Rod Stewart is enjoying a second life. Heís pulled off a neat metamorphosis from chirpy rocker to tail-coated crooner and, even smarter, has taken his audience with him. Yet somehow those spandex leggings never seem far away. His biographer Tim Ewbank wonders if Rod, at 60, has finally evolved into a rock legend Ė or whether weíll ever take him that seriously
Some rock stars go grey,some get fat and grumpy. Others withdraw behind security fences and turn odd. Only a few stay, somehow, the same as theyíve always been. And rarer still are those who, when you were looking the other way, managed to evolve their music into a completely different genre and lose none of their appeal in the process.
Step forward Rod Stewart, whose recent marriage proposal to statuesque blonde Penny Lancaster seemed to underline the fact that, 42 years after he cut his first record, nothing much has changed.
Except, of course, that things are very different. He is, arguably, a bigger star now than in his Seventies heyday, playing sell-out concerts all through his current world tour. And after no fewer than 14 unsuccessful nominations for a Grammy award Ė Americaís music equivalent of an Oscar Ė his third collection of classics, Stardust... The Great American Songbook Volume III, not only finally clinched the award in February but gave him his first chart-topping album in America for 25 years. The first Songbook volume sold 240,000 copies in its first week in America, rivalling the sales he generated with his early albums. The first two volumes alone have sold 10 million copies.
"I still think Iíve got a great music career ahead of me," Rod says. "I think I can go on doing this for as long as I want to. I may not be jumping around the stage at 60, but Iíll always be able to make records."
At 34, bride-to-be Penny is 26 years his junior and sheís made it clear that sex is very important to both of them. "You could say my sexual appetite has changed a lot, for the better," sheís stated. "Itís the thirties thing. Itís all youíve got on your mind when youíre in love and have that passion for someone. And Rodís fitness level is incredible.
"We have a very good sex life," he agrees. "Quality sex is very important to a relationship. The older you get, the better lover you become. You pay more attention to kissing, and girls like to be kissed."
Fittingly, these days, Rod Stewart CDs are mellifluous confections of moon and June accompanied by a 16-piece orchestra, rather than the picaresque adventure stories and sexual shenanigans of tracks such as Hot Legs, then accompanied by his riotous, alcohol-fuelled ersatz Stones band The Faces. His concerts, reflecting both these manifestations, still have the Rod of old strutting and gyrating through his Seventies hits before he takes to a chair for a crooning second half, singing Songbook standards such as It Had To Be You.
Only Elton John and Paul McCartney among his British pop contemporaries enjoy comparable global solo success. Rod eclipses Cliff Richard, who has achieved only limited popularity in America, and Mick Jagger, whose solo forays away from the Rolling Stones have consistently proved disappointing. Remarkably, all 26 of Rodís solo albums have made the top five in the charts.
His musical transformation, however, has not been without its critics, with one reviewer of Stardust writing: "This collection redefines the term Muzak Ė and will perhaps give ladies the opportunity to one day share the elevator ride with Rod that theyíve so long desired."
One of Rodís early loves, and still a friend, Dee Harrington, dismisses those harsh criticisms. "You have to admire what heís done," she says. "Sometimes it seems as if half of his career has been based on changing his women, and the other half on his music. But that is what Rod should be judged upon Ė and judged very highly."
The contradiction with his elevation into the status of rock legend is partly the fault of his cheeky trademark grin. Heís certainly not a tortured genius in the Clapton mould. There are no dark, brooding Jagger moments. And despite the difficult, sad moments of his life Ė a brush with throat cancer which threatened to end his career, and the death of his sister from multiple sclerosis Ė the inner Rod doesnít stray into much deeper waters than a bloke in a Celtic football shirt flicking towels at his mates. Can anyone really be a legend if heís a cheery bloke with the nickname Smiler?
But he is a master of transformation: a one-time grave-digger, fence-painter, sign-painter and part-time Brentford footballer, he first led a crowd in song when taking part in four Ban The Bomb marches to Aldermaston in the early Sixties. And, ironically for such a flag-waver for Scotland, he is only half Scottish, was born in London, and has lived in Los Angeles for 30 years.
"I would come home tomorrow," he asserts, "for family, friends, the pubs, the attitudes, the papers, the weather, the humour. I love it all. But not until all the kids are 18 and gone their own way."
Two marriages Ė to actress Alana Hamilton and model Rachel Hunter Ė have produced two sons and two daughters. He has a daughter by model Kelly Emberg, who left him when she realised she would never become his wife, and another daughter Sarah, a child from a failed affair when he was 18, whom he rarely sees. Sarah was adopted soon after she was born.
Notwithstanding an impending, possibly highly expensive divorce from Rachel, Rod has managed to remain friends with the women who have borne him children and they with each other.
"When youíve loved somebody as passionately as I have the mothers of my kids, you donít want any harm to come to them," he says. "Even though a couple of them tried to sting me for loads of money, thereís a feeling in your heart for them."
He is convinced that he is a much better father than he was 20 years ago. "Iím pretty strict with my kids," he says. "Iíve got a cinema at my house and I let the kids watch movies with their boyfriends. But I tell them: ĎKeep your hands to yourself, no fiddling about when the lights go down.í Iím like an usherette at the Odeon."
