“I suppose you could use the word ‘addiction,’” says Rod Stewart, explaining his relationship to the classic pop standards of his “Great American Songbook” series. “I’m totally addicted to these songs. They’re just so great to sing—if you fancy yourself even a bit of a singer, these songs are like chocolate.”
So once again, Stewart has returned to the territory that has defined the last decade of his remarkable career. With FLY ME TO THE MOON…THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: VOLUME V, he adds a fifth chapter to the chart-topping, multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning series. On the new album—produced by Richard Perry and co-produced by Rod Stewart, Clive Davis and Lauren Wild – Rod Stewart infuses his incomparable vocal style into 12 iconic standards written by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini, and many others. The immortal compositions on the set include “That Old Black Magic,” “Beyond the Sea,” “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I Get A Kick Out of You,” and many more.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy™ Living Legend Rod Stewart has been lauded as having one of the most distinctive voices in pop music. The success of the “Great American Songbook” albums, which began in 2001 with It Had to Be You…, is truly unprecedented; it is the biggest selling ongoing series of new music recordings in history, with over seventeen million copies sold worldwide.
FLY ME TO THE MOON…, which reunites Stewart with longtime collaborators Richard Perry and Clive Davis, is the first addition to the collection since 2005′s Thanks for the Memory…The Great American Songbook: Volume IV. During the five-year break between “Songbook” albums, Stewart took a couple of genre detours—in 2006, he released Still the Same…Great Rock Classics of our Time, his first rock album in eight years, which entered the Billboard album chart at Number One and followed that with Soulbook, a 2009 collection of classic Sixties/Seventies-era soul favorites, which debuted at Number Four.
But as soon as he left the world of the “Songbooks,” Stewart started missing the material. “I was sad after we finished the fourth one, but then we went and did the rock album,” he says. “As soon as that was done, Richard and I started meddling in, making lists of new songs, laying down some tracks. We were going to bring this one out instead of the Soulbook album, but Clive said, rightly, that we should wait, that the time wasn’t quite right.”
For the fifth outing, though, Stewart opted for a slightly new direction and sound. “Richard and I decided that we wanted to go more up-tempo this time,” he says. “Clive described the previous records as being kind of ‘Fred and Ginger’—which was great, but I wanted to break the mold a bit. I was getting tired of all the tempos sounding a bit the same.
“The expression ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ doesn’t really hold in music,” he continues. “As a musician, you’ve got to follow your own nose—which is quite easy for me, having quite a big nose—and so even though there was a bit of opposition to going this way, this is what I believed, and what I had to do.”
The result is the most danceable “Songbook” yet. “This album introduces a brand new element to the ‘Songbook’ phenomenon—you can’t stop dancing to it,” says Clive Davis, Chief Creative Officer, Sony Music Entertainment and a producer of the series. “Dinner parties all over the world will never be the same.”
Even with its modified style, FLY ME TO THE MOON… continues in the history-making tradition of the “Great American Songbook” album series. All four of the previous “Songbooks” were massive Billboard Album Chart toppers, including the last installment, 2005′s Thanks For The Memory …Volume IV, which entered the chart at Number Two. In 2004, Stardust became Stewart’s first ever Number One debut, and earned Rod the first Grammy of his career. As Billboard noted, Stardust also placed Stewart in the extremely rare company of veterans with more than two decades between Number One albums.
The first “Songbook” album, It Had To Be You… (released October 2002), entered the Billboard Top 200 at Number Four, and As Time Goes By…Volume II (October 2003) debuted at Number Two. The first three albums of the “Songbook” series were all Grammy nominated in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category, and all have been certified RIAA platinum in the US.
Nor has Stewart slowed down in the interim. He just wrapped up a Boxscore chart-topping, 33 date European summer tour which enjoyed the biggest concert gross to date this year abroad, including four sold out dates at London’s O2 Arena.
With an estimated 250 million in album and single sales, Stewart is one of the most successful performers of all time. No less than the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, called Stewart “the best white soul singer.” But no one could have anticipated that at a time when most pop stars would be content to coast on their past accomplishments, he would create an entirely new creative course for himself (which has since become frequently imitated), much less an innovative way to spotlight his much-loved and acclaimed vocal gifts.
“I think I’ve cut out my own niche,” says Stewart of his experience working with some of the finest and most familiar songs in history. “I know these songs; I don’t even have to listen to anybody else’s version. I really don’t need any references. These songs have been with me forever.”
