35 Years Ago: Rod Stewart’s ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ Hits No. 1
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In the late-’70s, hemmed in by disco on one side and punk on the other, many rock artists of Rod Stewart‘s generation felt like the trends of the day were passing them by. Ever the optimist, Stewart decided that if he couldn’t beat ’em, he’d join ’em.
The result, as captured on Stewart’s 1978 album ‘Blondes Have More Fun,’ was the disco-fueled party anthem ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,’ which topped the charts in Feb. 1979 and helped take the album to No. 1 on its way to selling an impressive 14 million copies worldwide. Although the single’s dance beat — and the album’s continued drift away from the rock sound that made Stewart famous — dismayed some longtime fans, it was a calculated gambit that ended up paying off in a big way.
“We were in the studio and ‘Miss You‘ by the Rolling Stones was a big hit. Rod was always a guy that used to listen to what was going on around him. He was always looking at the charts and listening. He was a big fan of the Rolling Stones, so when they came out with ‘Miss You,’ disco was really big at the time, so he wanted to do some kind of disco-y song, something like ‘Miss You,'” explained drummer and co-writer Carmine Appice in an interview with Songfacts. “With the band, he would always tell us, ‘I want a song like this’ or ‘I want a song like that,’ so I went home and I came up with a bunch of chords and a melody.”
After hooking up with his friend Duane Hitchings, who took Appice’s demo into his studio and “made my chords sound better,” Appice recalled, “We gave Rod a demo of the verses and the bridge, and Rod came up with the chorus. We played it with the band many, many ways before we got the correct arrangement with [producer] Tom Dowd. Unfortunately, they put so much stuff on it that it dwarfed the sound of the band. It made the band sound smaller because it had strings and two or three keyboard players, congas, and drums. When we were doing it, we thought it was going to be more like the Rolling Stones with just the band playing it. It came out and went to No. 1 everywhere.”
That’s overstating things just a little, but ‘Sexy’ was definitely a worldwide sensation — the single alone sold more than 2 million copies in the United States. And although Stewart was no stranger to the pop charts in 1979, this song’s success was more or less the final death knell for his image as a rock artist. During the ’80s, he’d further polish and mellow out his sound, with hits like ‘Young Turks,’ ‘Infatuation,’ and ‘My Heart Can’t Tell You No’ making the Rod who fronted the Faces more and more of a distant memory.
As Stewart later admitted in his autobiography, he was well aware of the critical derision that greeted ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ — and he suffered his own regrets after he, Appice, and Hitchings were taken to court by Brazilian artist Jorge Ben Jor, who accused the trio of plagiarizing his song ‘Taj Mahal.’
“It was only a pop record, but you’d have thought I’d poisoned the water supply,” sighed Stewart, who admitted, “It didn’t help that the marketing campaign for the single had me stretched out in full Spandex-clad glory beneath the slogan ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?'” Of the trial, Stewart wrote, “I held my hand up straight away. Not that I’d stood in the studio and said, ‘Here, I know we’ll use that tune from Taj Mahal as the chorus. The writer lives in Brazil, so he’ll never find out.’ Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple. I handed over the royalties, again wondering whether ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ was partly cursed.”
Perhaps the only clear winner in the saga was blues legend Taj Mahal, who had a bit of fun with the whole thing by recording a song with the same riff, which he titled ‘Jorge Ben.’
Curse or no curse, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ served as one of the more effervescently unabashed attempts by a veteran artist to follow a new trend during the ’70s, and for better or worse, years after it topped the Billboard charts, it remains a signature song in Stewart’s catalog. And whether we prefer Stewart’s rock roots to his poppier ’70s and ’80s sound, we can all agree we’d rather listen to this than the ‘American Songbook’ records, right?