Go with what you know—good advice for a showman who staked his fortune as a blue-eyed soul man.
British pop crooner Rod Stewart, 64, is no stranger to the American songbook— he began his career in 1963 singing blues and R&B with Jimmy Powell & the Five Dimensions, in Birmingham, England. As the frontman of the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart dug into the blues and even delved into show tunes on the band’s 1968 debut Truth, delivering a powerful version of “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical Show Boat.
But in the 90s, plagued by throat problems, the aging sex symbol’s career ran aground and Stewart struggled through the decade with a handful of lackluster pop albums that were thin on hits. After cancer surgery helped restore his trademark raspy pipes, Stewart released 2002’s commercially successful It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook. The formulaic concept album failed to stir music critics, but fans embraced these endearing pop and jazz standards—the album vaulted into the Top 10.
Knowing a good thing, Stewart has returned to that formula three more times. His latest album, Soulbook, finds the singer moving back to his roots in a nod to the popular neo-soul movement. Produced by Steve Jordan and Steve Tyrell, this tribute is a smorgasbord of smooth soul sounds culled from the Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia International catalogs that have long been an essential part of the soundtrack of America in the 60s and 70s. The album shows Stewart sounding confident and relaxed, delivering suave, understated renditions of these popular classics.
Stewart shares the spotlight with some big-name guest vocalists. Jennifer Hudson duets on the tender ballad “Let It Be Me,” a French-pop song that’s been covered by everyone from the Delfonics to Bob Dylan. And Mary J. Blige powers up a rousing cover of the Stylistics’ 1974 Philly soul classic “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” also a big hit for Simply Red. On two other tracks, Stewart teams up with artists who first recorded (and wrote) some of these evergreen favorites. It’s not everyone who can hold his own on a duet with Smokey Robinson, but Stewart succeeds on a cover of that soul man’s signature song “Tracks of My Tears.” Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder joins him while contributing harmonica on “My Cherie Amour.”
Still, Stewart shows time and again that he can handle these vocal duties on his own. He sounds exuberant on his cover of the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” one of the album’s highlights, and is equally comfortable on such melancholy, regret- filled fare as Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and Jimmy Ruffin’s bittersweet ballad “What Becomes of the Broken Heart,” a source of inspiration for Joan Osborne’s own celebrated soul tributes. Other selections here will feel especially comfortable for boomers: in the past, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Just My Imagination” have provided refuge for vintage rockers, for the Beatles and the Stones, respectively.
You might take the producers to task for adding too much sweetening here or there (though, for the most part, they show re- markable restraint), or argue that Stewart fails to deliver soul screams ala Sam and Dave. But ultimately, this soul survivor shows rev- erence and honors the past while reminding us just how full of riches this chapter of the American songbook really is.