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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2010/02/26
by Mike Gruenberg

Rod Stewart

In My Life

There are certain people that will always have a profound effect upon our lives. Good or bad, every one of us can point to a specific person who came along at a certain time in your life when their influence became an integral part of your everyday being. I was blessed to have two such friends who influenced me as I tried to navigate through grade school, college and my young adult years. Fortunately for me, one of those friends is still with me today and although we live a considerable distance away from each other, a phone call melts the miles and we are able to continue to share our lives together just as we did when we were in college or when we played football in Central Park or when we were just trying to understand the meaning of life. A good friend who knows your history is a great comfort, although an old friend also makes you aware that you are not getting any younger.

Yes, from the day we are born, we soon come to realize that we are on the winding road of aging. Creams, lotions, plastic surgery are merely stopgaps that can be used to temporarily slow down the inevitable, but sadly will not halt father time and his appointed rounds. Furthermore, life-long friends, past relationships and blessed events are some of the signposts along the way that cause us to remember that there was a time when we were younger. I occasionally watch the highlights of the 1986 World Series victory of the Mets (since I have not had the opportunity to see my beloved team in too many World Series since then, so it’s nice to relive past successes) and remark to myself how much fun it was for my team to win it all and how cool it was to see all the games and be in attendance for the pivotal game 6. Then I realize that it happened 24 years ago.

Recently, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton played a concert together at Madison Square Garden. From all reviews, it sounded like the guitar men were in rare form. Wouldn’t expect anything less considering Clapton and Beck are probably two of the best blues/rock guitarists to come out of England in my lifetime. As I read the reviews, I could not help but think of first seeing Clapton on the now famous John Mayall LP “Beano” cover. I had heard of this “guitar phenom” named Clapton with a group called the Yardbirds. Similarly, I remembered first hearing about Jeff Beck in 1965 when he was recruited to join the Yardbirds as the replacement for Eric Clapton who had left that group. In my mind, even though it was 45 years ago, Clapton and Beck will always be tied together since I really began to know about each of them and their music at the same time. I still listen to their albums as soloists and in bands. My Mayall album featuring Clapton and Yarbirds albums are among my most favorite LP’s in the collection. So profound was my early respect for Eric as a musician that when in conversation about him with friends, I used to refer him as Mr. Clapton since to me, he was cut above most guitarists at that time.

Of course, there are two other guys who are integrally connected to Beck and Clapton from those times in England. They are Ron Wood and Rod Stewart. After getting kicked out of the Yardbirds, Beck recruited Rod Stewart to be the vocalist for his new Jeff Beck Group. It was Rod’s big break and it was there that he first joined up with Ron Wood and the two have since become lifelong friends. One of my favorite LP compilations is on EPIC Records (BG33779) that combines the first two Jeff Beck Group albums, “Truth” and “Beck-Ola” and features Jeff Beck, Ron Wood and Rod Stewart backed up by Mick Waller, J.P. Jones and master session keyboardist, Nicky Hopkins. These are two phenomenal albums. Ron and Rod went on to a successful run with the Faces. After the Faces disbanded, Rod found success as a solo act and Ron Wood joined and today still continues to work with the Rolling Stones.

In July of 1969, Rod split from working in groups and released his first solo album. His career since those early days could be summarized as a handbook titled “How to Consistently Reinvent Yourself for Fun & Profit.” Rod has gone from consummate rocker both solo and in a group to a spandex disco/pop singer to a soul singer and now to a crooner. And in 2009, 40 years later after his first solo album he has released yet another new record, “Soulbook”.

“Soulbook” is a collection of some of the greatest R&B/Soul songs ever written that include many Motown classics, as well. Rod sings duets with Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson. For people my age, this is an album that can bring back great memories of the years when we first heard those songs and still feel that the modern version as interpreted by him is just as vital. Rod’s voice has gone through a transformation too making him extremely pleasant to listen to. Instead of straining his vocal chords, he has learned how to be an accomplished singer. Much like a major league baseball pitcher who because of age, has had to learn how to use his acquired knowledge to be a pitcher instead of a thrower, Rod has learned how to control and use his voice more effectively. Naturally the musical arrangements on the album are complimentary to his vocal style and not overbearing. Combine this with a cast of the best session musicians in the business and “Soulbook” is a winner. And by the way, “Soulbook” has gone gold. Not bad for a 65 year old rock veteran from England with Scottish roots who was discovered by Long John Baldry singing blues numbers in London subway.

In 2002, Rod released the “Great American Songbook” series that to date have produced four albums of musical standards. When I first heard the Songbook series, I was skeptical that the guy who gave us “Maggie May” and “Hot Legs” could adequately sing songs like “Stardust”, “Time After Time” and other standards from the 40’s. I am now convinced that the Songbook experience prepared Rod for “Soulbook”. Thanks to veteran music producer, Clive Davis whose record company released the Songbook series for bringing this excellent collection to market. When you assemble a cast of producers like Clive, Phil Ramone and Richard Perry to oversee this particular project, the result is extraordinary.

For me, the highpoints on “Soulbook” are the duet with Stevie Wonder on “My Cherie Amour” with that unmistakable harmonica Stevie is so famous for. My other favorite is Rod’s interpretation of the Brook Benton classic, “A Rainy Night in Georgia.” Rod’s version is just as good as the original.

Over these many years, he has sold over 250 million records, been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, reputed to be quite a ladies’ man, a soccer aficionado, married three wives that produced seven children, created a virtual treasure trove of all types of recorded music, has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the guy shows no possibility of slowing down. His current tour will take him through Europe and end sometime this summer. And what’s even more remarkable is that looking at Rod; he has somehow halted the aging process. He looks better today than ever before.

So what does this all mean? It means that we cannot avoid the aging process. It also means that some of us age more gracefully than others. However, it also shows that aging does not equal inactivity. To me, Rod’s actions are inspirational for me and all my baby boomer buddies as we all look forward many more years of new adventures.

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