Paul Rodgers had a very real connection with Queen, even if he barely knew them.

"Paul was a hero to [late Queen singer] Freddie [Mercury] and us when we were starting out," guitarist Brian May has enthused. "When I first worked with him, I was in awe of him."

That first time was in September 2004, when Rodgers and May appeared together onstage as part of a 50th-anniversary Fender Stratocaster show in London.

“We'd just finished playing [Free's signature Rodgers-sung hit] 'All Right Now,' and we both realized that it felt incredibly right," May told Classic Rock in 2005. "The chemistry was there, and there were sparks flying. Paul and me looked at each other and we went, 'Hmmm.' We both had the same thought in our minds."

Rodgers' girlfriend then quipped, "All you need is a drummer, don't you?" May responded, "Well, I might know a drummer." He sent a recording of their performance together to Queen co-founder Roger Taylor, who said, "Why didn't we think of this before?"

Queen announced a planned collaboration with Rodgers in October 2004, then appeared together when the band was inducted into the U.K. Hall of Fame on Nov. 22. They performed Queen's "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" that night, along with "All Right Now."

The trio would release a studio record called The Cosmos Rocks and two live albums between 2004-09. But many continued to question their attempts to meld Queen's glittery flamboyance with Rodgers' gritty soul.

"There's a reason for it, insofar as we both really grew up with Free's music," May told Classic Rock. "Paul Rodgers is a very big influence on us, because Free were out there while we were still at college. Free's Fire & Water album is one of our real inspirations and influences. Paul has been part of our history all along – and Freddie was a huge fan of Paul's; he was one of the few singers he really looked up to."

Listen to Queen + Paul Rodgers' 'All Right Now'

Rodgers admitted he never had a proper introduction to Mercury. "I passed him on the stairs once – I passed the whole band on the stairs," Rodgers told Uncut in 2017. "And we just said a quick 'Hello, hey, how're you doing' – and that was it, really. But I got a very nice vibe from Freddie, indeed. He seemed really, really cool."

Rodgers didn't even own any Queen records. "But whenever I heard 'I Want to Break Free,' I thought, 'Wow!'" Rodgers added. "There was a lot about Queen I loved, from a distance."

Meanwhile, May said Mercury used Rodgers as a measuring stick when he felt the band's work was edging too far off into the blues.

"He'd say, 'Look, Brian, you're fucking writing this for Paul Rodgers, I can't do this,'" May told Classic Rock. "It became a joke between us, because Paul had that blues edge and Freddie was something different – something very exceptional, as we know. So yes, Paul and Freddie might be poles apart, but there is an overlap because they can both sing 'Tie Your Mother Down,' and it suits them both down to the ground – as we've discovered."

Rodgers arrived after a quiet period for the band. Queen had made just a handful of appearances in the time since Mercury's AIDS-related 1991 death, including a turn with George Michael as part of 1992's Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. They'd released one album, 1995's Made in Heaven, but it was only a collection of polished-up leftovers.

"Even though we were proud of what we had done," May said in the 2019 documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story, "we didn't want to go out there and be Queen again without Freddie."

Listen to Queen + Paul Rodgers Discuss Their Collaboration

Then bassist John Deacon retired after a January 1997 performance of "The Show Must Go On" with Elton John and the Bejart Ballet in Paris. Queen seemed to be over.

"When I sort of joined forces with [Queen], they were not touring," Rodgers said on SiriusXM's Trunk Nation in 2019. "They were doing one-off gigs — they were big one-off gigs, but they weren't touring. And with me, what we did [is] we went out."

Their first public performance was in March 2005 in support of Nelson Mandela's South Africa-based 46664 AIDS awareness campaign. Officially dubbed Queen + Paul Rodgers, they crossed the globe on the Return of the Champions (2005–06) and Rock the Cosmos (2008) tours.

"We had a great time with Paul, no doubt about it," May told the Toronto Sun in 2014. "It kind of stretched it into a new place and it was a thoroughly good experience."

But questions about Mercury never ceased, probably because of Rodgers' contrasting approach with the lyrics. "I think Freddie would be happy," Rodgers told Classic Rock, "because I feel his spirit throughout the music."

Those essential differences were, in fact, what initially intrigued May.

"Roger has always been the one who's been keen to get back out on tour," May told Classic Rock. "It was me who was holding things back, because I didn't think things felt right. There was no one on the horizon who I thought could do the job of singing with us. And then suddenly we're looking at this man [Rodgers], who can not only do the job, he can do a lot more besides. He brings something completely new to it, and that's what turned me around."

Some fans weren't as enthusiastic. The Cosmos Rocks could get to only No. 47 on the Billboard albums chart. Though the album reached the Top 5 in the U.K., its lead single, "Say It's Not True," stalled at No. 90.

Listen to Queen + Paul Rodgers' 'Tie Your Mother Down'

Rodgers eventually decided to return to Bad Company, the band he co-founded after Free, while Queen began touring with Adam Lambert – a singer with an outsized personality more in keeping with Mercury's. By then, May was openly questioning the Rodgers years.

"I just think that Paul's more blues and soul," he told Classic Rock in 2014. "One of our favorite singers, ever, but when it boils down to it, he wasn't the perfect frontman for us."

For his part, Rodgers appreciated the chance to test his mettle with Queen, even if he sensed from the beginning it wouldn't last.

"It was a wild ride, I'll tell you," he said on Trunk Nation. "And it came out of the blue. When Brian asked me if I wanted to do a couple of shows just for fun in Europe, I was pretty taken aback. And I must say my first reaction was, 'Well, I really don't see that.' But then I said to myself, 'Well, it's a challenge. Let me see if I can do it. Maybe I'm chickening out here.'

"So, I did it," Rodgers added. "And it turned into four years, actually. We toured all over the place. We toured the world twice, and we finished off with a studio album of all-original material. So it was a wild and crazy ride, as they say. And we are still friends, and I love the guys."

Queen went on to a series of well-received tours with Lambert, and they've even expressed tentative interest in recording a new album – their first since The Cosmos Rocks. "With all due respect, Adam is more suited to a lot of our material," Taylor told the Sun. "We had great tours with Paul – but I think Adam is more naturally at home with us."

 

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