Many women have passed through Rodís life, but none fill the place in his heart left by the death of his father Bob. Principled, moralistic and a disciplinarian, Bob Stewart retains Rodís utmost respect long after his death in September 1990. "I miss my dad tremendously," he says. "Not a day goes by without me thinking of him. I was very, very close to him. He was the Scotsman in the family."
Born in Leith, near Edinburgh, Bob ran away to join the merchant navy when he was just 14 in 1917. But the life bored him and he eventually became a London builder.
Roderick David was the only one of Bobís five children not to be born in Scotland. He drew his first breath at the Stewart family home in the Archway Road, north London, prompting Bob to be extra zealous when extolling to Rod the virtues of all things Scottish, especially Celtic FC. Bobís patriotism rubbed off on Rod to such an extent that rows of kilted toy soldiers occupy pride of place on a mantelpiece in the opulent sitting room of his Los Angeles home: one or two placed prudently near the edge to serve as early warning of an earthquake if they noisily topple to the floor.
It was Bob Stewart who yanked young Rod out of bed to start his paper round near the north London home he shared with English mother Elsie and his four brothers and sisters. His sister Peggy died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 40 in 1975, but brothers Don, 75, Bob, 70, and Rodís other sister Mary, 76, all still live in England and retain the fierce Scottish loyalty instilled in them by Bob. It was Bob who baffled Rod on his 14th birthday by giving him a guitar as a present instead of the model railway station he had asked for. "Thereís money in this!" Bob explained to his puzzled son.
How right he was. When Long John Baldry, a seminal figure in the London blues movement in the Sixties, heard Rod singing to himself one foggy night while waiting for a train, he gave him a job as vocalist for £35 a week, a handsome wage in 1964.
Success arrived quickly, first when Rod moved on to the Jeff Beck Group and toured America, then joined The Faces as frontman. His crowning moment came with his solo LP Every Picture Tells A Story in 1971. The album topped the US and UK charts at the same time, and the single taken from it, Maggie May, also simultaneously topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Not even Elvis Presley or the Beatles had achieved such a feat.
Tax demands persuaded Rod to move to America, where he built on his success but ďwent HollywoodĒ under the influence of his actress girlfriend Britt Ekland. Soon image took precedence over substance and Rod lost his musical soul for a while, eventually sinking into the depths of disco with Dí Ya Think Iím Sexy.
The sight of Rod prancing and posing in lurid skin-tight spandex cost him his core male audience and threatened his career, but he recovered to produce a series of competent rock albums until a brush with throat cancer forced him to temper his vocal delivery and switch to the crooning style on the Great American Songbook albums which have since proved so hugely popular.
Although he has penned many gems himself, Rodís self-acknowledged forte has always been his ability to add his own stamp to other peopleís material. "If anybody knows how to cover a song, itís me," he says.
For all the tabloid scrutiny of Rodís life, contradictions abound. Girlfriends swear he is scrupulously polite and has impeccable manners, but let him loose with his long-standing buddy, Rolling Stone Ron Wood, and heíll soon revert to laddish behaviour.
On stage he is confidence personified, but there is a distinct vulnerability about him. He used to get friends to ask girls out for him rather than make the approach himself. "An insecure little boy with more front than Harrods," is Ron Woodís judgment.
Rod prefers to spend his time with family and old friends, and harbours a healthy disrespect for the celebrity scene, rarely mixing with other pop stars. "I just donít find them particularly interesting," is his candid summation. He loves to play football with "regular blokes" Ė he would trade all his gold records for the chance to have played for Scotland. In conversation he laughs easily, exudes charm and can be extremely funny.
To family, friends and loved ones, Rod can be incredibly generous. He recently splashed out £11,000 to fly a group of friends up to Scotland for a football match. And yet, interestingly, Rod admits he is terrified of being remembered for being tight with money. Itís a reputation that has clung to him for many years and Ron Wood, says Rod, hasnít helped the image by saying he is as tight as two coats of paint.
"But Iím not," Rod protests. "Iím very generous. Itís a reputation I got because of my Scottishness, but itís backfiring now. I am very careful with my money, but Iím certainly not tight."
Whatever else, Rod Stewart is certainly a survivor. Heís been carjacked in Los Angeles, dodged a spray of bullets during a raid on a restaurant in Mexico and, just before he was born, on January 10, 1945, a German V2 rocket scored a direct hit a stoneís throw from his house. "Iíve always thought I was very lucky," he reflects.
Luck, of course, has little place in a tough business like rock. After leading a vast crowd in an energetic sing-along of Maggie May at the finale of one of his recent concerts, Rod shouted: "Iím only getting better as I get older."
It was delivered with the usual Stewart charm, but he was right.
He works hard to keep up that chirpy, laddish persona. But there are few rock stars who have completely reinvented their musical style to find a second burst of success, and at such a comparatively late age.
With the present success of the Jamie Cullums and Michael Bubles of this world, he and his record company have read the market perfectly. One simply has to imagine those smooth jazz crooners pulling off DíYa Think Iím Sexy in the same concert to realise just how far Rod Stewart can go. Itís not so much versatility as schizophrenia.
But we are all so charmed by that grin and the cheeky chappy persona that itís easy to miss the professionalism behind the image, the art in the showmanship, the musician in the man. It may be left to history to hand him the status of legend: right now Rod Stewart remains the Smiler he always was.