RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When you think of Rod Stewart, you think raspy vocals, that hair and maybe this song:
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGGIE MAY")
ROD STEWART: (Singing) Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you.
MARTIN: "Maggie May" came out in 1971, and it quickly flew up to the top of the pop music charts in the U.K. and it became Stewart's first breakout bit in the U.S. Since then, the Grammy Award-winning singer has enjoyed one of the longest careers on pop music. He's released dozens of albums. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1994 and again this year as a member of the '70s British band The Faces. So, what musical milestone was left for Stewart? Well, a Christmas album, of course. More about that in a moment. He's also written an autobiography. The book traces Stewart's musical roots back to his childhood in North London and a family that encouraged him to dream big.
STEWART: Very, very close, very loving, very helpful, very supportive family.
MARTIN: When you think about where you came from, can you identify a person who helped put you on the path?
STEWART: In the early days, it would have been my dad who bought me a guitar for no apparent reason when I wanted a station for my railway set. And also the guy who discovered me was a guy called Long John Baldry. Discovered me singing on a railway station way back in the '60s and asked me to join his band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ABOVE MY HEAD")
STEWART: (Singing) Up above my head, up above my head, I hear music in the air, I hear music in the air. Up above my head, up above my head, I hear music in the air...
MARTIN: You write in your book about the first time you came to the United States. You were with the Jeff Beck Group at the time. You were quite nervous in this setting.
STEWART: I was a white boy from North London trying to sing rhythm & blues and soul music. I was paranoid that the curtain would go back and it would be all full of black people, and they'd shout out, you know, fraud, fraud, fraud, fraud. But it wasn't and they accepted me. And, you know, James Brown once said that I was the greatest white soul singer ever.
MARTIN: That's pretty high praise.
STEWART: Yeah, my man James.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME LOVE YOU")
STEWART: (Singing) Help me love you, baby, you're driving my poor heart crazy.
MARTIN: I want to talk about your image over the years. You dedicate an entire chapter in your book to your hair.
STEWART: Well, it was the hairstyle was around a lot longer than my career. You know, I mean, I started having my bouffant hair way back in the late '60s. And to write the chapter about it, I just think people would be interested. You know, because lacquer was in - I never heard of hair lacquer around my way, where I lived in those days, and even a hairdryer was considered absolute luxury. And my sister had a hairdryer, and I remember I used to have to put warm water and sugar on my hair and then run up to my sister's about 50 yards away in the middle of winter and blow-dry it, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YA THINK I'M SEXY")
STEWART: (Singing) if you want my body and you think I'm sexy, come on sugar, let me know. If you think...
MARTIN: I want to go back in time again a little bit and do a little name-word association, if you don't mind, with people in your life.
STEWART: OK. OK.
MARTIN: When I say someone's name, if you could just kind of say the first thoughts or memory that comes into mind.
MARTIN: Jeff Beck.
STEWART: Brilliance personified and miserable bugger.
MARTIN: Sam Cooke.
STEWART: If there wasn't Sam there'd be no Rod.
MARTIN: Freddie Mercury.
STEWART: Oh, my dear friend. Miss him.
MARTIN: Ronnie Wood.
STEWART: I got an email from him today.
MARTIN: Did you?
STEWART: Yeah, yeah. Decided to email me and congratulate me and is making me laugh, which makes me happy.
MARTIN: Bob and Elsie Stewart.
STEWART: Oh, me mum and dad, yeah. Loving, loving, loving, love mum and dad. Everybody should have a mum and dad like that.
MARTIN: What did they tolerate in you?
STEWART: They let me go into music. You know, you got to understand in the early '60s, it's not like it is now where every Tom, Dick and Harry is in a band. You know, in those days, it was rather brave, I thought. It was a big, big risk. But they gave me 100 percent support, as did my whole family - me two brothers and me two sisters. I was so lucky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
MARTIN: This is the first Christmas album that you've made.
STEWART: Yes, it is.
MARTIN: It is. Why now?
STEWART: Well, it's something I've been putting off for quite a while and a lot of people have asked me to do it. But I think, you know, I've got two small kids - I've got eight kids all together - and I've got two little ones. One is six years of age and the other one's a year and a half. So - and I just wanted to sort of do it for them. You know, that's part of the reason. And because I've done the "American Songbook."
MARTIN: This is your previous album.
STEWART: Yeah. Well, there's - there were five albums that sold over 20 million of "The Great American Songbook." So, then this was almost a natural progression to do this one. My voice has gotten a lot better over the last 10 years, especially when it comes to balance. I don't know if you know but I had a cancer, a fibroid cancer a few years back and had a very serious operation. But I was lucky. I was in and out of hospital in two or three days, you know. And that sort of lowered my voice a little bit, half a tone. So, it gave it a warmth that previously wasn't there.
MARTIN: I imagine you had to work at recapturing your voice though after a surgery like that.
STEWART: Yeah, I did, yeah. It was a good nine months before the voice came back. It was every day, you know, I'd go in and sing "Maggie May." And I'd be able to sing wake up, Maggie, and then my voice would go. So, the next day I'd be able to go in with the band, wake up, Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you. And then we did line after line until I could sing the whole song. And then I could do two songs and then 20 songs.
MARTIN: Let's listen to a little bit from this new Christmas album. This is a song you did with Cee-lo Green. This is called "Merry Christmas, Baby."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY CHRISTMAS, BABY")
MARTIN: I got to say, there's something about those two voices that go together quite nicely.
STEWART: Yeah, magic, that - really magic. He's a lovely fellow, too. I really like him a lot.
MARTIN: How did the duet with Cee-lo come together? Is that just something you thought, oh, we can make good music?
STEWART: No. I take no credit for that. It was the wonderful producer, David Foster. It was his idea. He produced the album. He came up with all the other artists. So, he takes the credit. Not me.
MARTIN: Let's get into the album again. Let's listen to another...
STEWART: Play the Michael Buble one.
MARTIN: You want us to?
STEWART: Yeah. He's such a lovely fellow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")
MARTIN: So, this was your request. What do you like about this song?
STEWART: It's just, it's so gay. You should see us two when we do it.
MARTIN: Do you mean in the happy, joyous way?
STEWART: Any old way you want, gay. It's just so funny with the two of us singing. We're just so different ends of the rock spectrum, if you want. You know, it's just cute when we get together.
MARTIN: You've talked a lot about your family and your kids. You have eight kids you said, right?
STEWART: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: How has being a dad changed you?
STEWART: Oh, man. This is a big ole question. I mean, especially if it's changed me in the last seven years at my age to have a six-year-old and a 15-month-old.
MARTIN: How old are you now?
STEWART: Sixty-seven. And it's really given me a new lease on life, you know, it really is. If there's a fountain of youth, that would be it. My son demands I play soccer with him after school for an hour every day, running about and kicking the ball with him. And it's really tremendous.
MARTIN: So, what's left then?
STEWART: Happiness, which I've got now. I've had such a wonderful round and such a wonderful life and a wonderful career. I couldn't ask for anything else.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE")
MARTIN: Rod Stewart. His latest album is "Merry Christmas, Baby." And you can read an excerpt from "Rod: The Autobiography" on our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.