The ability to tackle such stellar, challenging material has to start, of course, with the voice. A voice about which Elton John once said, “Bar none, Rod’s the best singer I’ve heard in rock ‘n’ roll.” A voice that best-selling author Chuck Klosterman referred to in Spin magazine as “the single greatest male singing voice of the rock era.”
Stewart says that his approach was initially shaped by a variety of sources. When he first encountered the emerging soul sound, he recalls, “I was just trying to find my own vocal style. I’d started off listening to the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie, and before that I was listening to Little Richard and ‘The Girl Can’t Help It.’ But Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, all those guys—they definitely sowed the seed.”
Rod Stewart and his characteristically throaty, impressively expressive, and surprisingly versatile voice had been knocking around the London club scene with groups like Steampacket and Long John Baldry’s band before he connected with ace guitarist Jeff Beck in 1968. Their collaborations in the Jeff Beck Group brought Stewart to the spotlight on the blazing Truth and Beck-Ola albums. But it was when Stewart joined forces with the greatest party band in rock history, the magnificent Faces, that he truly hit his stride.
For about a half-dozen years, Stewart went back and forth between recording and touring with the Faces (“punk prototypes,” as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has called them) and launching his own wildly successful solo career. After his first two albums on his own—1969’s The Rod Stewart Album and 1970’s Gasoline Alley—revealed the range and artistry of a vocalist previously best known as a shouter, everything came together for Every Picture Tells a Story in 1971. Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, it includes Stewart’s soulful, commanding takes on folk, R&B, and blues material; the astonishing title track; and the international Number One smash, “Maggie May.” The album also demonstrated that along the way, he had become a top-flight songwriter.
In the years that followed, Stewart solidified his standing as a superstar. “Tonight’s the Night” proved an even bigger hit than “Maggie May,” and while other rockers lost ground to a global outbreak of disco fever in 1978, Stewart simply responded with another Number One hit, the notorious “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Rod Stewart remained a consistent presence on the charts, with smashes like “Young Turks,” “Forever Young,” “Downtown Train,” and the massive “All for Love” trio alongside Sting and Bryan Adams. His Unplugged…and Seated set reunited him with Faces mate Ron Wood, and resulted in a big hit with his intimate version of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately.” As the century turned, Stewart underwent throat surgery to remove a benign cancerous node, and also tackled some of his most ambitious material—from contemporary Brit-pop on When We Were the New Boys to new-school R&B on Human.
But no one would have predicted that the next move for this rock & roll icon would be an album titled It Had to Be You…The Great American Songbook, a collection devoted to the craft and elegance of songs like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “These Foolish Things.” Stewart maintained, however, that the project was actually a long time coming. “It wasn’t a sudden impulse or urge,” he said, “it’s something I’d been wanting to do for as far back as I can remember.”
And the more you think about it, the more logical a step it actually was. Rod Stewart has always been a remarkable interpretive singer—throughout his career, he’s recorded songs by the finest contemporary songwriters, from Bob Dylan to Curtis Mayfield, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Cat Stevens. Aside from that unique vocal tone, perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to put across a great set of lyrics clearly and directly.
“I prefer doing slower numbers,” Stewart said as far back as 1970, in an interview with Rolling Stone at the height of the Faces’ popularity. “For a vocalist, a slower number lends itself better than anything else. In opportunities for phrasing, it’s much more free.” Certainly, his cosmopolitan, jet-set persona meshed easily with the sophistication and sexiness exemplified by America’s pop classics.
If anyone still argued that this new iteration of Rod Stewart—complete with bow tie rakishly undone in the cover photo—seemed at all far-fetched, the public immediately said otherwise. It Had to Be You…The Great American Songbook entered the charts at Number Four, Stewart’s highest perch in years, and went on to sell more than five million copies. Not that anyone knew what the public response would be—“Rod was doing it out of sheer determination,” said manager Arnold Stiefel. “As he said to me, we’ve waited 20 years to sing these songs and I’m going to give them my all, and if the album sells 25,000 copies, so be it.”
As Stewart took to the road behind It Had to Be You…The Great American Songbook, he continued to strengthen a following for this material. The “From ‘Maggie May’ to the Great American Songbook Tour” (captured on the One Night Only! Live at Royal Albert Hall DVD) was completely sold out for three years in a row. In 2003, he released As Time Goes By…The Great American Songbook: Volume II, which included duets with Cher and Queen Latifah. This time, he entered the charts at Number Two.
