In the Sixties and Seventies, Rod Stewart was a jet-setting bon vivant and blond sex symbol with a grizzled-yet-buoyant voice. He tasted fame with Jeff Beck Group and then the Faces, but Stewart's most significant commercial success came as a solo artist. After garnering initial critical acclaim for his unerring choice of cover material, Stewart in the late Seventies began to lean toward self-mocking (or just plain cheesy) material. Although he didn't exactly maintain exacting quality control, Stewart's self-mocking charm and seemingly effortless singing have consistently kept him popular.
The son of a Scottish shopkeeper, Stewart was born and raised in London. After a short stint as an apprentice to a pro soccer team, he joined a series of local bands that included Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions, the Hoochie Coochie Men, and Long John Baldry's group, which eventually morphed into Steampacket. In 1967 former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck enlisted him as lead vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group. Beck had lots of rocker cred in America, and this new group toured the U.S after the release of their 1968 debut, Truth. Petrified by the size of audience during the first night of shows at New York's Fillmore East, Stewart sang the opening number from backstage. The band was expert at flashy blues rock, and the power of Beck-Ola (1969) established Stewart as a rough-and-ready rock & roll front man.
In 1969 while still working with Beck, Stewart signed a contract with Mercury. His solo debut, The Rod Stewart Album (Number 139, 1969), was recorded with Mick Waller and Ron Wood of the Jeff Beck Group, plus Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and guitarist Martin Quittenton. Stewart's material was a grab bag of mellow folk songs, bawdy drinking tunes, a taste of soul, and a couple of barrelhouse rockers. The album sold modestly; Jeff Beck Group fans considered it too subdued, but critics were impressed by Stewart's overall sound. Planning to form a new band with Stewart and the Vanilla Fudge's Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, Beck disbanded his group. That project didn't materialize until 1972, long after Stewart and his buddy Wood had joined the Small Faces, soon redubbed the Faces. Stewart spent the next seven years dividing his time between that band and a solo career, recording a Faces album each time he recorded one of his own.
In 1970 the Small Faces made First Step, and Stewart released Gasoline Alley (Number 27, 1970). Their arrival was followed by tours of the U.S. Working as both group member and solo artist gave the singer ample opportunity to show the world the breadth of his interests. In the studio with the Faces, Stewart was simply a member of a quintet of equals, merrily banging out hard-swinging rock & roll. On his own, he was different; the moody Gasoline Alley amplified his reputation as an emotionally compelling storyteller. When Every Picture Tells a Story came out in June of 1971, the response was swift and strong. The record refined its predecessor's strong points, putting a rock & roll spin on soul and R&B items, and bringing some emotional heft to reflective folk tunes. In October, the album sat in the Number One slots in America and Britain, the first record to achieve such status. Its success was driven by "Maggie May," a Stewart-Quittenton song that has become one of classic rock radio's most resilient ditties. Before "Maggie May" had faded, Stewart followed up with a gritty version of the Temptations' "(I Know) I'm Losing You" (Number 24, 1971). The similarly powerful Never a Dull Moment (Number Two, 1972), with his own "You Wear It Well" (Number 13, 1972), was also a hit.
With two gold albums made on his own, Stewart's role in the Faces became strained. Other labels wanted a piece of the star, and late in 1974 he released his final disc for Mercury, Smiler (Number 13). Stewart hired veteran American producer Tom Dowd and Muscle Shoals session musicians to record his forthcoming Warner Bros. debut, Atlantic Crossing (Number Nine, 1975). It was a strong but somewhat slick affair. In 1975 he moved to L.A. to escape British income taxes and was soon the toast of the Beverly Hills celebrity set. Stewart retained Dowd and his studio musicians for the double-platinum A Night on the Town (Number Two, 1976), his first effort to outsell Every Picture, largely on the strength of 1976's biggest single, "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)," which topped the U.S. chart for eight weeks.
After a string of strong records, collected in the 2005 anthology The Best of the Faces: Good Boys When They're Asleep, the Faces collapsed. Ron Wood became a full-fledged Rolling Stone, and Stewart formed a new, American-based touring band. The hits kept coming: raunchy rockers like "Hot Legs" (Number 28, 1978), romantic ballads like "You're in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)" (Number Four, 1977), and even a Number One disco hit with synthesizer-tinted "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" (1979) from the Number One album Blondes Have More Fun, which eventually sold four million copies. Rod Stewart had become a rock superstar.
Of his 1980s work, Foolish Behavior, Tonight I'm Yours, and Out of Order all went platinum, and Stewart released Top Ten singles throughout the decade, among them, "Passion" (Number Five, 1980), "Infatuation" (Number Six, 1984), "My Heart Can't Tell You No" (Number Four, 1988), and a lovely spin through Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" (Number Three, 1989).
In his romantic life, Stewart had a penchant for blond women with modeling careers. After a much publicized liaison with Britt Ekland, Stewart got married for the first time in 1979 to George Hamilton's ex, Alana, with whom he had two children. Following their divorce, he took up with model Kelly Emberg, and had a child with her. In 1990 he tied the knot with Australian supermodel Rachel Hunter, with whom he fathered two more kids. That marriage also ended in divorce. In 1986 Stewart joined his Faces mates at a London benefit for the band's bassist Ronnie Lane, who had developed multiple sclerosis. His next solo disc, Out of Order (Number 20, 1989), coproduced by Chic's Bernard Edwards and former Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, was better received than much of his 1980s output, boosting a revival in his critical reputation. A Warner Bros. career overview, Storyteller, helped summarize his recent work, and the next year he released Vagabond Heart (Number 10, 1991), his highest charting album since Blondes. The Number One single from the movie The Three Musketeers, "All for Love" (1994), found him sharing vocal duties with Bryan Adams and Sting.
Stewart played MTV's Unplugged show with Ron Wood joining him, resulting in 1993's multiplatinum Unplugged...and Seated (Number 2). That year he also rejoined the Faces for a show at the BRIT Awards, at which he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. He made a bold business maneuver during this time, selling all his future royalties to a Wall Street firm for $15 million. 1994 also found him being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The acoustic-slanted A Spanner in the Works (1995) only managed to go gold without yielding a Top 40 single, but platinum sales returned with 1996's If We Fall in Love Tonight (Number 19). When We Were the New Boys, with edgy fare by Oasis and Primal Scream, was Stewart's self-produced, critically hailed 1998 return to his rocking roots. Soon after, he underwent throat surgery to remove a cancerous nodule on his thyroid gland. "Faith of My Heart" from the Patch Adams soundtrack, exemplified his later, smoother style and scored in the Top Ten on Adult Contemporary radio in 1999.
Pushing 60 in 2002, Stewart embarked on a new approach to record-making. It Had to Be You…The Great American Songbook (Number Four, 2002) became an adult contemporary hit, tickling boomers by interpreting vintage Tin Pan Alley tunes such as "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'll Be Seeing You" and "That Old Feeling." Its success demanded a string of follow-ups. As Time Goes By, (Number Two, 2003) Stardust, (Number 1, 2004) and Thanks for the Memory (Number Two, 2005) stayed the course, style-wise.
In 2006 Stewart tweaked the formula a bit, moving to chestnuts from the 1960s and 1970s with Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time. The program stretched from Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" to Van Morrison's "Crazy Love." It was followed by a romp through R&B hitsville entitled Soulbook that included "A Rainy Night In Georgia" and "My Cherie Amour." In November 2008 Warner Bros. launched an extensive reissue campaign of titles from his Warner Bros. years. In the spring of 2009, Stewart performed "Maggie May" on the Season 8 finale of American Idol. He continues to tour on a regular basis.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.