His music career began inauspiciously as a harmonica player and part-time singer for various London bands. Five decades later and more than 100 million records sold worldwide, the uniquely husky-voiced Rod Stewart continues to sell out concert halls and arenas, performing with a vigour than surpasses many performers half of his 65 years of age.

In 2002, Stewart made a departure from his rock ‘n’ roll roots and recorded the first of what would become five recordings of American Classics popularly known as The American Songbook, including compositions by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and other creators of ever-popular American standards. Now in their fifties and sixties, people who had listened to his early hits such as Maggie May and Reason To Believe in the early 70s bought his albums in record numbers.

The hit songs of their parents’ generation were now being re-popularized by a performer from their own – and so Rod Stewart experienced a tremendous renaissance of his career.

While he still records and performs selections from his American Songbook collection (the most recent being The Great American Songbook Volume V) his shows now include generous helpings of his greatest rock ‘n’ roll hits and his interpretations of R & B classics from Motown.

Stewart’s parents, Robert and Elsie, lived much of their married life in Roberts’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland; where he worked as a master builder. The couple moved to Highgate in London. Rod joined his two brothers and two sisters on January 10, 1945, when he was born at home during an air raid of German V-2 missiles. The Stewart family was middle class and Rod remembers his childhood as being fantastically happy. His father retired from the building trades when he turned 65 and Rod was in his early teens. Robert started a second career, opening a news paper and magazine store in London. The family lived above the shop, and this is where Rod developed his interest in model railroading – a hobby that he still pursues.

Stewart maintains a 23 x 124 foot scale model of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads in the 1940s in his LA home. To his great satisfaction and pride, this layout was featured twice in Model Railroader Magazine. A scale model of Britain’s East Coast Line is permanently on display in the singer’s home in Epping, Essex.

Rod was an indifferent student and left school when he was 15, taking on a variety of jobs which included working as a screen printer, a newspaper delivery boy for his father’s store, a fence erector, a sign painter and even stints in a local funeral parlour and as a grave digger.

Football was a favourite hobby in the Stewart household, with Stewart’s father leading the way; playing on a local amateur side as well as coaching.

Rod developed into a very good player, certainly the best in the family. In addition to being a solid natural athlete, Rod played with wild and fearless abandon. He became captain of the Middlesex school football team. Encouraged by his father to become a professional, Stewart joined Third Division Brentford F.C. as an apprentice. However, he disliked the early morning commute to West London and the apprentice’s task of cleaning the first team’s boots. At 5′ 11″ and weighing just 130 lbs, Stewart was too slight for the rigours of English football. He pushed himself so hard during training that he would make himself sick from exertion.

Much to the disappoint of his father, Stewart left the team, after deciding that it might be easier to make a living singing than by playing football. He continues to play soccer for his team, the LA Exiles in a senior league in California..

Like many of his generation, Rod’s introduction to American Rock ‘n’ Roll came when he first heard the explosive Little Richard and when he saw Bill Haley and The Comets in concert.

Rod started playing harmonica in 1962, and started performing as a busker, performing with folk singer Wizz Jones and travelling to Paris and Barcelona, where they would sleep under bridges to economize. This wasn’t a commercial success, and Rod was arrested for vagrancy in Barcelona and deported from Spain.

Rod was introduced to the music of American R&B artists such as Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, and he fervently listened to their recordings. After stints with The Kinks, an R& B group called The Dimensions, as a singer/harmonica player with Long John Baldry, and a white soul revue band called Steampacket, legendary guitarist Jeff Beck invited Rod to join the Jeff Beck Group as singer and part-time songwriter in February 1967. While the group struggled for commercial success, it was a significant opportunity for Stewart. Facing financial collapse, the group’s management booked them on a tour of the United States, where they earned rave reviews, comparing the group favourably to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. Stewart’s hoarse sandpaper quality voice was a big part of those reviews, and as the lead singer, Stewarts’ charismatic stage presence began to eclipse the mercurial Jeff Beck.

Mercury records Artist & Repertoire representative Lou Reizner recognized Stewart’s unique vocal qualities and ability to sing a wide range of material. Although signed in 1968, Rod’s first album wasn’t released until 1969. The Rod Stewart Album established a format for his solo sound, a mixture of folk rock and country blues, including original compositions and covers such as Handbags and Gladrags.

In October of 1969 Rod began performing live as the singer for The Faces, which included his friend Ron Wood – who he performed with previously in Long John Baldry’s band. From 1970 to 1974, Rod Stewart and The Faces (with Rod singing) released several albums. Stewart’s albums attained greater success, and this gradually became a source of friction.

