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Rod Stewart

Stewart does what he wants as time goes by

The notion of Rod Stewart recording a CD of pop standards might have seemed like a calculated attempt to reinvent the singer's image and tap into an audience that has been making adult contemporary artists, such as Norah Jones, Josh Groban and Michael Buble, major stars.

But Stewart said he never envisioned his 2002 standards CD, "It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook Vol. 1," which has sold 4 million copies, or its newly released followup, "As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook Vol. 2," being commercial hits.

"For obvious reasons, it was a real risk, me — a died-in-the-wool rocker — suddenly doing all of these wonderful songs written in the '30s and '40s," Stewart said in a recent teleconference interview with reporters.

"And I felt like I was almost being a rock 'n' roll traitor, but it's something I'd always wanted to do, and I thought, well I'm of the age now where I should be able to do exactly what I want to do.

"I'm past pleasing other people, so it started out as a labor of love, and lo and behold, we have this tremendous success with it. But I would have been happy if it had sold 30,000 copies. I mean, I'm happy that it's done 4 million, but I just wanted to get the thing off of my chest. And these are songs I've loved all of my life."

Both CDs have featured Stewart, with lush orchestral backing, singing a selection of familiar classics, such as "I'm In The Mood For Love," "The Very Thought Of You" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me", most of which were written between the two world wars.

Indeed, it may be hard for fans, who still identify Stewart with the raucous rock 'n' roll he helped create with the Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s, the Faces during the early 1970s or on his early solo discs, to consider the standards albums as being the genuine article. Stewart's current concert tour should help connect the dots, with a career-spanning set that will find him performing both in rock 'n' roll and orchestral settings.

He said he plans to have an 11-piece rock band and a 10-piece symphony backing him for the concerts.

"The last time we rehearsed, (and) we're going to start rehearsing again today, we started off with an hour of all the old stuff," said Stewart, who was still three days away from the tour's opening night at the time of the interview.

The success of "It Had To Be You" and "As Time Goes By" has come at a good time for the 59-year old Brit. While he remained one of rock's most recognizable stars, his CDs during the past decade had been a mixed bag artistically and commercially, culminating in 2001 with the overly slick "Human," a CD that Stewart acknowledged was a flop.

In doing the two albums of standards, Stewart said he rediscovered just how sophisticated the material is.

"They're a challenge," he said. "Every time I've been in the studio to record the songs, and I think I know them, they always will be full of nuances I have to be corrected on. ..."

While Stewart will be promoting the two "Great American Songbooks" CDs this year and there have already been rumors of a third standards CD being in the works, he hinted in this interview that he is ready to move on to other projects in the near future, with doing a CD of soul covers being one immediate goal.

He also has started a rock-oriented CD, "You Strum and I'll Sing," that reunites him with Ron Wood, his close friend and former guitarist with the Faces, who joined the Rolling Stones after the Faces split.

Rod Stewart performs Friday, April 16, at Savvis Center, 1401 Clark Ave. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show range from $47.75 to $97.75

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