by Alan Sculley

Why would Rod Stewart - the rooster-haired bad boy of cheesy '70s excess and urban legend -- record not one but two albums of easy listening-type standards? Is it a calculated attempt to reinvent the singer's image and tap into the vast Norah Jones/Josh Groban/Michael Buble audience? Or is it Rod the Bod's genuinely felt homage to forebears like Billie Holliday and Sinatra?

"For obvious reasons, it was a real risk - me, a died-in-the-wool rocker, suddenly doing all of these wonderful songs written in the '30s and '40s," Stewart says, referring to It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook, Vol. 1 and its follow-up, As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Vol. 2. "I felt like I was almost being a rock 'n' roll traitor, but it's something I'd always wanted to do, and I thought, 'Well, I'm of the age now where I should be able to do exactly what I want to do.' I'm past pleasing other people, so it started out as a labor of love, and -- lo and behold -- we have this tremendous success with it. But I would have been happy if it had sold 30,000 copies. I mean, I'm happy that it [Vol. 1] has done four million, but I just wanted to get the thing off of my chest. And these are songs I've loved all of my life."

Both CDs have featured Stewart, with lush orchestral backing, singing a selection of familiar classics (such as "I'm in the Mood for Love," "The Very Thought of You" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me"), most of which were written between the two world wars.

Indeed, it may be hard for fans of who still identify Stewart with the raucous rock 'n' roll he helped create with the Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s, the Faces during the early 1970s or on his early solo discs to consider the standards albums as being the genuine article.

Stewart, though, doesn't have any problem making the connection.

"It's almost like the natural evolution of music itself," he says. "If you look back, you know, these songs, they came out of the jazz era, and the jazz era came out of the blues [which] was apparently the first music ever in America, so I think it's all connected. There's a lineage going all the way through (to rock 'n' roll). You know, I think my fans have just got to grow up with me. You can't be an 18-year-old rock 'n' roll star all your life. This was a big risk for me, and it's paid off. And I just hope the fans are pleased."

Stewart's current concert tour, in fact, should also help connect the dots, with a career-spanning set that will find him performing both in rock 'n' roll and orchestral settings. He says he has an 11-piece rock band and a 10-piece symphony backing him for the concerts.

"We're doing 'Maggie May' and all those things in the first half of the show," Stewart says. "And then we're probably going to do 27 minutes of the American Songbook, and then finish off with three or four (songs) that everybody knows."

The success of "It Had To Be You" and "As Time Goes By" has come at a good time for the 59-year old Brit. While he remained one of rock's most recognizable stars, his CDs during the past decade had been a mixed bag artistically and commercially, culminating in 2001 with the overly slick Human, a CD that Stewart acknowledged was a flop.

The American Songbook project, ironically enough, started out modestly, with Stewart investing more than $300,000 of his own money before J Records President Clive Davis stepped in and picked up the project.

"The American Songbook came around accidentally, really," Stewart says. "We were playing with it for about 10 months, myself and [producer] Richard Perry just with a synthesizer and a drum machine. I put my own money in it, which is quite remarkable really, just to lay these tracks down, never thinking anything would happen -- until Clive Davis heard."

In doing the two albums of standards, Stewart says he rediscovered just how sophisticated the material is.

"They're a challenge," he says. "Every time I've been in the studio to record the songs, and I think I know them, they always will be full of nuances I have to be corrected on.

"They're totally different from the rock stuff," Stewart says. "The chord structure, the melodies -- I mean, we [have] guys who are playing in the band who are well-accomplished musicians -- you know, some of the best in America. Still, after six weeks, they're still reading these songs off of the charts. They don't have to do that with 'Hot Legs.' So it's jazz -- I can't define that word 'jazz' myself, but it's not easy stuff to play. To sing, it's glorious. I mean, I don't know why this album is a big success, because a lot of great singers have done these songs before me. The only thing I can put on it -- the only spin I can put on it -- is my sort of contemporary voice singing these old songs. It was just a lucky collaboration."

While Stewart will be promoting the two Great American Songbooks CDs this year, he has just finished recording a third Songbook CD. The third CD in the series was produced by Steve Tyrell, a vocalist whose has specialized on his own albums in performing songs from the same era of pre-World War II music. Stewart says that songs recorded for the third CD include "Stardust," "Cheek to Cheek," "It's Wonderful" and "Blue Moon."

"Quite amazing to actually work with another singer," Stewart muses. "I didn't think it was going to come off, you know, [that] our egos would collide in the studio. But he turned out to be just wonderful."

Publication date: 08/12/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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