The gap between the first break for Rod Stewart, when Long John Baldry heard him playing harmonica on Twickenham Railway Station and the singer’s first British chart-topper, was just three months shy of eight years. Rod’s rocky road to No. 1 was completed, when the chart for 9 October 1971 showed ‘Maggie May’ climbing to No. 1. Not bad for what was originally a B-side.
Stewart’s long apprenticeship included his days with Baldry in the Hoochie Coochie Men and then Steampacket, Shotgun Express and then as lead vocalist with the Jeff Beck Group. Then he became frontman with the retooled Faces, formed after Steve Marriott’s departure from the Small Faces, and signed a solo deal with Mercury at the same time. Album acclaim followed for An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down and Gasoline Alley, but still that singles success eluded Rod.
In August 1971, Mercury released Stewart’s new single, with his version of Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason To Believe’ as the official A-side. That was the song that was listed when the single made its top 40 debut, at No. 31, and as it climbed to No. 19. But public demand was soon transferring to the flip side, written by Rod with Martin Quittenton, who came up with the melody while he was on the tube to the studio for the recording of Stewart’s third album, Every Picture Tells A Story. Rod’s lyrics were based on a real life liaison as a young man with an older woman, named on disc (but never in full during the song) as Maggie May.
The studio line-up for the track was a fascinating one, including the partial Faces gathering of Ian McLagan on organ and Ronnie Wood on both electric guitar and bass, as well as 12-string. Micky Waller was on drums and Quittenton on acoustic guitar, while the other crucial feature of the song’s success, the mandolin, was played by Ray Jackson, joint lead singer with another band emerging fast at the time, Lindisfarne.
Stewart first appeared on Top Of The Pops performing ‘Maggie May’ on 19 August, in an edition presented by Tony Blackburn. The following month, dance troupe Pan’s People danced to it. By the time the single climbed to No. 11, ‘Maggie May’ was listed as the top side, and it never looked back.
It was the famous performance on the 30 September show, as the song stood at No. 2, behind the Tams’ ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me,’ that helped propel ‘Maggie May’ to the top. Jackson, sadly, would miss out on a piece of pop history as he was unavailable for the Top Of The Pops recording, so DJ John Peel stepped in to mime the part. Another Face, Ronnie Lane, also joined the antics.
On the next chart, ‘Maggie May’ made it to No. 1, with Every Picture Tells A Story already in its second week atop the album survey. ‘Maggie’ spent five weeks at the summit, and the glory years of Rod Stewart had begun.
‘Maggie May’ is on Every Picture Tells A Story, which can be bought here.