Rodgers roots redux: The former board member of Bad Company and the Firm now treads Muddy Waters

Muddy Rodgers Paul finds himself in the company of great guitarists and the baddest blues writer

While the new Bad Company follows the pack of Nineties bands spewing another mouthful of mainstream pop, one Brit-rockin' black sheep has gotten the flock out of the commercial scene to explore his roots in the blues.

Ex-BadCo singer Paul Rodgers is moving backward to a time when the music had to have soul to have marketability, rather than sucking up to the sole concern of today's industry -- marketability. And the sound itself, of course, has been affected by "progress," making some millions, and others puke. "When the synthesizer was first introduced," Rodgers says, "it did a lot for the music. Yes, it's perfect and has color. But it's missing the feeling of the blues. There's a lack of spark between musician and machine." Give him sidemen who have fingers and toes and hearts and brains.

All this is realized with Rodgers's latest project, A Tribute to Muddy Waters: Muddy Waters Blues, which celebrates a return to roots while also recapturing a little bit of soul A without the threat of losing a potential Nineties audience. (Although some would say that audience in general might already be lost.)

Prime evidence that this is a true (not bogus) adventure is the fact that Rodgers has never been a bluesman. Here he rocks out in the form, pivoting between today's sound and the now faint echoes of yesterday.

More evidence is provided by the information that this wasn't even Rodgers's idea. Phil Carson, president of Victory Records, who met Rodgers while working as VP of Atlantic in Europe back in the BadCo days, and who later managed the Firm, thought it up. "When Paul and Jimmy [Page] played their set," Carson recalls, "they'd do a version of [Willie Dixon's] 'I Just Want to Make Love to You.' I'd come out from behind the stage every time to hear them play that song." A seed was planted.

Later, Carson came up with the notion of having various singers pay tribute to Muddy Waters, who had a hit with the original Dixon standard, on record. "There aren't too many singers," Carson says, "that came to mind who I thought would be great for it. Then I thought about Paul, and remembered the days with the Firm." Unfortunately for Carson, Jimmy Page couldn't participate in the remake of the tune, so Carson and Rodgers chose another picker, one I'm willing to bet won't disappoint anyone, including Page devotees. The Yardbirds, Carson says, had the "three greatest English guitarists ever." Jeff Beck not only called back to accept the offer, he asked if there were any more tracks he could contribute to. "He's an outstanding player," Carson says as if this were news to anyone. "I've known him for many years. Back in the Sixties, Jeff Beck and I were nearly in a band together for a whole day. We drove around all day, because that's what you did to find other people to be in the band." He laughs at the memory.

Instead of multiple singers, it was decided Rodgers would be the voice, with a number of top ax slingers sitting in. And while Beck's interest might have cut a couple of prospects out of the picture, I say the more Beck the better. "We listened to [tracks from] each song," Rodgers explains, "and then decided which guitarist would sound best for it."

Helping Rodgers interpret the blues on the new album are players whose names add up to a list that practically recaps guitar history: Buddy Guy, David Gilmour, Trevor Rabin, Steve Miller, Brian May, Gary Moore, Richie Sambora, and A are you ready for this one? A Slash. Carson was ready for Slash, who he thought perfect for "The Hunter." "Just go to a Guns N' Roses concert and listen to him," Carson says. "After he gets off on-stage, nine times out of ten he heads to a local club where he can jam the blues."

Of all the great blues songwriters, Muddy Waters (a.k.a., McKinley Morganfield) impressed Carson most, thanks to his prowess with lyrics. Carson says that was something that especially attracted Rodgers. "He's a great favorite of mine," confirms Rodgers, "and he hasn't really been interpreted right. His music is much more complex than it appears on the surface." He adds that Muddy, who had an enormous impact on British rockers such as Clapton and Winwood, had always influenced his own vocal work.

The tour behind the album (stopping at Button South this week) is Rodgers's first road trip since the Firm. Backing him on the two-month expedition are drummer Richie Heywood (Little Feat, Buddy Guy), bassist Todd Jenson (Hardline), and guitarist Neal Schon (Journey). Not bad at all, though it is a different outfit than the one on the album: Pino Palladino (bass), Ian Hatton (rhythm guitar), and Jason Bonham. "Phil suggested Jason," Rodgers says. "I already knew him because when I was touring in Birmingham [England, not Alabama], I'd always visit his father, who was a friend of mine. John would proudly show me how Jason was coming along with the drums."

More important, perhaps, is that Rodgers is credited for "artistic direction" of the album, which is a nice way of saying he didn't let anyone change the ideas he had for the record. "There's many a slip between lip and cup," Rodgers says. "You start with an idea and somebody tries to put echo or some other thing on it. And then it's different. I feel it has to remain the same from the original idea to the final destination, which is, of course, your turntable." (Update: Make that CD player. Sorry Paul, and blues fans everywhere, but the future is now.)

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