Rod Stewart can be regarded as the rock generation’s heir to Sam Cooke.
Like Cooke, Stewart delivers both romantic ballads and uptempo material with conviction and panache, and he sings in a warm, soulful rasp. A singer’s singer, Stewart seemed made to inhabit the spotlight.
The London-born Stewart’s long-lived career extends back to 1964, when he cut his first record (the blues standard “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"). Soon after, he began turning up in mid-Sixties R&B bands: as Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, Steampacket and Shotgun Express. Stewart really came into his own as the singer with the Jeff Beck Group, the guitarist’s post-Yardbirds ensemble, formed in 1968. From there, Stewart graduated to the Small Faces. He and guitarist Ron Wood joined founding members Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones in the wake of Steve Marriott’s departure, and the Small Faces - which soon adopted the shortened name Faces - became an enormously popular touring group, rivaling the Rolling Stones for rollicking, good-natured rock and roll.
At the same time, Stewart inaugurated one of the great musical juggling acts of all time. He launched a parallel career as a solo artist, developing a distinctive voice and persona over the course of a brilliant string of albums that included The Rod Stewart Album (1969), Gasoline Alley (1970), Every Picture Tells a Story (1971) and Never a Dull Moment (1972). These four superlative solo albums were released in consecutive years. At the same time, Stewart served as the Faces’ frontman, contributing significantly to four fine group albums released during the same spell: First Step (1970), Long Player (1971), A Nod Is as Good as a Wink...to a Blind Horse (1971) and Ooh La La (1973). In short, Stewart was the main artist or frontman for eight albums released during a four-year period – an output remarkable for its quality and quantity. Has anyone in rock and roll ever been both so prolific and so superb during an equivalent span?
Stewart’s great talent resides in his synthesis of American soul (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding) and folk (Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) influences, into which he distilled his own life experiences as a British-born busker and bohemian. Stewart’s solo career effectively went into orbit with the 1971 release of “Maggie May,” an enduring rock classic with a rustic, ramshackle style. It was his first charting single in the U.S. and it stayed at #1 for five weeks. It came from his third solo album, Every Picture Tells a Story, which is a rock classic and Stewart’s finest hour. His first five albums – The Rod Stewart Album, Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story, Never a Dull Moment and Smiler – appeared between 1969 and 1974 on the Mercury label, and many consider this to be his best work.
Stewart’s career did reach a divide with the album Atlantic Crossing in 1975, which found him recording for a new label (Warner Bros.) and newly relocated to America. By this time, the Faces had undergone a period of disarray as a prelude to disbanding. For Stewart, the picaresque tales and rootsy, knockabout rock and roll of his first five solo albums - not to mention his work with the Faces, especially on Long Player and A Nod Is as Good as a Wink (to a Blind Horse) - were largely behind him. He thereupon confidently assumed the mantle of glamorous Seventies rock star, anteing up such boudoir-minded love songs as “Tonight’s the Night” (a #1 hit for eight weeks in 1976) and discofied rockers like “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (a Number One hit for four weeks in 1979).
In concert, he’d twirl mike stands and kick soccer balls into the audience while strutting across stages in flashy garb. Though critics occasionally looked askance at his music and persona in the wake of his Atlantic crossing, the public stood by him every step of the way. Stewart charted hit singles and platinum albums in nearly every year from 1970 through 1995, and his paced has slowed only slightly since then. He has proved a remarkably durable talent who has been single-mindedly committed to his music, touring tirelessly and recording prolifically.
Through it all, Stewart has never failed to rise to the occasion in the presence of a great song. He’s asserted himself across the decades as a masterful songwriter ("Maggie May,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Young Turks") and skilled interpreter. Over the years, numbers originally associated with the likes of the Temptations ("[I Know] I’m Losing You"), Van Morrison ("Have I Told You Lately"), Tom Waits ("Downtown Train"), Jimi Hendrix ("Angel") and the Sutherland Brothers ("Sailing") have been definitely rendered by Stewart in his expressive and soulful voice.
His career came full circle in 1993 when he recorded Unplugged...and Seated for MTV’s “Unplugged” series, reuniting with his erstwhile collaborator, Ron Wood, for a run-through of vintage material. In 1998, he recorded one of his strongest albums in years, When We Were the New Boys, which harked back to the rough-and-tumble rock of the Faces era while paying respect to newer acts who’d come along in their wake, such as Oasis, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. In 2001 came Human, a more contemporary-minded production.