things slightly differently. I remember we came off stage and I said to the guys that we needed to find our own identity and move away from the Blues and we needed a song like The Hunter that people could join in with. I ended up singing the lyric for the chorus and I thought that was it. I grabbed a guitar and worked backwards from the chorus and the lyric kind of flowed out and it almost wrote itself.

You were born and raised in Middlesbrough. How old were you when you left the region to move to London?

I was 17 years old when I moved down there. I was quite an old hand at singing at that point. I’d been singing from about the age of 14 at school and we did shows around youth clubs and pubs. We weren’t legally allowed to play in the pubs but we did anyway. We got quite a bit of experience under our belt at an early stage. Colin Bradley was the guitarist and singer back then and I played bass initially. We then drafted in a proper bass player. I sang Long Tall Sally and the others said that I should be the singer so I got the job and put the bass down. I still play the bass and do write songs on the bass.

What happened to Colin?

We are still good mates. He lives in Canada but in the east in Toronto. He grew up and became sensible. He’s an engineer and works in goldmines down in Brazil and all around the place. Colin was a really good singer but I think I got the job as I was a little raunchier. Colin did the ballads very well though. We actually played together in Toronto a few years ago and we did a couple of tunes which was great.

What did people think when you told them you were moving away?

My school friends’ parents thought I’d be back in a month. I was determined not to come back within a month. Everyone else left and I stayed down in London, “The Big Smoke”. I joined a band but we didn’t have a name at the time so we called ourselves Brown Sugar and Koss turned up for a jam session and we played some Blues and it was way off the charts. I was aware of him at the time but hadn’t met him up until then. We did some B.B King songs and Stormy Monday Blues and it was really magical. I said to him that we needed to form a band.

How did you end up putting Free together when you got down into London?

We started out as a Blues band when we first met up at the Nag’s Head for our first jam session. Koss and Kirke had played together and me and Koss had played together but we hadn’t played together as a band so when we did play for the first time it was a revelation for all of us in many respects as we found we had so much in common. The connecting thing for us was the Blues. You could call up a song like Crossroads or Hoochie Coochie Man and we’d come up with our version of it right there on the spot. When we first started we were four separate guys. By the end of the afternoon we did feel like we were a band and it was rock solid. You could throw anything at us then and we could handle it. We had a few of our own songs too. I had Walk In My Shadow and Koss gave me the music for Moonshine and I did the lyrics for that. So we were starting to write our own Bluesy type of songs and that was our roots.

How did you then end up joining with Simon and Andy?

Koss brought Simon in from his band Black Cat Bones and Simon wanted to be part of something new too. I’m not sure how Andy came on the scene but it was through Koss though. He said he’d seen an advert in the Nags Head that mentioned a bass player, ex-John Mayall looking for a band. He had contacted Andy and he came along to the Nags Head later that day and that’s when I met both Simon and Andy for the first time. It could have gone anyway at that point and could have been a total disaster but we hit it off right away.

It’s incredible to think that you were all still teenagers when you made your debut album Tons of Sobs. How did you feel when you’d made that record and held it in your hands for the first time?

It was an important moment for us. I can see where we were coming from when I listen back to it now as we were recording live. There were a couple of songs like Worry, that I wrote the night before and recorded it the following day in the studio. I thought, wow, things are looking up when you can do that. It was a different way of recording back then as you didn’t block out the studio for a month. You went in when there was time available and recorded what you could in the time you had. There were always people in the corridors with all their instruments tapping on the window when your time was up. So you’d end up recording a couple of tracks, go off and play some shows then come back and do another couple of tracks.

How had the experience of recording the debut and the hard touring you’d done in support of that shaped your songwriting and musicianship within the band by the time you started work on the second album?

I think it did as we started to think more about how we could get a good sound. The trick was to try and capture how you played live but without the spillage so we tried to get a good separation between the instruments but in doing that you could lose the feel of the song. It was always a toss-up between capturing the feel and capturing a great that was the dilemma to get the right balance. I think the second album was a lot cleaner and our performance was a lot tighter but I still don’t think we were able to quite capture what we were like on stage as we were getting quite powerful live. The energy we had coming off the stage was pretty phenomenal.

Your big breakthrough came with your third album Fire and Water which featured the huge hit single Alright Now. Did you feel at that point all of the hard work you’d put into the band up until then had finally paid off?

I guess so. We were trying to reach more people and we were getting better and better at what we did. It just seemed to be a natural progression to us.

The great Wilson Pickett covered Fire and Water and you love Soul and R&B music. What did you think when a legend like Wilson Pickett covered a song that you had written?

That was something else. That was absolutely brilliant. The amazing thing was in my own mind I was thinking about Wilson Pickett when I wrote that so when he picked it up it was incredible for me. One of my favourite records was In The Midnight Hour. I met him in later years just before he died and I did a show with him up in New York and he asked me to write him some more songs but unfortunately he died before I was able to do that. He was such a great guy.

You got to perform with the Four Tops too didn’t you?

