Fifty years ago this month, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” knocked Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl” out of the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the biggest song in America. At the same time, it was charting high everywhere from Ireland and New Zealand to Canada and the Netherlands. Stewart had spent much of the prior decade trying to become a superstar, and this was the moment where it finally happened.
The song was inspired by Stewart’s first sexual experience, which took place 10 years earlier at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in Hampshire, England. “I lost my by then not remotely prized virginity to an older (and larger) woman who has come on to me very strongly in the beer tent,” Stewart wrote in his 2012 memoir Rod: The Autobiography. “How much older, I can’t tell you exactly — but old enough that she was highly disappointed by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brevity of the experience.”
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When the singer was writing songs for 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, his mind went back to that quick encounter in Hampshire and he spun out a fictionalized account about a Mrs. Robinson–style romance with an older woman named Maggie May. Guitarist Martin Quittenton helped him flesh it out into a finished song, but nobody thought it was an obvious single, and it was placed as the B side to Stewart’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.”
“I even wondered for a while about leaving it off the album,” Stewart wrote. “It didn’t have a chorus. It just had three rambling verses. It didn’t really have a hook. How could you hope to have a hit single with a song that was all verse and no chorus and no hook? And it went on for a bit: it was five minutes long, for God’s sake, which was pretty much operatic by the standards of the pop single. … ‘Reason to Believe’ was much more like the kind of thing that might wind up on the radio.”
Accounts differ of what exactly happened next, but the most convincing story is that a radio DJ in Cleveland, Ohio, either preferred “Maggie May” or played it by accident thinking it was the A side of the single. Whatever happened, radio stations all over the world followed, and eventually the record label was forced to reclassify “Maggie May” as the A side.
Two years before this, Stewart and his longtime buddy Ron Wood formed the Faces with former Small Faces members Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, and Ian McLagan. Their 1970 debut Faces didn’t get a lot of attention, but now Stewart was a solo star and they were about to release Long Player, which included a little song called “Stay With Me.” Before the year was up, Stewart would be the voice behind two enormous singles.
He tried to balance out both worlds for a few years, though it was challenging when the Faces toured and people in the audience wanted to hear solo Rod songs. They stuck largely to their own catalog, but “Maggie May” was so massive they simply had to play it most nights. Here’s video of a 1973 show where they break it out.
It must have been a bittersweet experience for the band since solo Rod hits like “Maggie May” (not to mention Ron Wood joining the Rolling Stones) ultimately led to the dissolution of the band in 1975. They reunited a handful of times over the years, and even toured in 2010 with Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall on vocals and Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols on bass, but there’s finally real talk of a new studio album by surviving members Stewart, Wood, and Jones.
If they tour, they may be forced to play “Maggie May” once again. Stewart has more hits than just about anyone on the planet, but the 1971 smash remains his signature song and it’s very hard for him to leave any stage without playing it.
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