Revisiting a Chat With Al Stewart: Song Writer and Wine Lover

“It was 20 years ago today / Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…”

So began the title track from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, which some have described as the soundtrack of the “Summer of Love.”

As one who has written about both wine and music through the years, I can’t believe it was 20 years ago this month that I first interviewed singer/songwriter and wine lover Al Stewart.

Almost any singer or group that has ever had a hit single will tell you that such a song can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, a popular song sells albums, and that’s how a recording musician makes a living (along with touring). On the other hand, a hit single must become a permanent part of a musician’s concert repertoire; fans always expect to hear “the hits,” and are disappointed when they don’t.

For Al Stewart, the song he is forever expected to sing is “Year of the Cat.” There is a certain irony to that, since Stewart resisted including the saxophone solo that gave the song its distinctive stamp.

The idea to use the sax came from producer Alan Parsons, who had gained fame for his work with the rock group Pink Floyd.

“I was pretty horrified because saxophones were not something that I really liked a lot,” Stewart recalled.

But Parsons was persistent and, during the recording session, called a sax player who lived just a few minutes from the studio. The sax man, Phil Kenzie, was watching a movie at the time and really didn’t want to be interrupted, but Parsons again prevailed.

“Phil listened to the song once, recorded his solo, then rushed back home to catch the end of the movie,” Stewart said. “And that was that.”

Stewart said he really didn’t like the mix that Parsons put together, but decided to let the producer have his way. “Year of the Cat” turned out to be one of the biggest-selling albums of America’s bicentennial year, and helped provide a secure financial future for Stewart.

“Andy Warhol says that you get your 15 minutes of fame,” Stewart said, “and in retrospect, ‘Year of the Cat’ was that for me.”

The song not only brought Stewart fame, fleeting though it may have been, but also provided the wherewithal for him to invest heavily in his other passion: wine.  He has spent countless hours exploring the cellars of historic French wineries, and for a time lived just a stone’s throw from California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine regions.

“I’ve been collecting wine for about 30 years,” he said at the time of our interview. “In the last five years or so, I’ve probably been featured in more wine magazines than music magazines, which is rather odd. I mean, when you start getting full pages in the Wine Spectator, and you’re not in the music magazines anymore, it’s kind of strange.”

Odd? Strange? Perhaps. But there is no denying the artistic link between making good music and crafting fine wine. Even though technology is utilized in both pursuits, nothing gets done without human intervention, interpretation and passion.

Nothing of any lasting worth, anyway.

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