Every Picture Tells A Story, released in 1971, made Rod Stewart a household name when Maggie May (intended as a B-side to Reason To Believe) became a worldwide hit. Stewart and his producers took a risk by using a mandolin in the opening bars and throughout what was categorized as a rock ‘n’ roll recording.

The unique and whimsical sound of the mandolin and Rod’s sandpaper voice caught the imagination of teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic. Mandolin Wind, the Motown hit (I Know) I’m Losing You, Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time and the driving Every Picture Tells A Story all contributed to an album packed with “hit” material. Maggie May would eventually be included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll. He was already a long way from busking on the streets of Barcelona in 1963.

Towards the end of 1974, Rod’s successful solo career heightened tensions with The Faces. Friend and bassist Ron Wood left to join the Rolling Stones, and Rod announced the break-up of the group.

Like so many other successful British entertainers and movie stars, Rod moved to the U.S. to protest the UK tax authorities taking approximately 84% of his income in taxes. Aptly named, his 1975 album titled Atlantic Crossing featured a return to his original format. He recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Sailing became a number one hit in the UK, and This Old Heart of Mine by Motown writers Holland-Dozier-Holland was a Top 100 hit in 1976. Stewart continued to record albums that earned solid – if not spectacular – sales. In 1979 he recorded Do You Think I’m Sexy and donated the proceeds to UNICEF. In the late 70s and 80s he continued to record with modest success. However, he continued to do very well with his concert appearances. For example: a concert with Kim Carnes and Tina Turner at the Los Angeles Forum in December 1981was broadcast live to a television audience of 35 million people. In January 1985 Stewart played to 100,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, and a four years later to Mexican audiences in excess of 80,000 (Queretaro), 50,000 in Guadalajara, and 90,000 in Buenos Aires.

“I think the longevity is definitely due to the fact
that I’ve always prided myself on giving 110 percent
when I walk out on that stage.”

Rod Stewart was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Later that year, as if to demonstrate himself worthy of the award, he drew the largest ever concert audience of 3.5 million people at an outdoor concert on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Clive Davis, considered to be one of the best music industry executives (Barbara Streisand, Brian Wilson) signed Stewart to his new label J Records in 2001. He encouraged Rod to record songs from the 30s and 40s composed by celebrated songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin. It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook was released in 2002 – and went straight to the top of the charts. Fans of his early recordings, who were now mature adults, were drawn to the raspy-voiced singer’s interpretations of the hits of previous generations.

Still – it was a huge risk. Stewart commented in a New York Times article; “I felt like a rock ‘n’ roll traitor… but they are such wonderful songs and I had wanted to sing them for 20-odd years. You have to give them 100 per cent because there are so many nuances in those American Songbook songs that you could overlook and miss certain little points that are very important.”As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook 2 quickly followed. Rod wasn’t finished with Rock ‘n’ Roll however, and in 2004 he toured with Ronnie Wood to perform Faces material. Later that year, Stardust: The Great American Songbook 3 was released and gave Stewart his first #1 album in 25 years. It included duets with Stevie Wonder (What A Wonderful World) and Dolly Parton (Baby It’s Cold Outside). This recording earned Rod his first Grammy Award.

Released in 2005, the fourth in the series featured duets with Dianna Ross and Elton John and was another top seller. Stewart returned to rock music in late 2006 with his recording; Still the Same… Great Rock Classics of Our Time. Many of his fans had grown up listening to the album’s songs, including Have You Ever Seen The Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival. “I was very aware of John’s voice. In my style of singing you’re always looking for someone who sings in the same way – there’s a brotherhood there – Bob Seeger and the like. So I remember that era very well.” The album sold 184,000 copies in the first week!

After many popular singing stars had long since disappeared from view, Rod Stewart has continued to be in demand, making guest appearances on top-rated shows such as American Idol. Fly Me to the Moon: Great American Songbook 5 was released in October 2010 and became another huge hit for the 65 year old crooner and rocker. Once again Rod Stewart is maintaining a torrid pace of parallel careers, much as he did when singing for the Faces and his own solo recordings in the early 70s. However, he was three decades younger then…

It almost all came crashing to a halt in 2000 when Rod was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. His thyroid was removed – and while the operation was a success – he had to re-learn how to sing. “I was recording Human at the time, and I could only sing one line at a time. It would take me a week just to get through one vocal. But it came back slowly, slowly, slowly. Thank the Lord it’s come back better than ever for some reason.”

Rod Stewart will be bringing his distinctive voice to the Montreal’s Bell Centre as part of The Heart and Soul Tour beginning in North America on March 20.

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