With 2004’s Stardust…The Great American Songbook: Volume III, the “Songbook” series established itself as a truly historic phenomenon. The album entered the charts at Number One—the first chart-topping debut of Stewart’s career, and his first Number One in more than 25 years. Guests on Stardust included Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder, adding a more modern edge to these beloved tunes. The resultant tour was one of the year’s five biggest, and to cap it all off, there was a long-awaited Grammy for “Best Traditional Pop Vocal,” Stewart’s first trophy after 14 nominations over the years.
With Thanks for the Memory…The Great American Songbook: Volume IV, he streamlined the arrangements, and shook up the “Songbook” formula by adding some different flavors into the mix, especially a duet with Chaka Khan on Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” and songs with Elton John and Diana Ross.
The Great American Songbook series pushed Rod Stewart’s career into uncharted territory—in his fifth decade as a performer, he was now selling more records than ever and cultivating a new and growing audience. “Rod has become an inspiration to all artists,” says Clive Davis, Arista/J Records founder and Chief Creative Officer, Sony Music Entertainment, “showing how long a truly great career can soar when one is willing to broaden and reinvent oneself.”
It was Davis who came up with the idea of revisiting the rock songs that Stewart’s fans had grown up with. The result was Still the Same…Great Rock Classics of Our Time, on which Stewart took the lessons learned from the “Songbooks” and applied them to a thoughtfully chosen set of songs crafted by such masters as Bob Dylan (“If Not For You”), Van Morrison (“Crazy Love”), and John Fogerty (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”). The range of its production was displayed in sounds from the soaring Badfinger hit “Day After Day” to the Pretenders’ 1994 ballad “I’ll Stand By You.”
His next recording took Stewart all the way back to the music that initially inspired him to sing. “This is the album I’ve waited my whole lifetime to record,” he wrote in the liner notes to Soulbook. Though he has recorded numerous soul standards over the years (“This Old Heart of Mine,” “I’m Losing You,” “Having a Party”), he said that the songs selected for this album “were the oxygen that fueled my passion to sing. Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and so many more…they were my Gods and my heroes.”
A number of remarkable guest stars contributed to the Soulbook recordings. Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson joined Stewart for duets, while Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder contributed to new versions of their own songs.
After these forays into material from his own generation, though, Rod Stewart was ready to get back to the classics from the 1930s and ’40s that played in his own household during his youth. He and Richard Perry began meeting for dinner, discussing song choices, and sketching out a sound.
“I’d take a song and give Richard the key, the tempo, the feel, and then he would go to the studio and work out the arrangement,” says Stewart. “Richard has a pub on his property in Los Angeles—it’s quite historical, been around for many years—and pretty much all of the vocals were done in the pub. It’s a lovely way to work!”
The results, featuring swinging horns and finger-snapping rhythms, break new ground for the “Songbook” series. Stewart sounds relaxed and playful on a sassy rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me”; “September in the Rain” is played as a cool shuffle, complete with a vibes solo. Not that the romance of the “Songbooks” is absent from FLY ME TO THE MOON…—”What a Difference a Day Makes” and “My Foolish Heart” feature vocals that are notably expressive and intimate.
The singer credits Perry (who has co-produced several volumes of the “Songbook” series, and also worked with such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, and Harry Nilsson) with the disc’s verve and energy. “I can’t give enough credit to Richard—this is really his album,” says Stewart. “With all due respect to everybody who has worked on these albums, and have all done a great job, he really understood and appreciated this music more than anybody.”
Though Stewart notes that his wife’s favorite track is “Moon River” (“every time she hears that one, she cries”) he says that his own favorite performance comes on the album’s title track, which was recorded very casually during the album’s earliest stages. “I remember that we talked about it, I sang it a couple of times, we went out to dinner, and I forgot all about it,” he says. “Richard put together a vocal from those takes and I thought, ‘Blimey! I’ve done a great job of that.’ I was just in the right mood, wasn’t under any pressure—I went back and tried it again, but I just couldn’t better it.”
Stewart adds that there was an additional motivation for the up-tempo direction that he chose for FLY ME TO THE MOON…. “I’m thinking of doing a full ‘Songbook’ tour next year, and I know I would need some up-tempo stuff to hold an audience,” he says. “After the second album, I did a tour where we tried to mix my old songs with these songs, but this time I’m thinking of going out with a proper orchestra—no ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Hot Legs,’ just do these songs the right way. That would really be the fulfillment of a dream.”
In the meantime, though, he expresses satisfaction and pride with his return to the Great American Songbook. “It’s really a happy album when you look at it,” he says. “For me, the hallmark is that I keep playing it a lot, and I very rarely go back and listen when I’ve finished an album. I’m my own worst critic, but I’m just knocked out by this one. I’m over the moon with it”