Rod Stewart brings a splash of color to the staid surroundings of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He's wearing a blue striped shirt, a white business suit jacket with thick red trim and blue Converse slip-ons -- a look that combines nautical and vaudeville, which seems perfectly fitting for Stewart, the perpetual showman.
After completing a 20-city North American tour earlier this year, Stewart returned to recording and made the album he says he's been waiting his entire life to create. Soulbook, a collection of classic soul songs from the '60s and '70s, will come out October 27 on J Records.
It's a natural next step after recording standards for his four-album Great American Songbook series. Those four albums have sold nearly 9 million copies combined, according to Nielsen SoundScan, since the first was released in 2002, and the 2006 Still the Same ... Great Rock Classics of Our Time sold 724,000. A Songbook boxed set has sold 89,000 copies.
Soulbook features duets with Mary J. Blige (on You Make Me Feel Brand New) and Jennifer Hudson (Let It Be Me) as well as two tracks featuring the original performers: Tracks of My Tears with Smokey Robinson and My Cherie Amour with Stevie Wonder. Al Schmitt, Sam Cooke's original producer and engineer, engineered the album.
I couldn't keep putting it off, Stewart says. I was very frightened of doing it, because as I say in the liner notes, these are the guys I looked up to and admired all my life. It was a big step.
Billboard: Of the many classics in this genre, how did you pick which songs to sing?
Rod Stewart: It was like the Great American Songbook (albums). We argued, shouted, pushed, fought and then came up with a good compromise. We tried to stay away from the ones that are really often on the radio, like (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay and When a Man Loves a Woman and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. I think we've come up with a good collection.
Billboard: Did you choose any tracks based on what kind of vocal spin you could put on them?
Stewart: As a vocalist, you never know what you're going to sing until you put the headphones on and the microphone is in front of you. I even surprised myself sometimes. On Rainy Night in Georgia, I changed the melody a little bit but I didn't lose sight of the original. It's never preplanned -- I guess that's why it's called soul singing.
Billboard: And you obviously have a personal connection to many of these songs.
Stewart: I think Just My Imagination has a connection with me because it was the same year as Maggie May was a hit -- 1971 -- so that one hits home.
Billboard: It's great that Al Schmitt was involved. It makes it all come full circle.
Stewart: I've met Al before -- he did some of the American Songbook. But when I sit next to him at a desk, I feel like putting my arms around him because that's as near as I'll get to Sam Cooke. I never, obviously, met Sam Cooke, and I never saw him live. I saw Otis (Redding) once, I've seen James Brown, and I've seen Jackie Wilson. It was fabulous seeing Otis perform -- I had tears in my eyes. It's funny in those days, because it was called the Soul Revue and they would come over (to Britain) in the late '60s and Otis would come on and sing 15 to 20 minutes maximum, and then Carla Thomas for 20 minutes max, and then Wilson Pickett would only do 20 minutes.
Billboard: How important was it for you to change the arrangements of these songs?
Stewart: On some of them, I said we have to change it, or we wouldn't do it at all, but some of the songs won't be changed. On (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, that's set in stone. You can't do that another way. Or What Becomes of the Broken Hearted. It won't work. For lack of a better word, they won't bend.
Billboard: These songs were recorded in an era when today's technology wasn't available. Did that have any impact on your interpretation of them?
Stewart: We were trying to get the same drum sounds, but we didn't want to go back and sound the same because then there wouldn't be much point to it. I think the record sounds very crisp.
What I will tell you, though, is that lots of the vocals were done in my house in England, in the bar, and my house here, in the library, and in a hotel room in Florida. That's the great thing about now: You can record anywhere you want. It's just fabulous. It's so comfortable. If you feel like singing now, you go sing. It's the way to do it, because Alastair, my little son, will just wander in the studio, even though we've got (signs that say), Keep out, Dad's recording -- he doesn't know, he just wanders in. The other kids wander in, my wife wanders in, and I'm singing away. It's just wonderful.
Billboard: You were a mentor on American Idol a few years back. Do you have plans to do more TV appearances to promote this album?
Stewart: I'll be doing Dancing With the Stars and its equivalent, Strictly Come Dancing (in the United Kingdom). They reach a huge audience. The music business is dead when it comes to selling records; you've got to do everything you can possibly do to make people aware that you've got an album out.
Billboard: You're known so much as a live performer. Are you looking forward to performing these songs in concert?
Stewart: We actually have a band rehearsal at my house tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it. It's up in the air right now, but we'll be touring next year for sure.
Billboard: Will you incorporate some of your other music into the show, or will it be all soul, all the time?
Stewart: Oh, I'll always have to do Maggie May and Some Guys Have All the Luck and Tonight's the Night and Hot Legs. But I'll present this as its own little segment somewhere in the show. A soul revue, or something.
Billboard: Talk a bit about your most recent tour.
Stewart: We did a mini-tour of the U.S. of places I haven't been in three or four years: Dallas and Houston and Denver. I made a point of thanking everybody every night, because there's a recession on and the dollar is hard to come by. You look at the amount of dollars you got, and you think, New ironing board? Or tickets to the Rod Stewart concert?
Billboard: Have you ever had any issues with stage fright?
Stewart: I did one show with the Jeff Beck Group -- the first show I ever did in America, in 1969 at the Fillmore East -- when I hid behind the amps and sung because I was so scared. And Jeff said, The singer's going to come out in a minute ... and stand here. And I did, and all was forgiven.
I have a routine of warming up my voice. I wouldn't be able to sing the way I sing unless I warmed up. It's like running. A reoccurring dream for me is being placed in Madison Square Garden, and someone says, Rod! Did you do your warm-up? And no -- and then not being able to sing.
Billboard: Which do you prefer: touring or recording?
Stewart: Give me touring any day. The spontaneity of it all, the element of risk every night, you never know what's going to happen. Keeps you lively, keeps you young.