A Northern Soul - Middlesbrough superstar Paul Rodgers interview
Posted: 15 Apr 2011
Teesside superstar Paul Rodgers is the finest blues and soul singer of his generation. He's back in Newcastle in April on his new solso tour and Michael Hamilton caught up with him.
Tell me why you moved the Newcastle gig from the City Hall to the Arena.
Paul: We switched the gig from Newcastle City Hall (capacity 2,000) to the Arena (capacity 11,000) simply to accommodate everybody. I love the City Hall. It’s always had a great atmosphere and I have great memories of playing there in the early days with Free. There’s so much history there on that stage. I also played there with Bad Company. Newcastle is such a great place to play but it’s the fans that really create the brilliant atmosphere.
What are your memories of growing up in Middlesbrough?
Paul: Middlesbrough was a very gritty, grimy place when I was a kid because of all the heavy industry, and, of course, most of that has gone now. I remember saying to my kids: “You’ll be really surprised when you visit Middlesbrough because you live in a really nice place.” But of course it’s like a park now – all green and the air is clean – so they wondered what I was on about!”
My memories are so many and varied I’m going to have to write a book to get a perspective on it. At the time you are just busy living your life.
I used to go to Ayresome Park and watch Boro when I was a kid. I was really shocked when I found out they had knocked it down. I used to go to the match with my mate Pete Smith. He’s my best friend and we are still in touch. We have known each other even before you have childhood memories – because our mothers used to park us side by side in our prams with them chatting away. That’s how far we go back!
Pete became a fireman. He’s still up in the North East. As kids we always used to knock around together. We would go down to the park and play football, muck about and make a nuisance of ourselves. We would go over to the fire station and climb up on the windows and look at the fire engines and dream of being firemen and he actually did become one.
Do you think you would ever move back to the North East?
Paul: I don’t think I would ever move back to the North East now. I have lived away from my hometown longer than I lived there. I was just 17 when I left and I’ve travelled the world since.
But my roots are still there and I still have lots of friends and relatives there. They always come to the North East shows and it’s great to catch up with everyone. I’m stamped through with the North East just like you are when you come off the northern assembly line – and it’s never going to go away.
Tell me about your start in music before Free.
Paul: I started playing music as a kid at school with our band The Roadrunners. Colin Bradley was the guitarist in the band and his older brother Joe took us under his wing and managed us when we were only about 13 or 14.
Even then we were quite a well-organised little unit. We had our own van and our equipment was all paid for. So as soon as we finished school we were off doing shows all over the place. We did workingmen’s clubs, weddings, gigs anywhere we could get them.
We went through a few name changes. I remember getting a new drummer and he had been in a band called The Titans and that was the name on his skin so, as you do, we said: “Ok we’ll be The Titans.” We were also called The Premiers for a bit, but as The Roadrunners we became a pretty good little band.
I was playing bass in those days as well as singing. I was pretty much self-taught. My grandfather worked on the railways and used to play the banjo but I don’t remember anyone else in the family being very musical.
What about your musical influences?
Paul: I listened to a lot of blues in my childhood. It was a very strong influence on me. It was so easy to learn 12 bar blues. Once you have learned that then you are off and running, there are so many songs you can join in and play along to.
I would listen to John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. These guys were heavy duty blues performers and they sang about this earthy other world where chickens ran in the streets, kids played barefoot and people jumped on railroad trains with their guitars and travelled thousands of miles to play their music. It was a completely different world to the world I came from and knew, and when I looked around my hometown I was drawn to this romantic world.
When I was a kid Pete Smith’s parents would take us up to where Cook’s Monument is and we used to look down at Middlesbrough from up there and all the rows and rows of houses. I remember saying to his mum: “It looks small, doesn’t it?” And she said: “Maybe it is.” And that changed my view on life. It was one of the triggers that put it into my mind to go and make my way in music.
Tell my about your early memories of Free and meeting guitarist Paul Kossoff.
Paul: I remember the first time I met Koss. He was working in Selmers music store in Charing Cross Road in London. We had made the big move to London as the Roadrunners and then became the Wildflowers. Somehow we kept bumping into each other wherever we were. It’s a big city but I suppose we were going to the same blues clubs and moving in the same circles. One day he turned up at one of my gigs and wanted to have a jam. I was thrilled. Here was David Kossoff’s son wanting to play with me. He had some fame as far as I was concerned and obviously he was a great guitar player.
He was with a group called the Black Cat Bones at the time. We played Stormy Monday Blues, Four O’ Clock in the Morning and Every Day I Have the Blues and it was magical. I said right away: “You and me are going to form a band.” So Free was formed right there.
Paul played with his heart and soul. He wasn’t one of these flash whizz kids obsessed with technique and how fast you could play. He had a great feel.
We would listen to great blues guitarists like BB King and Albert King. We noticed how there was a question and answer between the vocal and guitar. We imitated that and we developed a sort of musical conversation.
I miss Koss even today. I would rate him as number one in the list of all-time great guitarists. I’ve worked with a lot of great guitarists and I don’t think they would mind me for saying that.
Who is your all-time favourite singer and why?
