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Rod Stewart

Suave and sophisticated and a always fave with the ladies, the once highly revered Rod The Mod was once the toast of the burgeoning British R&B movement of the mid-to-late 60s, although nowadays it seems nostalgia (and the Brill Building music behind it) has taken him to new depths. From the rasping singer’s early tentative first steps with the JEFF BECK GROUP and supergroup-of-sorts, FACES, to being a hit-making solo machine from the 70s onwards, STEWART’s fans can only salivate of his once great talent now hidden behind his in-the-spotlight celebrity karaoke facade.
Born Roderick David Stewart, 10th January 1945, Highgate in North London, he’d be only too glad to boast of his Caledonian parentage on his father’s side; he remains a passionate Scottish supporter and considers himself a top fan of the nation’s football team – and Glasgow Celtic. The young Rod (then an Arsenal supporter) served his time as an apprentice for Brentford F.C., a skinny centre-half that preferred pop music to cleaning the boots for his would-be Third Division team mates. The lure of the itinerant lifestyle proved irresistible, however, and STEWART subsequently hooked up with folk singer, WIZZ JONES, busking/learning his trade around Europe before eventually being deported from Spain for vagrancy in 1963. Upon his return, Rod threw himself headlong into the burgeoning Brit R&B scene as part of West Midlands group, Jimmy Powell & The Five Dimensions. He then took his feted harmonica blowing skills to London, playing live for LONG JOHN BALDRY’s Hoochie Coochie Men. This, in turn, led to Rod developing his vocal talents and releasing a one-off single (a cover of SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’) for Decca Records late in 1964; he would duly join LJB’s next venture, Steampacket, a combo that also featured BRIAN AUGER, Julie Driscoll and future Rod collaborator, drummer Micky Waller. After a dispute with BALDRY, Rod then added a stint with blues act SHOTGUN EXPRESS to his increasingly impressive musical portfolio; there he was pitted alongside a star-studded line-up which boasted a young PETER GREEN and drummer MICK FLEETWOOD amongst others.
Rasping Rod’s big break finally came later in ‘66, when ex-YARDBIRDS guitar-wizard JEFF BECK recruited him as a lead singer; his dynamic vocals graced two albums, `Truth’ (1968) and `Beck-Ola’ (1969). While still a member of the Jeff Beck Group (RON WOOD was also an affiliate), STEWART signed a solo deal with Mercury Records, debuting with THE ROD STEWART ALBUM (1969) in America; re-titled for a then unaware British public as AN OLD RAINCOAT WON’T EVER LET YOU DOWN {*8} in the first months of 1970. The record was a revelation, the years of practice finally coming together with Rod rasping his way through a rootsy solo blueprint of folk, country, blues and R&B. Rapidly establishing himself as one of the finest white soul vocalists in the history of rock, STEWART’s voice was a unique, compelling combination of bourbon-throated abrasiveness and blue-eyed crooning, equally at home on choice cover material from EWAN MacCOLL’s `Dirty Old Town’, MIKE D’ABO’s `Handbags And Gladrags’ (with the author on piano!), The ROLLING STONES’ `Street Fighting Man’ and the trad cue `Man Of Constant Sorrow’. Of his own classy originals, highlights included the gritty `Cindy’s Lament’, the prog-ish `I Wouldn’t Ever Change A Thing’ (featured the unmistakable organ stabs of KEITH EMERSON) and the title track.
Simultaneously, Rod had joined FACES (formerly SMALL FACES) along with the aforementioned WOOD, the pair forming the heart and soul of the band as they grew from a laddish club act into stadium headliners; Ronnie also becoming STEWART’s right-hand writing partner through the pioneering early years of the singer’s solo career.
GASOLINE ALLEY (1970) {*8} was a FACES album in all but name, if a bit more downbeat, the two Ronnies (WOOD and LANE that it), drummer Kenney Jones and organist IAN McLAGAN (the latter a near absentee due to a “bus strike”) all playing their part. The LP launched STEWART in the States (Top 30) and musically, was a companion piece to the FACES’ acclaimed `Long Player’ of ‘71. Kicking in with the plaintive slide guitar moan and emotive reverie of the title track through a cover of ELTON JOHN and Bernie Taupin’s `Country Comfort’ and Rod’s own `Lady Day’, the album also featured the first of his DYLAN cover versions, a sympathetic reading of `Only A Hobo’ squeezed in on either side of BOBBY and Shirley Jean WOMACK’s `It’s All Over Now’ and SMALL FACES piece `My Way Of Giving’; the EDDIE COCHRAN nugget `Cut Across Shorty’ and the Cooper-Beatty-Shelby number `You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want To Discuss It)’ were equally effective.
