The British band Free never became a household name, far from it, but “Alright Now”, their only hit single, turned out to be a classic rock standard, and the breakout vehicle for one of rock’s greatest vocalists.
Looking for a Lift, Free’s “Alright Now” Penned to Brighten Blues Set
When Free started out, they were primarily a blues rock cover band, with only a few original songs in their repertoire. Their live show consisted of mostly slow to mid-tempo blues songs, such as “The Hunter” by Albert King. The band came to the conclusion that if they wanted to hit the big time, they needed to create an up-tempo tune for their set that the audience could dance to. After an unfulfilling gig in Durham, England, the group was feeling low with despair. In an effort to cheer up his mates in their dressing room, Fraser started to sing an ‘off the cuff’ ditty that went something like “alright now, come on baby, alright now”. Paul and the rest of the group began tapping and singing along to Andy’s attempt to lift their spirits, leading to the refinement of the chorus of “Alright Now”, and Rodgers’s lyrics.
The tunes’ infectious guitar riff was created by Andy Fraser, who claims he was merely mimicking his hero, rock icon Pete Townshend, of The Who, when he came up with the guitar progression for “Alight Now.” Fraser was able to closely study Townshend’s style from the side of a stage, because Free was the opening act for The Who for several shows in 1968.
Fraser has other notable gems to his songwriting credit. He penned “Every Kinda People” which was recorded by Robert Palmer and released as a single in 1978. The tune was Palmer’s first hit in America, reaching #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at #53 in his native UK.
Andy also wrote and sang “Obama (Yes We Can)”, a song he created for the successful campaign to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Free completed the arrangement for “Alright Now” and incorporated the tune into their live show. “Alright Now” began to receive worldwide attention after the band performed the song in front of more than 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.
“Alright Now”: More than Just a Dance Tune, Free’s One Hit
“Alright Now” proved to be more than just a dance track to energize Free’s live set. When the song was released as a single in 1970, it went all the way to #2 on the UK Singles chart, and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. The song topped the pop chart in Denmark, and Sweden, and broke into the Top 10 in 15 other countries. It was a worldwide smash that garnered massive radio airplay.
Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) gave the song the Million Award for receiving over 3 million radio plays in the USA alone. In 2010, “Alight Now” was voted as the “Greatest Rock Single” in an online poll conducted by the UK radio station Planet Rock.
Originally featured on Free’s third studio album Fire and Water in 1970, “Alright Now” was remixed and re-released in 1991, reaching the Top 10, again, peaking at #8 on the UK Singles chart.
The song has been covered by many artists, the most notable being the version by Rod Stewart, which halted at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985.
“Alright Now” was indeed the lone hit for Free. Their follow up single “The Stealer” stiffed, and the band’s next album also performed poorly. That futility led to the demise of the band in 1973. The breakup of Free made Rodgers a hot free agent, and he had many attractive options to choose from for his next career move.
Paul Rodgers after Free
Following the death of Jim Morrison in 1971, the surviving members of The Doors offered Rodgers the role of replacing Morrison, but Rodgers declined. This was largely an unknown fact until Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger revealed it during an interview in 2011.
Rodgers was also asked to become the lead singer of Deep Purple when front man Ian Gillian departed from the group in 1973, but Paul passed on that opportunity.
Opting to start a new band, rather than join an established outfit, Rodgers went on to become the lead singer for the group Bad Company, who had a long run of hit singles on the pop and rock charts, starting with their first single “Can’t Get Enough”, a #5 smash on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974, through “This Could be the One” that peaked at #21 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in 1992.
Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page was also a huge fan of Paul Rodgers, and the two icons paired up to form the supergroup The Firm for a two-album hiatus from Bad Company in 1984 through 1986. Rodgers wrote “Radioactive” the lone hit for The Firm that was #1 for six weeks on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart, and #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985.
Queen + Paul Rodgers Tour the World, Twice
The great Freddie Mercury was another admirer of Rodgers and was quoted as saying that he “loved Rodgers’ aggressive vocal style”. The compliment was noted by the remaining members of Queen after Freddie’s passing in 1991. Rodgers and Queen collaborated on a highly viewed live TV performance in 2004, and the post-show buzz on that appearance was so palpable, it led to Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor asking Paul to be their partner on several extensive world tours in 2005 and 2006. It was an offer Paul humbly accepted. The tour was billed as Queen + Paul Rodgers, making it clear that, although Rodgers is one of the most respected vocalists of the rock era, it was not his intention to replace the incomparable Freddie Mercury.
Many of music’s biggest names have cited Paul Rodgers as a major influence on their singing style. For example, in 1991, John Mellencamp called Rodgers “the best rock singer, ever”, and to think it all started with Paul’s electric vocal performance on Free’s one and only hit “Alright Now.”