It seems almost too easy to say a record was “a lifetime in the making,” but in the case of Paul Rodgers ’ THE ROYAL SESSIONS, it’s more than poetic metaphor or press hype; it’s a genuine statement of fact. Before he founded Free or Bad Company, Rodgers was a singer in a teen band in his native Middlesbrough, England. Despite being underage, he was given entrée into local clubs where he made the acquaintance of a DJ who offered gifts that would forever alter the course of his life. The bounty Rodgers received came in the form of vinyl 45s from America: hot new R&B sides from labels like Stax/Volt, Goldwax, and later, Hi Records.
Spinning the records over and over, Rodgers was soon on a first name basis with the artists and singers who made the music: Otis, Albert, Sam & Dave. He would fantasize about these figures, wondering about the places they came from and how they created such momentous music.
Listening to these songs served as a liberating force, and offered a direction for his own life. Until then,Rodgers assumed that his youthful flirtation with music would inevitably give way to a life spent working in steel mills, docks, or rail yards of Teesside, like his father and grandfather before him. But from the moment he heard Otis Redding’s spine tingling pleas, there could be no other fate or future; he had to be a singer.
What Rodgers didn’t know at the time was that most, if not all, of this pivotal music was being written and recorded in a one square mile area of Memphis, Tennessee. There, located just beyond the railroad tracks on the Bluff City’s South Side, a concentration of studios flourished from the late-‘50s into the ‘70s, helping to create, evolve, and perfect the art of soul music.
Flash forward to 2013: Paul Rodgers is at South Memphis’ Royal Studios, recording those familiar old songs with some of the same players who’d graced the original tracks, and many others who’ve helped carry on the traditions of the music.
The way the session came about seemed almost fated. Rodgers had been working on an album of original rock material with his friend and fellow musician Perry A. Margouleff. In December of 2012, Margouleff found himself in Memphis visiting the spot where Stax Records had once stood. The label had famously collapsed amid a farrago of bad deals and bankruptcy in the mid-‘70s. By the late ‘80s, Stax’s iconic movie theatre turned studio had been reduced to rubble.
Happily, in recent years, Stax had been reborn and rebuilt as a museum and music education center. Margouleff had just finished taking the Stax tour, and was lamenting the fact that all the great old soul studios were gone. Museum director Lisa Allen promptly informed him that the nearby Royal Studios, historic home to producer Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, was still operating as it had in its ‘60s and ‘70s heyday.
In the ensuing years, Royal Studios had remained a thriving recording hub where artists from the world over would come take advantage of the vintage gear, old-school wisdom, and sheer magic of the room. They also utilized the talents of the native players, foremost among them the stalwarts of the famed Hi Rhythm Section.
Built around the Hodges Brothers, including organist Charles and bassist Leroy, and keyboardist Archie Turner, the Hi crew was brought up under the tutelage of the lovingly patriarchal Willie “Pops” Mitchell. For over a decade, starting in the late’60s, Hi Rhythm would help define the pleading charms of Syl Johnson’s “Take Me To the River,” the steamy showers of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” the gospel ache of O.V. Wright’s “A Nickel and A Nail,” and the spiritual seductions of Al Green’s hit records.
Though Mitchell passed away in 2010, Royal Studios has continued to flourish under the guidance of his grandson Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. The Hodges Brothers and Turner, along with a talented collection of alumni from Stax, Goldwax, and other local R&B houses, are still active and continue to turn out remarkable records and performances. In essence, Royal Studios has become the last great resource for those truly seeking the real thing.
The result of Paul Rodgers’ pilgrimage to this musical Mecca is the lovingly crafted set of songs you now hold. Deeply felt, powerfully sung, and expertly played, it features a cross-section of material handpicked by Rodgers, songs of great historical significance and personal meaning.
Surveying a wide landscape of American R&B, Rodgers and the Royal crew offer fresh takes on the fatback blues of Albert King, the gutbucket balladry of Otis Redding, the sophisticated stirrings of Sam Cooke, and a host of other classics from the Stax and Southern soul canon.
Choosing to work in the old-school style, everything was recorded on analogue tape, with the basic tracks – including Rodgers’ vocals – all cut live on the floor with the band. Unaware of Rodgers’ history or reputation, the veteran session men were initially surprised when he chose to kick off the session with a pass at Redding’s iconic “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” After Rodgers nailed the song in a single scintillating take, Charles Hodges took him aside and said admiringly, “You know, you should consider a career as a singer…you could really do this.” Beaming broadly, Rodgers thought it was the greatest compliment he’d ever received.
The session players quickly bonded with Rodgers, who was embraced as part of their musical family. That convivial atmosphere can be heard on the record, which finds the band and singer in lock soul-step with one another. Moved by their experience in Memphis, Rodgers and Margouleff decided to donate proceeds from the album to local music education programs, as thanks to a city and musical community that’s meant so much to them.
In the end, THE ROYAL SESSIONS represents the culmination of a long, profound journey for Paul Rodgers. Five decades after first discovering these songs on those old 45s, he’s realized his life’s ambition—creating a record of true heart and feeling.
This is the sound of his R&B fantasy—his soul dream—finally come true.