With the amplified acoustic double-whammy of the `Maggie May’/`Reason To Believe’ chart-topper in summer ‘71, Rod went from critical darling to international superstar overnight, the attendant transatlantic No.1 album, EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY (1971) {*9} representing the creative pinnacle of his career. Featuring regular contributions from his usual suspects and others, such as guitarist Martin Qunitenton (on `Henry’), alongside the likes of Pete Sears (piano), Ray Jackson (mandolin), and Scots belter MAGGIE BELL, the album was a master-class in roots rock boasting one of his most perfectly conceived originals in the lovely `Mandolin Wind’ and the rock’n’rollin’ title track co-penned with WOOD. The choice of cover material was, as ever, impeccable, STEWART cutting a dash through Arthur Crudup’s `That’s All Right’ (a track originally made famous by ELVIS) and wringing a pathos from TIM HARDIN’s aforementioned `Reason To Believe’ which even its doomed composer couldn’t muster. From his rousing renditions of `Amazing Grace’ and The TEMPTATIONS’ `(I Know) I’m Losing You’ to DYLAN’s `Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ (Theodore Anderson’s `Seems Like A Long Time’ was the remaining cover), there was er… never a dull moment.
The poignantly-titled NEVER A DULL MOMENT (1972) {*8} was almost as good, the record taking STEWART’s boisterous-lad-with-a-sensitive-side persona to its ultimate conclusion by interspersing a string of worldly-wise rockers (including the classic `True Blue’) with a beautiful covers of DYLAN’s `Mama You Been On My Mind’, a Top 5 hit of JIMI HENDRIX’s `Angel’, SAM COOKE’s `Twisting The Night Away’ (plus the ETTA JAMES nugget `I’d Rather Go Blind’); the record also spawned another UK No.1 single with `You Wear It Well’.
While STEWART was treading old ground on the rather prophetic time-out, SING IT AGAIN ROD (1973) {*5}, the FACES were beginning to buckle under the pressure having seen their chart-topping `Ooh La La’ album receive ominous reviews. Many put it down to STEWART’s massively successful solo career although, ironically, this also began to slide inexorably downhill, creatively at least, with the disappointing SMILER (1974) {*4}. This was the sound of tartan boy Rod going through the motions, only Sears’ `Lochinvar’ and `Dixie Toot’ approaching previous standards. While one can’t imagine why he’d want to put the “man” into CAROLE KING’s classic `(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, there were also misjudgements via covers of DYLAN’s `Girl From The North Country’, ELTON JOHN’s `Let Me Be Your Car’, PAUL & Linda McCARTNEY’s `Mine For Me’ and a SAM COOKE medley of `Bring It On Home To Me’/`You Send Me’; the opening CHUCK BERRY cut `Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller’ was the exception.
Worse was to come though, as STEWART jacked in London for America, hooking up with sex bomb actress, Britt Ekland and effecting one of the most extensive and needless musical turnarounds of the 70s. Many rock artists have been accused of “selling-out” over the years but few managed it with such thoroughness and dearth of integrity.
Both UK chart-toppers, ATLANTIC CROSSING (1975) {*7} and A NIGHT ON THE TOWN (1976) {*7} had refined moments – a cover of Danny Whitten’s `I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ on the former, and a definitive reading of CAT STEVENS’ `The First Cut Is The Deepest’ on the latter – were the pick of the re-treads. While The SUTHERLAND BROTHERS’ `Sailing’ hit peak spot and stayed there for what seemed weeks, `This Old Heart Of Mine’ and `It’s Not The Spotlight’ (from the former) and the country-bumpkin cut `The Wild Side Of Life’ (from the latter and soon procured by STATUS QUO) were commercial drivel. Danger signs were indeed on the horizon. While the engaging ballad, `The Killing Of Georgie Part I & II’ saw Rod acknowledging his sizeable gay following and the lilting `Tonight’s The Night’ (both major hits from “A Night…”) proved, on reflection, Rod could still pen a decent love ballad or two.
FOOT LOOSE & FANCY FREE (1977) {*5} found Rod (and guitarist/co-writer Gary Grainger) balancing raucous rock and the dreaded ballad respectively on bookend hit tracks `Hot Legs’ and `I Was Only Joking’; soppy covers coming this time through Motown gem `You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ and Stax slice `(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’.
BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN (1978) {*5} opener `Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and `Ain’t Love A Bitch’ saw the singer living his sexist image up to the full as well as indulging his growing passion for pseudo-disco MOR. Predictably, by the release of the aforementioned set, STEWART was enjoying more success in America than his home country, the singer trawling a continuous creative trough the proceeding decade with the likes of FOOLISH BEHAVIOUR (1980) {*3} – penned almost entirely by programmer Kevin Savigar – and the much-improved TONIGHT I’M YOURS (1981) {*6}; even versions of DYLAN’s `Just Like A Woman’ and PAUL CARRACK’s ACE record `How Long’ commendable. As for the obligatory concert double-set, ABSOLUTELY LIVE (1982) {*2}, self-indulgence was stretched beyond his skin-tight leopard slacks.
His sales figures remained relatively undiminished however, Rod the lad enjoying the life of the rock aristocrat, his string of relationships with high profile blondes (Ekland was out by ’77 and wife from ’79 to ’84 (his first) Alana Hamilton was dropped for model Kelly Emberg) were never far from the gossip columns.
While his umpteenth studio set, BODY WISHES (1983) {*3} bore him a UK No.1 in synth-disco cut `Baby Jane’, there was little to light the torch for many of his more astute rock fans. 1984’s CAMOUFLAGE {*3} – dulled by versions of ROBERT PALMER’s `Some Guys Have All The Luck’, FREE’s `All Right Now’ and TODD RUNDGREN’s `Can We Still Be Friends?’ – and 1986’s EVERY BEAT OF MY HEART {*3} were just pants – and not even lukewarm; supported by the likes of DURAN DURAN’s Andy Taylor and CHIC’s Bernard Edwards, OUT OF ORDER (1988) {*4} was to many pundits, just what it said on the tin. Tellingly, the singer’s best work of the decade came via a reunion with JEFF BECK, the pair getting together in ’85 for a brilliant re-working of CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `People Get Ready’, a belated hit several years later; a new wife, Rachel Hunter, lasted the whole of the 90s.
The following decade saw STEWART regain at least some critical ground with VAGABOND HEART (1991) {*6} (featuring a re-vamp of ROBBIE ROBERTSON’s `Broken Arrow’, VAN MORRISON’s `Have I Told You Lately’ and a TINA TURNER duet, `It Takes Two’), while the obligatory UNPLUGGED… AND SEATED (1993) {*6} saw an entertaining reunion with RONNIE WOOD. Bizarrely enough, Rod has also exhibited a penchant for covering songs by arch weirdo, TOM WAITS, `Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)’ following on from a Top 10 breaker at the turn of the 90s in `Downtown Train’.
`Hang On St. Christopher’ appeared on studio comeback album, A SPANNER IN THE WORKS (1995) {*6}, alongside material from CHRIS REA (`Windy Town’), The BLUE NILE (`The Downtown Lights’), TOM PETTY (`Leave Virginia Alone’), DYLAN (`Sweetheart Like You’) and of course, SAM COOKE (`Soothe Me’). While this alone signalled that STEWART hasn’t completely lost the musical plot, the prospect of him ever returning to the down-home brilliance of old looked slimmer with each passing year.
However, 1998 saw 50-something Rod the Mod turn in a fine batch of covers (bar one of his own) under the title of WHEN WE WERE THE NEW BOYS {*6}. Brit-pop never sounded so… er… old, as the Hugh Hefner of dad-rock reprised the likes of `Cigarettes And Alcohol’ (OASIS), `Rocks’ (PRIMAL SCREAM), `Superstar’ (SUPERSTAR), `Weak’ (SKUNK ANANSIE), `What Do You Want Me To Do?’ (MIKE SCOTT), `Shelly My Love’ (NICK LOWE), `Hotel Chambermaid’ (GRAHAM PARKER), `Secret Heart’ (RON SEXSMITH) and `Ooh La La’ (FACES).
At the tender age of 56, Rod crossed over to Atlantic Records although things didn’t get off to a flyer when the single `Run Back Into Your Arms’ flopped. However `I Can’t Deny It’ restored the man to the Top 30 and secured a Top 10 spot for his first post-millennium set, HUMAN (2001) {*3}. Moving to an Americanised blend of R&B-pop (BABYFACE and EN VOGUE might’ve been his template), Rod suffered a backlash of sorts from the critics who thought his previous set was a step forward.
