By 1971, Rod Stewart had carved out a reputation as a vivacious performer, as both a solo artist and the frontman for British rock group Faces, which also featured future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. But he didn’t rocket to stardom until he released his third solo album, 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, and its chart-topping single “Maggie May” — which almost didn’t make the album.
While planning his third solo LP, Stewart met guitarist and songwriter Martin Quittenton, who had played in a blues-rock band called Steamhammer. Stewart invited Quittenton to his house, where the two began jamming on Bob Dylan covers and some of Quittenton’s acoustic ideas, as Stewart recalled in a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview.
One of those ideas was the chord progression for what became “Maggie May.” Stewart began riffing on vocal melodies and singing the lyrics to “Maggie Mae,” a Liverpudlian folk song about a prostitute who robs a homeward-bound sailor, which the Beatles covered on Let It Be one year earlier.
Once he had sketched out the melody and blueprint of the song, Stewart began working on lyrics for “Maggie May.” While the song makes no mention of an actual Maggie May (or Mae), Stewart did draw inspiration from another woman from his past, whom he met at the 1961 Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the south of England.
“That afternoon, we snuck into the festival through a large runoff pipe and eventually made our way to a beer tent,” Stewart reminisced to the Journal. “There, I met an older woman who was something of a sexual predator. One thing led to the next, and we ended up nearby on a secluded patch of lawn. I was a virgin, and all I could think is, ‘This is it, Rod Stewart, you’d better put on a good performance here or else your reputation will be ruined all over North London.’ But it was all over in a few seconds. Her name wasn’t Maggie May, but the experience I had with her would influence the writing of the song 10 years later.”
Stewart and Quittenton ornamented the album version of “Maggie May” with a 32-second acoustic intro titled “Henry,” for which Quittenton received an extra fee. “I wanted to give him an extra bonus,” Stewart said. “No matter how long a stand-alone song is, you still get credit and royalties for it. But I have no idea why Martin called it ‘Henry.'”
Listen to Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’
Still, Stewart hardly considered the track single-worthy. “At first, I didn’t think much of ‘Maggie May,'” he said. “I guess that’s because the record company didn’t believe in the song. I didn’t have much confidence then. I figured it was best to listen to the guys who knew better. What I learned is that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
The singer was blunter while describing Mercury Records’ reception to the song in a 2013 Howard Stern interview. “The record company thought it was shit,” he laughingly told the host. “We had eight tracks for Every Picture Tells a Story, and they said, ‘Well, we need another track. Have you got anything in the cupboard or anything?’ I said, ‘I’ve got one more song. I haven’t finished it.’ And that was ‘Maggie May.'”
Part of Stewart’s reservation with “Maggie May,” he told Stern, was the fact that “it was just so rambling. It didn’t have a catch chorus, like you needed.”
Listeners apparently disagreed. Stewart released “Maggie May” as a single in July 1971 as the B-side to “Reason to Believe.” Before long, disc jockeys began flipping the record and playing “Maggie May” more than its A-side. By October 1971, “Maggie May” had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks. Every Picture Tells a Story also topped the Billboard 200 and went platinum, turning Stewart into an international superstar.
All Stewart had to do was stick to his guns. “I’ve never gone in the studio to try and make a hit, apart from ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’” he told Stern. “I knew that was a hit, but otherwise, I go in the studio to make music that I like.”
Top 100 Classic Rock Artists
Click through to find out how they stack up, as we count down the Top 100 classic rock artists.