LONDON – He's been a rocker, a soul boy, a spandex-clad disco belter. Now Rod Stewart (search) is settling comfortably into a late career as a classy crooner of 20th-century classics.
Next week sees the release of "Stardust ... The Great American Songbook: Volume III," (search) Stewart's third collection of standards by songwriters including Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin (search). The first two volumes, released in 2002 and 2003, where surprise hits, earning two Grammy nominations and selling a combined 10 million copies.
The new album returns to the inexhaustible well of classic American songcraft, offering renditions of "Night and Day," "Embraceable You," "Blue Moon" and other staples made famous by singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald (search).
For Stewart, who grew up listening to the songs in his parents' north London home, the tunes' familiarity holds no fears. The key, he said Monday, is "to bring a breath of fresh air to them."
"The one thing you mustn't do is try to sound like Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday," Stewart told The Associated Press during a break in rehearsals at London's storied Abbey Road studios. "They've done them so well. Put your own stamp on them, you know."
That's not usually a problem for Stewart, owner of one of the most distinctive voices in music — a throaty rasp, simultaneously raunchy and vulnerable.
It's a voice that has allowed Stewart, a London lad who once dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player, to weather three decades of musical fashion. He has moved from early rock with The Faces and soulful "Rod the Mod"-era hits like "Maggie May" and "Reason to Believe" through the disco nadir of "D'Ya Think I'm Sexy" to a series of slick, commercially successful cover versions.
Stewart is a canny and sometimes adventurous sampler of others' songs, turning Tom Waits (news)' melancholy "Downtown Train" into an 1989 hit and covering Primal Scream and Oasis on his 1998 album "When We Were the New Boys."
There is not much he will not try. He says a song "has got to lend itself to my voice, to my style of singing. There's not many that don't."
"There are certain songs I wouldn't sing because I think they've been done so well," conceded Stewart, 59. "For instance I wouldn't sing 'Georgia on My Mind' after Ray Charles, and I wouldn't sing 'When a Man Loves a Woman' after Percy Sledge. There are certain songs I don't think can be bettered. I think no one can sing 'Maggie May' like me, or no one sings 'Honky Tonk Women' like Mick (Jagger)."
The trademark raspy voice was threatened in 2000, when Stewart underwent throat surgery to remove a benign growth on his thyroid. The treatment lowered his voice slightly, but Stewart says he is now fully recovered. The third "American Songbook album "leaves the last two standing, because I've got so much confidence in my voice to do these songs now," he said.
The new album features appearances by Eric Clapton on guitar and Stevie Wonder on harmonica, as well as duets with Dolly Parton on "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Bette Midler (search) on "Manhattan."
"We were never together, though, never in the same studio," said Stewart. "That's the way the business is now."
Stewart, who recently finished a greatest-hits tour of the United States, plans to launch the album with an Oct. 18 concert at Harlem's Apollo Theater, broadcast live on the Internet via AOL.
He works hard, and has been rewarded with the life of a bona fide rock star: homes in Los Angeles and the English countryside, five children with a handful of ex-wives and long-term girlfriends — his current partner is Penny Lancaster, an underwear model and photographer 25 years his junior.
There was even a West End musical, "Tonight's the Night," based on his back catalogue, although it garnered scathing reviews and closed last week after a run of less than a year.
As he spoke to a reporter inside Abbey Road — tanned and at ease in jeans and a natty striped shirt, blonde hair impeccably teased — Stewart's gleaming red Ferrari sat parked outside.
"I've been a lucky bugger; it's come out well," said Stewart, as his band ran through "Maggie May," his youthful ode to an older woman, in preparation for Wednesday's charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall for the Prince's Trust.
"I've always been quite nonchalant about my career; I've just sort of waited for things to happen. That's how I got discovered, singing on a railway station. I've just been lucky. I've never really been the pushy type."
Stewart chuckles over the rumor that he was offered — and turned down — the ultimate rock-star accolade: his own Osbournes-style reality show on MTV.
"I was never even asked," he said. "I don't know where that came from. My son and my daughter have both been involved with MTV and reality shows, but I'm a very quiet man. And Ozzy's done it. I love Ozzy, he makes me laugh, he's a good mate and I couldn't follow him on.
"Mind you," he added, "with my five kids and my household, we'd be close. It's a madhouse."
"Stardust ... The Great American Songbook: Volume III" is released Oct. 19 in the United States, Oct. 18 elsewhere.