Cue the entrance of industry mogul extraordinaire Clive Davis, who came up with the idea of rehabilitating Rod’s failing career via an album of standards. Hardly an original concept, granted, but one guaranteed to appeal more to his ageing fanbase than a ridiculous attempt at pseudo-R&B. In the event, IT HAD TO BE YOU: THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK (2002) {*4} sounded pretty much as expected, STEWART bringing his battered tonsils to the likes of Gershwin’s `You Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and Jerome Kern’s `The Way You Look Tonight’. Suited up and sounding more at ease than he’s done since “…The New Boys”, the singer had seemingly found his latter day vocation. So much so that a second volume, AS TIME GOES BY… THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK Volume II {*4} was paraded a year later, CHER and QUEEN LATIFAH making unlikely – and somewhat distracting – guest appearances.
Whether that famous hairdo actually goes well with a suit remains a moot point, but Rod chose to stick with his winning formula over successive transatlantic Top 3’s: both STARDUST… THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK Volume III (2004) {*4} and THANKS FOR THE MEMORY… THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK Volume IV (2005) {*3} combed through the same easy listening archives – Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, etc. – and the same concept which Ella Fitzgerald and other famous singers pioneered fifty years earlier. Save for a bit of production tweaking (and a revolving cast of soul, jazz and country guests that included STEVIE WONDER, noted film composer Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, DIANA ROSS, DOLLY PARTON, GEORGE BENSON and Chris Botti) the song remained pretty much the same, although Rod did offer a brief nod to his soul-boy roots with a – CHAKA KHAN assisted – cover of SAM COOKE’s `You Send Me’.
On a pop-rock theme rather than something from (and for) the middle ages, STILL THE SAME… GREAT ROCK CLASSICS OF OUR TIME (2006) {*4} was 60-something Rod rockin’ the boat somewhat. Once one of the greatest interpreters of the genre, what he now thought was “rock” was a tad pipe-and-slippers; while CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL’s `Have You Ever Seen The Rain’ and BOB SEGER’s `Still The Same’ fit the description well, others from – and one’ll put this in order of mainstream pop – come thick and fast by way of BONNIE TYLER, JOHN WAITE, BREAD, ELVIN BISHOP, The EVERLY BROTHERS, CHRISSIE HYNDE, EAGLES, VAN MORRISON, CAT STEVENS and BOB DYLAN. Just what yuppie planet was Rod on? It was then a time for a third marriage, this time to long-time girlfriend of several years, Penny Lancaster, whom he wed in 2007.
SOULBOOK (2009) {*4} was as predictable as his last effort, although his choice of karaoke this time was up to scratch (`Tracks Of My Tears’, `Wonderful World’, `Just My Imagination’, etc.) – need one say more.
The much requested (or indeed ordered!), FLY ME TO THE MOON… THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK Volume V (2010) {*4} rewound his audience back to the start of the last decade, or indeed century, or “Groundhog Day”; and yet it still cracked the Top 10 – and a certain biographer to boot. Every Picture Tells A Story and Never A Dull Moment just keep getting better.
Good news was that he was putting finishing touches to a “contemporary rock” album, entitled TIME (2013) {*6}. His first album as a bona fide singer-songwriter in nearly two long decades, purist Rod fans will salivate over at least a couple of tracks on board here: `Can’t Stop Me Now’ and `She Makes Me Happy’. Other tracks rely on sentiment and leafy pages of reflection (`Brighton Beach’, `Beautiful Morning’ and `Pure Love’ examples), while a Rod set without a TOM WAITS song, this time via `Picture In A Frame’, just wouldn’t be a Rod album. If every picture told a story, it was heartening to see a tear in his eye for his beloved domestic football club, who’d beaten the best team in Europe – bonnie Scotland would give him further tears for different reasons.
Incidentally, ANOTHER COUNTRY (2015) {*6} was the title of Rod’s next self-penned foray into the charts, albeit with the exception of finale piece, `Friend For Life’ (a latter-day STEVE HARLEY cut). Turning 70, and inspired by his youngest boy aged 4, the ageless superstar put his heart on his sleeve to write the slushy `Batman Superman Spiderman’, while the double-edged “Celtic” anthem `We Can Win’ was an obvious choice for glory-hunting TV producers (`The Drinking Song’ its after effects). Another time, another place, `Walking In The Sunshine’ might’ve rested its head in the pop lists, while the cod-reggae-fied `Love And Be Loved’ showed he could mix it with the best.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD / rev-up MCS Jun2012-Nov2015

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