21st Century Debonair
The Great American Songbook
It Had To Be You
J Records 2002
The Great American Songbook
Volume II: As Time Goes By
J Records 2003
To do this right I have to go back to Gasoline Alley (Mercury Records 1970). The stormy English country beat Stewart delivers on this compilation damned near killed me when I first heard it all those years ago. I played that thing so often I wore the vinyl out inside of a year and had to beg for the bucks to replace it. GA has the same effect on me today. That smoky voice, the poignant phrasing, the raw passion of the work turned me into a stone cold Rod Stewart fan in 1970 and I’ve never looked back. Even in the 80s when I wasn’t all that thrilled with his output, I was nonetheless drawn to his exquisite delivery of a lyric.
A word about me: I was raised on Gershwin, Porter, Rogers & Hart et al. That’s the stuff that moved me from a very early age. Billy Eckstine, Blossom Dearie, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland and oh—God help me—Billie Holliday—suffice it to say that I had a major jones for Rod Stewart to sing the standards all those years ago but, being fairly savvy (even at that young age) I knew it wouldn’t be the best of career moves for him. I admit that I myself may not have accepted it from him then. So I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped when he reached a certain age, one where he’d be taken more seriously in the ‘mainstream,’ Stewart would get these things laid down and I could float back to heaven with his voice caressing my soul.
1996 saw the presentation of Stewart’s If We Fall In Love Tonight from Warner Brothers and I thought, “Oooh! Oooh! [Gunther!] Oooh this is nice. Oh man! I suppose if I wrote to him it wouldn’t mean a damned thing but please! Someone! Introduce this guy to the lyrics of Ira Gershwin. Give him a blast of Sammy Fain. The man was born to it for crying out loud!”
In 2002 my wish was granted. It Had To Be You was released with very little fanfare but it managed to hit #4 on The Billboard 200 for 2003 and 2004. I am apparently not the only person loose on this earth that swoons over a classic love song. And these, delivered with that distinctive Stewart lilt, make them seem brand spanking new. And- wonder of wonders, the liner notes on volume one opened my eyes to the man himself. Bill Zehme’s prelude quotes Stewart as saying, “These are the songs I sing to warm up my voice so I can go do ‘Maggie May’ onstage.” And to quote Zehme, “Who knew?” Dear, sweet heaven! I’d been waiting for this for over 30 years and so also it seems, was the man himself.
Volume 1 comprises 14 gems from You Go To My Head (Gillespie/Coots) to That’s All (Haymes/Brandt). Heavy hitters such as Jimmy Rip on guitar, Reggie McBride on bass and Shawn Pelton on drums barely scratch the surface of this ensemble. A little here, a little there, together delivering a ‘Carnegie Concert’ the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Judy held the audience captive in April of ’64. “I’ll sing ‘em all and we’ll stay all night!” Screaming applause. Yeah. I was there. So I know what I’m talking about.
If Volume 1 was wondrous, permit me to briefly discuss Volume II (Billboard 200 #2, 2003-04). Stewart isn’t singing these lyrics—he’s having hot and steamy sex with them. I didn’t realize it could get better but you know—it can. Duets with Cher and Queen Latifah (whose voice is, I think, the 9th wonder of the world—Stewart’s is the 8th) are highlights to be sure, but it’s frightening to me to note how a voice can mature and gain even more humor in only a year. Thank heaven he used the original lyrics. Time After Time stands out to me as the definitive rendering of this tune. Much as I enjoyed Brent Spiner’s Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back (Musicrama 1988), Stewart’s upbeat and joyful rendering of the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne classic is the artist at the top of his form. That God-given instrument that is his voice makes the earth move with Volume II and I can only wait anxiously for Volume III to find out what he’s going to do to me next. A little more Cole Porter perhaps? C’mon me old darling, are you taking requests? How about Miss Otis Regrets?
I am obviously enraptured by these gifts from Rod Stewart and company. Life’s a funny old show. Rod the Mod has morphed into one of the great debonairs of the early 21st Century, and there aren’t many around you know. Other than Tony Bennett, Hugh Hefner and Stewart what have you got? Johnny Depp? Well, maybe in a few years when he shaves that scruffy beard. As I wasn’t writing in 1970 I will grab this opportunity to make note that, while these Songbook CDs are now basic to my daily life, there is still no more charming and heartfelt a love song than was written by Stewart himself and presented on Gasoline Alley. I refer of course to Lady Day and had I the ability, I’d write one just like it for Stewart. It’s how I feel you old softie.
Songbook Photos by Andrew Macpherson