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POP BEAT

The new standard

Rod Stewart goes vintage again as he filters another batch of classics through his distinctive rasp.

October 18, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Rod STEWART stands in an aisle of the Los Angeles Theatre, killing a few minutes while a film crew sets up for another shot. The singer will spend the best part of the day in the 1930s downtown movie palace lip-syncing "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Time After Time" and other songs from his new album of pre-rock standards.

It's a long way from "Maggie May" to "As Time Goes By," and from the old satin and scarves to the Dolce & Gabbana suit and silk tie Stewart wears today. But there's still a trace of the playful spirit that endeared the roguish young rocker to fans three decades ago. When someone mentions that he seems to have a good feel for these old songs, Stewart doesn't miss a beat. "Second nature," he says, winking and flashing a half-smile as he heads back to the stage for another take.

When Stewart released his first album of standards, "It Had to Be You ... The Great American Songbook," on J Records last year, he figured it would sell a couple hundred thousand copies at best.

But it seemed like a good time for his "labor of love." His rock albums hadn't been selling in the late '90s, and he was between labels after leaving the Warner Music Group, where he'd been signed for some 25 years. So why not finally tackle the vintage material he'd enjoyed since he first heard it as a child during family gatherings in London?

"There comes a point where you have to do what you want to do," says Stewart, 58, taking a late afternoon lunch break in his trailer behind the theater. "At my age I should be able to sing whatever I want to sing. 'Cause I didn't get played on the radio anymore if I made new stuff, which was always a stumbling block. So this was a great way to go."

But his conservative sales expectations didn't factor in the impact of J Records' chief Clive Davis, the Midas of music moguls, who shepherded the record to sales of 4 million copies worldwide. As a result, "The Great American Songbook: Volume II," which comes out Tuesday, is more event than oddity. It comes with star duets (Queen Latifah and -- brace yourself -- Cher), advance orders from retailers for more than a million, and high expectations all around.

"You could have knocked me down with a feather," says Stewart of the surprise success. "It was amazing. A brilliant marketing campaign. 'Cause you know you're not getting any help from MTV or VH1 or pop-rock radio, so it was all word of mouth....

"Two weeks before the album came out last year I was hearing it in all sorts of women's shoe shops and boutiques and restaurants.

"People were phoning me up from New York, saying, 'Have you got a new album out? I just heard it in a restaurant.' Another one of Clive's little techniques. Truly a clever bugger."

Davis, who has engineered similar revitalizations for such veteran artists as Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana and Luther Vandross, decided to supplement the record's limited radio exposure by various means, including TV advertising, showcases that he hosted for media and tastemakers in New York and Los Angeles, and, yes, airing on sound systems in boutiques and restaurants. A lavish special on the A&E cable network also helped.

"To see him stretch out, to see the public respond in these numbers, it's gratifying for everybody," Davis said in a separate interview. "The fact that you can create a major event and come up with unexpected ways of having your music reach people, I think it's very good for music, I think it's very good for the longevity of artists.

"You read too many articles about limited life -- can they make it in their second album, is this one over? It's great for true artists to prove everybody wrong, and that makes it extra satisfying what Rod's doing here."

Though the pairing of Stewart and standards might seem unlikely, his distinctive rasp and light, casual touch lend the vintage material an unpretentious charm. Second nature, indeed.

"It's so enjoyable to do these songs," says Stewart, an L.A. resident since the mid-'70s. "You can really bring a bit of soul to 'em. A good mate of mine in England said to me, 'You know why I like this album? When I bring a girl home, I feel a bit old putting on Frank Sinatra. So I put your stuff on, and it seems almost like it's reborn and contemporary again.'

"So I think maybe the fact that there's a relatively contemporary voice singin' these songs has made a difference. And Clive believes that the voice should be all. They're so uncluttered, these tracks. There's no jazz, there's no one jamming.... I think that's given us a little sound all of our own. It's the first one of the day -- the first drink of the day, you put this album on."

Though it ended up reviving his career, Stewart -- who cites Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald as his favorite standards singers -- felt that he took a certain risk when he turned to this material. Even though his latest records hadn't sold well, he remained a strong concert attraction with a following cultivated over his 30-plus-year career.

"There was a lot of feeling guilty about it," he admits. "I thought, 'Oh, your fans are gonna turn on you.' "

But though he hasn't tested that theory with a tour yet, Stewart says he hasn't left his rock material behind, and he's eager to perform it on stage again. (More than 20 songs spanning his career will get a high-profile platform when "Tonight's the Night," a musical based on his music, opens in London's West End next month.)

He'd also like to do an album of R&B songs by such masters as Joe Tex, Arthur Conley, Don Covay, et al., and he and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood are at work on an album in the vein of the Faces, the band that brought them both to prominence.

And then there are a few more tunes from the '30s and '40s floating around.

"I might even do a third one of these," he says as he puts on a fresh shirt and gets ready to return to the theater. "I actually found myself making a list of songs for the next album last night."

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