In the past decade, Rod Stewart's four-part American Songbook series has sold a staggering 19 million copies. The British singer's new classic covers record, Soulbook, will certainly sell well, but it's also his most personal set in years. "These songs shaped me," says Stewart. "I can't wait to go out and sing them." (Stewart is also releasing a box set of rarities dating back to the Seventies.) On the new LP, Stewart takes on the giants of soul: the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" (with Wonder on harmonica) and "Tracks of My Tears" (with help from Smokey Robinson). "At least we have a few uptempo songs," says Stewart, 64. "But not too much. I don't want to upset my arthritis."
You recorded dozens of covers for this project. Who decided what made the cut?
The label just sort of left it up to me and [producer] Steve Jordan. There was a lot of pushing, shoving and spitting. There's only one track that I insisted on: "Rainy Night in Georgia." We gave up some of my personal favorites, like two Jerry Butler songs, but maybe if this does well, we'll do another one.
You saw Otis Redding perform in London in 1967
Yes, that was the second American act I'd ever seen — my first was Bill Haley and the Comets. Otis played at a theater in North London with Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MG's, anil all the Stax people. Otis only did about 25 minutes — "Try a Little Tenderness," "Day Tripper" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." He was steaming. A huge man. When he walked on the stage, you felt his presence.
What outfit were you wearing that night?
[Laughs] Something very fashionable from Carnaby Street, no doubt. I'm sure my haircut was the same, though.
Have you ever seen any concerts that matched that intensity?
Never. These days, I have to get dragged to see concerts, but I thoroughly enjoyed Arcade Fire at the Hollywood Bowl. They were fabulous.
Is there any soul music that's too sacred to cover?
I didn't touch Wilson Pickett. I've met and sung for the royal family, but when I met Wilson Pickett at Clive Davis' Grammy ball, that was the greatest experience of my life.
In April, you reunited with old bandmate Jeff Beck for the first time in over two decades, at a show in L.A. How did that happen?
We've got a mutual road manager, and he instigated it. It was an emotional experience — it's nice to be on friendly terms with Jeff again. Not that we were archenemies, but when we were in the Jeff Beck Group, we weren't really mates. After the show, I sent Jeff a list of songs I think we could record, Muddy Waters stuff like "I Got My Brand on You" and "Hoochie Coochie Man." We're probably-nearer to doing that than doing anything with the Faces.
What's up with the Faces?
They're doing a show soon, because the Faces have been awarded some honor, like Greatest Drunks in the World. I can't make it, but there'll be a bunch of guests in my place. I have to get me old job back.