I did. I was invited to their 50th birthday celebration held in Detroit and I sang Love Music and Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever. Aretha Franklin was there, Sam Moore from Sam and Dave and so many other great performers. Levis Stubbs was there too but he’d had a stroke and was in a wheelchair and Aretha got him singing. That was so amazing to witness. There was an aftershow party and I was standing next to Levis. As he’d had a stroke he couldn’t speak but his eyes spoke to you. I sang Long and Winding Road to him and I stopped but he looked at me and I could see in his eyes that he didn’t want me to stop. That was a moment I’ll never forget. He was such a soulful, heartfelt singer. Those guys, that’s where it all comes from.

Did the commercial success of the Fire and Water album put pressure on you for the follow up Highway?

It’s hard to say really but I think a lot of the pressure was internal. We were living together so closely for long periods of time, travelled together in a truck for 8 hours going to shows. We loved each other like brothers but after a while it gets to a point where you are together for too long and you just need time apart. I wouldn’t blame record company pressures or anything like that, it was simply we needed to separate for a while. I think looking back if someone had said go and take a break it might have been OK but once the split had happened it was like the air had gone out of it. The magic had gone out of it a little bit at that point. You need a safety valve like on a steam train but we didn’t have that.

Andy had left the band at that point but rejoined for the album. Did you realise while you were making that album that Andy’s heart wasn’t in it anymore and that he’d leave for good soon after?

I think everyone did what they could but it was difficult. We knew that Koss wasn’t a druggie when we knew him but he seemed to get into all of that stuff after the band had split. I feel a bit guilty for that reason and I think we all did in the sense that we had split up so we got back together. It was a bit late by then and it was sad all round really.

Andy had left for your last album and Paul was having his own troubles yet your last album Heartbreaker still had some classic moments such as Wishing Well and Heartbreaker itself. How had the dynamics of the band changed when John Bundrick and Tetsu Yamauchi joined?

I thought it was pretty good actually. We did some really good things, like Come Together In The Morning that I think is the best record we ever made, I know I said that earlier. Rabbit, Tetsu, Koss and Kirkey, everybody played so well on that record, it’s just fantastic. We did some good things but it definitely changed the sound of the band as we had a full on organ player but I thought that was great and we did do some good things together. Wishing Well is on there too and I wrote that and shared it with the band to make everyone feel cohesive like a band again.

Was it something of a relief for you for the band to end and for you to form Bad Company?

What I did was put a little three piece together and called it Peace as that’s what I was looking for, a little bit of peace of mind. I wanted to get away from all of the tension and stress and bad vibes and just play music. Then I met Mick Ralphs and we started to write songs and thought that we should put a band together so we pulled in Kirkey and we started to look for a bass player. It was really hard trying to find a bass player so we were so lucky to find Boz as he was such a great bassist and we had a great combination in Bad Company.

There was a rumour around a while back that Joe Bonamassa may have been considered to stand in for Paul if you got back with Andy and Simon. Was that ever discussed?

It might have been talked about. Joe is a great player and a good vibe guy. I don’t think there was anybody that was seriously put forward but I remember in my own mind I’d thought Keith Richards could have done a good job but it was never seriously considered. I think Pete Bullick has done a really great job on the Free material and I’m looking forward to playing with him again on this tour. You just can’t replace Koss though, it just can’t be done but Pete has been able to capture that feel and the music sounds great when he’s playing.

Maybe because you haven’t done numerous reunion shows as Free over the years you’ve preserved the integrity of the band and that’s why you’re still held in such high regard today?

I think so and that’s why I haven’t called this tour Free. It’s the spirit of Free and the spirit of the music that we are playing so Free Spirit symbolises that.

You wrote more closely with Andy Fraser than anyone else in Free. How did you tend to work together creating the songs?

We did it many different ways. Sometimes I’d write the whole song and Andy would arrange it. Sometimes he’d write the song and I’d write the lyrics. We chopped and changed.

It’s been 50 years since you started Free. How do you feel now looking back on it all?

I’m so proud of what we have achieved. We made some great records. So many bands that I bump into say they were so influenced by Free, especially in their early days. Lynyrd Skynyrd for example and Bryan Adams, even Queen tell me how much they were influenced initially by our Fire and Water album. It’s amazing as we ourselves held other artists in high esteem like Wilson Pickett, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B King and all those Soul and Blues guys like Sam Moore and The Four Tops. We were also heavily influenced by Cream and Jimi Hendrix. I remember Koss and I looking at each other saying that was the sound we wanted to get. So it is great to be seen as a big influence on so many bands in the same way as the bands we loved influenced us.

What are your plans for the coming months? Can we hope for some new material, maybe a solo album or maybe a record with your son and daughter?

Anything is possible. I’m writing all the time so there could be some new music from me soon. I’m also doing US and Canadian solo shows this year and we have some Bad Company shows lined up too with Howard Leese playing guitar too.

Paul Rodgers Free Spirit tour starts on Friday 5th May at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow

For more on Paul Rodgers and the Free Spirit Tour visit

For further information about the Willows Animal Sanctuary Animal Assisted Therapy Unit see


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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