Born in 1945 in North London, Rod Stewart grew up listening to a variety of music, from Al Jolson to Little Richard. When he got his first guitar at age 15, he started off learning folk songs. That foundation in a wide range of musical genres has served Stewart well his whole career. There’s a lot more to him than just being the young rascal who sang “Maggie May.”
Stewart’s first musical gig was as harmonica player with a rhythm and blues group called The Dimensions (later Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions), which started getting regular work at Rolling Stones hangout Studio 51 in London. The more Stewart watched Mick Jagger, the faster he learned about performing. Soon he was ready to move on to greater heights.
The next step was being hired to join a well-known group called Long John Baldry and the All Stars (soon renamed the Hoochie Coochie Men). Baldry seems to have been very supportive of Stewart, at least at first, even singling out Stewart’s contributions during interviews. Stewart found the confidence to start doing solo gigs, and in 1964 he signed a contract with Decca. The only result was the single “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” written by blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. It didn’t chart, which makes it fair game for us!
Over the next few years he continued to work in bands (Steampacket, Shotgun Express), before landing a job of a whole new caliber – with the Jeff Beck Group; you can hear him on their albums Truth and Beck-Ola. In 1969, he signed with Mercury, determined to make it as a solo act. But not long after he made that decision, he was drafted as singer for the band Faces (he and Ron Wood, who had just become the band’s guitarist, were close friends).
By the end of 1969, he’d finally released his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. (It was released in the US as The Rod Stewart Album.) In the studio with him were Ronnie Wood and Keith Emerson, among others, whose contributions helped to display Stewart’s gifts as both interpreter and songwriter. The critics were duly impressed.
Besides a few covers – most notably the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” – the album is mostly Stewart’s own compositions. The title song is a Stewart original, demonstrating his long familiarity with the blues. Stewart’s now-iconic hoarse, passionate singing gets a leg up from the barroom ivory-tickling of Ian McLagan of The Faces, not to mention the unbridled drumming of London session regular Micky Waller.
Gasoline Alley (1970) was Stewart’s second solo album, improving in sales over the first one but still not bringing him star power. It’s a very nice collections of songs, however. All the time he’d spent with English, Scottish, and Irish folk songs comes into play for the moving song “Jo’s Lament.” Its melody is heavily indebted to the Irish tune “Rosin the Bow.”
Several of his Faces colleagues are on hand, but for this track only it’s Stewart’s guitar playing that’s the feature.
Stewart’s real breakthrough came with Every Picture Tells a Story (1971), which hit No. 1 on both the UK and US charts and provided hits like “Maggie May” – a surprise hit, released as a B-side for “Reason to Believe” – and “I Know I’m Losing You.” While disc jockeys played “You Wear It Well” and “Twisting the Night Away” from Never a Dull Moment (1972), those who bought the album were treated to the Stewart/Wood rocker “Italian Girls” with its typically snide lyrics:
Smiler (1974) did great in the UK but less well in the US, and critics laughed at it. The gender-switched “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Man” (yes, the Carole King song) didn’t help matters. But the opening track, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” is lots of fun. Stewart really does have a way with the blues:
Although Stewart continued the decade with plenty more high-charting albums like A Night on the Town and Blondes Have More Fun, nothing lasts forever. With Foolish Behaviour (1980), the sheen was off the crown; Stewart began a slow descent down the charts. Stewart (now with Warner Music) was stepping away from the straight-up blues-rock sound, adding violins and saxophones and jazz harmonies, and the public (literally) wasn’t buying it.
But give “So Soon We Change” a chance, with its reggae groove and jazz flute. It’s not that the song is particularly great, but it’s interesting to note the difference in Stewart’s voice: There’s a calmness and clarity in the high register that’s almost unrecognizable. It’s a hint of the development and exploration he’d undertake in the following 30 years or so.
Stewart’s chart free-fall reached its nadir with the album Human in 2001, which only reached No. 50 in the US. Maybe the low numbers reflected Stewart’s unwillingness to stay still in his musical journey, a thing that fans often find frustrating. They want the same artist they knew back in the day, even when the artist has moved on. Human was Stewart’s first album with Atlantic and the first to include no music he’d written himself.
Maybe a thinking fan will listen to this album and realize what it shows about Stewart as a musician – one who appreciates the work of others and wants to pay tribute to it. For example, listen to his version of Curtis Mayfield’s “It Was Love That We Needed.” He clearly adores this song; there’s no sense that he’s out of his comfort zone or completing an assignment just to tick a box. His heart is in it all the way.
Stewart’s second rise to the top came thanks to his commitment to American popular standards, a genre choice few would have predicted when he first made a name for himself as a blues-obsessed Mod in late-’60s London. In 2002 he released It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook, complete with Nelson Riddle-style arrangements for strings and jazz combo. It did so well that he went on to record four more volumes in the series, all of them charting in the top five.
His performances of numbers by greats like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart are nothing to snicker at — and believe me, I snickered in 2002 when I heard about this project. Who knew Rod the Mod had a proper crooner hiding inside? He might not offer the silky sound of Sinatra, but he’s expressive and musical, truly understanding the genre.
With 32 solo studio albums and 50 years in the music business under his belt, Stewart shows no signs of stopping. However, he seems to have reached an age where he acknowledges that his musical future is possible only because of his musical past. At this writing, his Rod Stewart: The Hits tour included 25 dates in 2020. Nothing wrong with giving the fans what they want.