When you consider who Paul McCartney might be jealous of, the list seems rather short. Nelson Mandela? Mick Jagger? God? He doesn't have a lot of rivals in the most-beloved, putting-smiles-on-people's-faces-for-50-years category. So the answer's a bit of a shock, because it turns out that the person Sir Paul is fretting over is Rod Stewart.
Yes, the king of tight pants and young wives, that Rod Stewart. It seems that for years McCartney has wanted to record an album of standards, but each time he thought about it, he backed away, because you-know-who had been there first.
"It's difficult when you use old songs, like Cheek to Cheek or The Way You Look Tonight," said McCartney, talking to reporters last week in London. "Rod Stewart's done them all. That's really why I didn't do the album – I though, Rod's already done all the songs!"
However, it turns out the classic songbook has enough pages to go around, and on Feb. 7, McCartney will release his own contribution to the genre, an album he recorded with Diana Krall and her band, called Kisses on the Bottom. (I think we can all agree that's probably the worst record title in the history of recorded music, and move on.)
Well, perhaps we shouldn't move on without an explanation: The title is ripped not from a Dutch porno of the 1970s, but is instead a lyric from the first track on the record, a 1935 Fats Waller hit called I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.
Young McCartney loved Waller when he was growing up in Liverpool and listened to that record over and over. Indeed, Kisses on the Bottom is in many ways a trip back to his boyhood. Perhaps there was always a bit of the old gent about Paul, even when he was young. His songwriting with the Beatles was inspired by the craftsmanship of the great American songbook. (He cites, in particular, Here, There and Everywhere from Revolver.) He modelled his singing voice, oddly enough, on Fred Astaire's. Also his jackets; he told the tailor making those Sgt. Pepper's-era uniforms to take in the sleeves, so they'd look more like Astaire's.
Of the 14 tracks on the new record, only two are new McCartney compositions. The other dozen are covers of songs that either inspired his own writing, or remind him of his father, who would sing and play piano while Paul listened.
"Quite a few of these were songs I'd hear when I was lying on the carpet listening to him," says McCartney, 69, and begins to sing one of the numbers from the new record, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's It's Only a Paper Moon. He breaks into song quite often during the interview, which causes a whole group of quarrelsome journalists to fall magically silent. It's not just singing, either: He hums, whistles and imitates the sound made by a huge crowd in an arena.
In fact, he arrives at the hotel whistling. You can hear him coming down the corridor moments before he shows up, cheery, fresh-faced, with his hair a colour reminiscent of those commercials in which Rocket Richard got "two minutes for looking so good." If anyone has reason to whistle, it's him. Apart from, you know, being Paul McCartney, he's come off a hugely successful tour of South America last year and a happy time in the studio with Krall and her band, an "organic" recording experience that he likens to recording with the Beatles. He's going to be performing at the Grammys next month, along with Coldplay, a band he likes, "although I don't think they're as good as the Beatles." A featured spot during the Olympics in July seems likely, too.
As well, there's smooth sailing on the domestic front. One of his daughters, Mary, took the photographs for the new record, and he chose one of the songs on it, More I Cannot Wish You, because of his youngest child, Beatrice. "I find that a very emotional song," he says, "because it's a parent talking to a young girl, and I'm raising an eight-year-old girl at the moment."
No mention is made of Beatrice's mother, Heather Mills, McCartney's second wife, from whom he had an acrimonious divorce in 2008. He's much more forthcoming about his new wife, Nancy Shevell, and how she inspired the lovely new song My Valentine. (His old friend Eric Clapton also plays on the track.)
"We were on holiday in Morocco, and it was raining," McCartney says. "I said to her, 'It's going to spoil the holiday.' And she said, 'It doesn't matter, it's great. We're having a good time.' "
So he went downstairs to the piano in the hotel's restaurant, where during the evening a crooner sat playing the standards he loves so much. And there, among the waiters clearing away lunchtime dishes, he spent a few afternoons writing the song.
"I would just play, and this song came out. It almost wrote itself, which some of the best songs do." He begins to sing again: "What if it rains? We didn't care...."
And once again, he accomplishes the near-impossible and manages to silence a room full of journalists.