Little did Rod Stewart know what he was starting when he fulfilled a longtime dream by releasing an album of standards, “It Had to Be You ... The Great American Songbook,” in 2002.
The J Records release — which has sold 2.9 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan — spawned a legion of copycat projects by other veteran artists, and brought Stewart back to sales levels he had not experienced in nearly a decade.
Each subsequent year has brought a new standards set from Stewart: “As Time Goes By ... The Great American Songbook Vol. ll” has sold 2.5 million units, while last year’s entry, “Stardust ... The Great American Songbook Vol. lll,” has moved 1.5 million.
On Oct. 18, J Records will release “Thanks for the Memory ... The Great American Songbook Vol. IV.” Produced by Steve Tyrell and BMG U.S. chairman/CEO Clive Davis, the new set finds Stewart dueting with Elton John on a campy version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” Chaka Khan on “You Send Me” and Diana Ross on “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
“Thanks for the Memory” will be closely followed by a Nov. 15 boxed set that will include all four standards albums.
Stewart talked to Billboard from his home in Los Angeles as his children wandered in and out of the room. “It’s like a f---ing railway station here: ‘What time’s the movie?’ ‘What time is dinner?”’ he joked with barely concealed delight. Stewart’s brood will increase in December, when longtime girlfriend Penny Lancaster is due to give birth to their first child together.
Q: A boxed set featuring all four discs comes out Nov. 15. Does its release put an end to this chapter for you?
A: I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days. We made the commercial yesterday for (”Vol. IV”) and I was sort of a bit melancholy about it — you know, I was thinking, “I’d really love to keep this going.”
(But) one side of me said, “Now I can get back to doing maybe rock ’n’ roll stuff or move onto the soul (project)” — which is what we were intending to do. To answer your question, it’s definitely going to rear its beautiful head again. I’ve already got “Songbook” No. 5 ready. I love these songs so much, and I enjoy singing them so much.
Q: For “Vol. III,” your rule was to do the songs in the traditional fashion but without quite so much instrumentation. What was the approach for “Vol. IV?”
A: Well, we had a few arguments, Steve and myself and Clive, but they’re nice battles. They’re those creative battles that you know if we have them, we’re going to finish off with something magical. We wanted to broaden our horizons a little bit and bring in backing vocals and more guitar instead of the intro being on the piano. So we tried to expand a little bit. We brought in some horn sections. A few things are different, but basically it’s just a notch up from the first “American Songbook.” I think I’m singing them with so much confidence now.
Q: The album features a number of duets. Were you in the studio with the other artists?
A: No, darling, we weren’t. I think those days are gone. But you know that’s actually a good thing because, although I’ve known Elton for years, it would’ve probably taken us hours to get settled down — because we would’ve been so excited and giggling and touching each other up the bottom. It would’ve taken us ages to get settled.
Q: But you do miss that give-and-take?
A: That give-and-take is there, darling, swear to God. When I go into the studio, I always pretend that Diana Ross is there. I can close my eyes, drink a glass of wine, and I pretend she’s standing next to me.
What happens is, I do my vocals first. And it’s been the same with all of the albums. The girls and boys will come in and do their vocals, and then I’ll come back and do mine again so I can hear what they’ve done and then I’m answering. And it’s as good as them being in the studio anyway.
Chaka was in there for 3 1/2 hours just doing “You Send Me,” because she loves singing it so much. So it’s good in a way to not have to be in the studio together. And also, nowadays, everyone’s so bloody busy. You know it really is ridiculous how busy everybody is.
Q: You won your first Grammy Award last year for “Stardust ... The Great American Songbook Vol. III.” Were you beginning to wonder if you would ever get one of those statuettes?
A: Yeah, I was, actually. I try and be cocky about it, like, “Oh, I don’t want a bloody Grammy.” But deep down, of course I wanted one. My kids kept saying, “Dad, why haven’t you won?” Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the music business seems to have 10 sitting on their mantelpiece ... I’ve always accused Sting of having so many. He’s so good-natured, he said, “If Rod doesn’t win one this year, I’m going to give one of mine to him.” Which is wonderful, you know.
Q: You received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Oct. 11. What do you feel is your greatest musical achievement?
A: Oh, without a doubt, the “American Songbooks.” This is something that you want to do all your life, (having been) brought up with these songs. To go in the studio and sing (them) and get the satisfaction that I got out of doing these albums — and then to get the satisfaction of knowing that the public loved them as well — it’s got to be the greatest achievement. It really is. I mean, “Maggie May” was great. The first No. 1 is exciting, but this is, to me, just brilliant.
Q: Is it upsetting that radio does not pay attention to your standards material or to veteran artists in general?
A: No, no, not at all. We don’t release singles. And I say this and I mean it with all sincerity, I’ve had such a great run all the way through the ’70s and into the ’90s of being on pop radio that, you know, it’s time for someone else to take up the challenge. You know, I’ve moved on, and pop radio and MTV and VH1 have been great to me; I hold no grudges. But if I should make a bloody rock ’n’ roll record, they better play it.
Q: Touring continues to be extremely successful for you. What do you enjoy the most about performing live?
A: Many aspects, really. The actual singing is wonderful. Singing is very good for your heart. Did you know that? I should live until I’m 120, if that be the case.
Just to be able to get in front of people that pay money to come and see you and send them all home happy. And just being able to express yourself. No drugs, no alcohol in the world will give you the high that you get when you walk on the stage and people just want to hear you sing. It’s wonderful.