Paul: It has to be Otis Redding. He has been a huge influence on me. He sang from the heart. He had gospel roots and he really had soul. I remember being 13 or 14 and you go through a lot of angst and uncertainty at that age as you are becoming a man with those huge hormone changes. Otis Redding was someone who really spoke to me. When he sang songs like A Change is Gonna Come and Down in the Valley it was so pure and so sincere. That’s what I wanted to do.
I hear you have been working on a Paul McCartney tribute album.
Paul: I was asked to do Let Me Roll It for the album. I’ve always liked that song and I’m honoured to do it. I’m a Beatles fan from way back. They were a huge influence on me like millions of other people. I just love those little three-minute pop masterpieces that Paul and John wrote like She Loves You, Can’t Buy Me Love and Ticket to Ride. I still get the shivers when I hear them.
I believe that you also rescue animals. Is that true?
Paul: My wife Cynthia has a huge, huge heart and can’t see an animal suffer. We sometimes go down to Mexico for a holiday and we spend a lot of time in the middle of the desert in an animal pound taking care of them. Then she brings them home to Canada where we have a place with some land overlooking the Okanagan Lake. It’s a beautiful spot. She finds homes for them in Canada but at the moment we have about 12 or 13 cats with us. It takes up a lot of Cynthia’s time. I say: “I’ve got some songs to write, dear. I’ll just leave you to take care of that!”
Paul stays close to his roots
Middlesbrough rocker Paul Rodgers will always be remembered for the classic single All Right Now, which took the charts by storm in 1970, became a world-wide hit and propelled his band Free to pop stardom.
It was a number one in more than 20 countries and helped to establish the sound of the British blues/rock invasion.
Free released no less than four top five albums in the early Seventies and Paul was eventually honoured with The Multi Million Award in 2000 by the British Music Industry when All Right Now passed two million radio plays in the UK.
But the soulful singer has continued to make sweet music for 40 years. After Free came Bad Company, then The Firm, and he has enjoyed immense success as a solo artist.
In 2008 he toured with Queen, who were largely dormant following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991, and last year he reformed Bad Company and played a UK tour with the surviving original members of the band for the first time in 30 years.
Like all great bluesmen Paul has always stayed close to his roots.
He grew up in Valley Road in Grove Hill, Middlesbrough. The family lived at number 25, two doors down from the legendary football manager Brian Clough. He went to school at St Joseph's and then St Thomas's. He played bass in a school band called The Roadrunners and did his first gig at Sussex Street youth club.
But Paul realised he had to move to London if he wanted to make it. So he hitched 250 miles to the capital. There he met up with guitarist Paul Kossoff, bassist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke. It was 1968 and Free was born.
Chris Blackwell signed them to Island Records and wanted to call them The Heavy Metal Kids but the band were having none of it, Blackwell backed down and Tons of Sobs became their debut album. The power and rawness of that recording still impresses today.
Paul's career – which has seen him sell more than 90 million records and produce 28 albums over the past 40 years – was on its way to legendary heights.
Free broke up in 1973 and the following year he formed the great stadium rockers Bad Company, managed by Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant.
They toured extensively from 1973 to 1982 and had a string of hits including Feel Like Making Love, Can't Get Enough, Shooting Star, Bad Company, and Run with the Pack. Paul also showcased his instrumental talents on several tracks.
It was while he was touring with Bad Company that he learned of the death of his close pal Koss from a drugs overdose. Paul wrote the classic 1973 hit Wishing Well about the virtuoso guitarist’s battle with heroin. And he admits he has never really recovered from the tragedy.
Bad Company earned six platinum albums until Paul left in 1982 at the height of their fame to spend time with his young family.
He married Machiko Wada in 1971 and two children by that marriage – Steve and Jasmine – are also musicians and singers who formed a band called Boa in the Nineties. Paul and Machiko got divorced in 1996.
He later met beauty queen Cynthia Kereluk, a former Miss Canada and aerobics teacher. They married in a surprise outdoor wedding ceremony in Canada’s Okanagan Valley on September 26 2007, ten years after they got together.
Blast from the past
Music Now on 11/7/1970 reported: ‘Free were faced with riots when they played Durham Tech last weekend. Two thousand people barred their way to the stage, and when they eventually went on one-and-a-half-hours late, they were forced off again after one number. Police had to escort the group back to the hotel, where the riots continued. The group, whose single All Right Now is currently at Number 1 in the Music Now charts, fly to Germany and Holland on Thursday.’
ALL PICTURES COURTESY OF PAUL RODGERS
Free2.jpg Free were part of the blues revolution in the UK in 1968 - left to right Simon Kirke, Andy Fraser, Paul Kossoff and Paul Rodgers
Free4.jpg The hit All Right Now propelled Free to stardom in 1970 - left to right Koss and Kirke behind with Paul and Andy front
paul.jpg The greatest blues singer of his generation
paul1.jpg Paul’s sell-out 10 day UK solo tour included one night at the Royal Albert Hall
paul2.jpg Like all great bluesmen Paul has stayed close to his roots
queen.jpg He played to packed houses with Queen in 2008
badco.jpg Paul got Bad Company back together last year and toured with them for the first time in 30 years
For all his UK solo dates check out